“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” - A Book Review, by Matthew Romans
Posted December 20, 2019 by Matthew Romans
I recently read the fairly well-known (at least in the field of psychology) book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, which was originally published in 1990. The author is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, and he is the former head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. His work has been referenced in the writings of Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth, and that is what led me to seek out this book. I believe there are a lot of things to be learned from this book that can help us not just in the field of exercise, but in other areas of our lives, such as school, work, and family.
Csikszentmihalyi coins the term "flow" to describe "a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity." The idea is to achieve an optimal experience, and it can happen while performing a variety of tasks or activities, such as writing prose or poetry, performing a piece of music, completing a work project, or spending time with family. The professor goes on to say that, "The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something worthwhile." This means that, by and large, an optimal experience is mostly likely to occur when you are doing something of your own volition, rather than something you are forced to do. That doesn't mean the activity has to be fun; in fact, many people report achieving a state of flow when performing tasks that most would consider drudgery. The author then says that, "Because optimal experience depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity." While the flow experience may be similar for many people, specific elements of it can vary depending upon the individual.
This book is not particularly lengthy, but it covers a lot of ground in just over 300 pages (including notes and references). The chapters that I found most interesting covered topics such as the anatomy of consciousness, enjoyment and the quality of life, the body in flow, the flow of thought, and work as flow. Csikszentmihalyi says that, "The function of consciousness is to represent information about what is happening outside and inside the organism in such a way that it can be evaluated and acted upon by the body." In order to achieve flow, information must be processed efficiently to allow the body and mind to accomplish the task at hand. To enhance the enjoyment and quality of one's life involves the merging of action and awareness; a person will use all of the relevant skills necessary to cope with the challenges of a situation. I believe that there is a greater tendency toward happiness if a person believes they are accomplishing something important or of value. This is something that can plague retirees and lottery winners; once the challenge in life is gone, there is little incentive to keep growing or learning. Goal-setting and specific feedback are very important.
When thinking about the body in flow, martial arts, playing a musical instrument, and even viewing works of art comes to mind. According to the author, "...the easiest step toward improving the quality of life consists in simply learning to control the body and its senses." Mind and body certainly work in concert to achieve flow. Flow occurs when one is able to give order to his or her thoughts; it is a heightened state of consciousness that cannot be achieved with drugs, alcohol, or any other stimulant. Flow is the opposite of entropy, which is the normal state of consciousness. Csikszentmihalyi says that entropy is "neither useful nor enjoyable." Entropy is a threat to the idea of lifelong learning. Finally, on the concept of work as flow, the author discusses autotelic jobs, where the challenge of the work itself makes it not feel like work. Joe Kramer's experience as a welder in a Chicago railroad car assembly plant fits this description perfectly. Kramer worked in this capacity for over thirty years, passed up several promotions so that he could remain a welder, and he was so skilled that he could fix any piece of machinery in the plant. He simply enjoyed the challenges of his work, and even though he could have retired much earlier, he still came to work every day.
In a flow experience, goals are usually clear and feedback is immediate. This fits in perfectly with a Total Results workout. The primary goal of exercise is to achieve a thorough inroad of the musculature, which is the stimulus that the body needs to make improvements. The instructor provides feedback and cues throughout each exercise of each workout. This, along with precise record-keeping, helps the client understand exactly how they are performing. During a flow experience, goals should be intrinsic rather than extrinsic, in order to avoid distractions that can negatively impact performance. We go to great lengths to explain to clients the difference between the assumed objective (completing as many repetitions as possible) and the real objective (thorough muscular inroad). Focusing on extrinsic goals during exercise can lead to disappointment, cessation of progress, and injury. Although Csikszentmihalyi doesn't specifically mention exercise, he urges us to "...find rewards in the events of each moment", which is what we instruct our clients to do. Look at exercise as an opportunity to challenge yourself, and stay in the moment on each exercise you perform.
Although he was not mentioned in Csikszentmihalyi's book, legendary guitarist Keith Richards has his own take on the flow experience. In a documentary commemorating the band's 50th anniversary he says, "In a way, the Rolling Stones overtake you, and it's almost like you're sort of levitating. You don't even want to touch the strings, because they're doing it themselves. And anyway, they'd be too hot." Working to achieve flow gives our lives greater meaning because we are challenging ourselves to achieve something that wasn't previously possible. This enhances our self-esteem, gives us a sense of purpose, and a feeling of accomplishment. Achieving flow is a critical component to optimize your exercise experience. The author has the last word: "If the functions of the body are left to atrophy, the quality of life becomes merely adequate, and for some even dismal."