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Originally published back in 1990, the Quality Paperback Book Club (of which I am a member) struck a deal with HarperCollins and republished this work early in 2001. Here is a quick look at the work.

Repeating everyone who has ever seen through society's thin veil, Mihaly starts out by explaining why many, many people are unhappy; pleasure has begun to rule their lives, rather than enjoyment. The reason for discontentment between episodes of pleasure, Mihaly explains, is psychic entropy. The mind, it appears, cannot process too much information from too many different sources in an accurate or dependable way. Reducing the entropy in our minds requires that we learn to concentrate more fixedly on one thing at a time. The resulting negentropic experiences will create a more focused and calm mind that is able to concentrate hard and long on many different things, but at many different times. Creating a calm mind that flows from one experience to the next is what creates enjoyment.

Throughout the book Mihaly touches on subjects as diverse as sex, work, reading, and food. Using extensive psychological research and thousands of interviews he then explains in pure psychological reasoning why it is that some people are happier more often than others. After all the examples and explanations, Mihaly outlines the psychological attributes that make up the most commonly happy people. Mihaly makes no attempt to guide you on your way to happiness, and he makes no pretenses to being a guru or leader. He does, however, explain quite simply how to change whatever it is you experience from chaotic and confusing and therefore unhappy, to ordered and lucid experiences that produce a deep seated feeling of happiness.

I think the best aspect of this book is that Mihaly never endorses any religious or philisophical order, although he does quote philosophers markedly more often than theologians . The point, he explains, is not the external experiences that a person is surrounded by. It is the internal mechanisms and processes that create enjoyment and meaning in life.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly writes lucidly and intelligently. I will not even attempt to paraphrase the more important topics of the book, for I feel I would not be doing justice to those topics. I will suggest, however, that anyone interested in the psychological aspects of happiness pick this book up and read it.

Although there is little within the book, Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which is entirely unknown to anyone with some knowledge of psychology or yoga, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly writes a very readable book for a lay audience with a great deal of useful information and has a talent, at least in the early introductory chapters, for short statements of potent cynicism which would basically detonate the average person's illusions in regards to life and its purpose and meaning, if his brief conjectures were accepted.

Some of the more interesting and helpful ideas in this book are his later developments on the idea of...

Negentropy

We can basically understand the entire thesis of the book if we take the view of a sort of "ultimate battle" within the universe taking place continually between entropy - the forces of destruction, corruption, and death, and negentropy - the catastrophically creative, constructive and ordering, organizing forces of life. Mihaly's ideas are significant in this context because he sees the bestowal of meaning, participation in a community, learning and perfection of skills and talents, as being part of the negentropic force which seems inherent to organic life.

This idea is far from original. The author advances an essentially energetic view of human consciousness, considering our attention, that nebulous "something" which builds our subjective universes for us, which is sought perpetually by various media of advertising, which makes the universe into what it appears to be, as the source of psychic energy. In espousing this view, he is placing himself in a position which parallels many of Carl Jung's ideas of the creative libido as well as Wilhelm Reich's orgone energy, and even the purely Freudian libido (which Jung considered to be only a fragment and a fraction of the true libido).

Information, he says, enters into this energetic system and is processed, and the characteristics of this processing will depend on the depth and degree of organization of the psyche - either the influx of new data will disrupt or threaten consciousness, creating psychic entropy (another term might be cognitive dissonance), or it is assimilated into the system, in effect strengthening the psychic self.

Flow in Practice and Theory

A key observation in this book is the idea that if we can gain control of ourselves and our habituated and automatic reactions and emotions, we are in effect learning to control consciousness, which means we are developing the capacity to alter our subjective experience of the world. The whole of this psychology is the subject of esoteric thought and speculation and arguably one of the principle goals of Raja yoga as Patanjali interprets it in his Yoga Sutras. Yet this "control" which we are to develop is paradoxically the exact opposite of what is necessary for us to experience the state of "flow".

The idea of "flow" is almost counterintuitive - it is the result of our efforts at establishing an ordered psyche in line with our goals, and yet it is experienced as a surrender of the self to the effectively autonomous and unconscious processes of consciousness, which is only possible to us through the extensive training and efforts at control, practice and mastery which we have achieved in a particular discipline. In effect, we spend conscious effort refining the machine and then let go, allowing the energy to "flow" through it, producing (hopefully) the result we willed to achieve.

The Autotelic Self

Another major principle he states is that our most useful "survival" skill is our ability to turn an unfortunate situation, hostile environment, or threat, into a challenge, an opportunity for growth, or a puzzle to be solved. In effect, he is telling us that we should attempt to convert entropy into negentropy. The accomplishment of this is the creation of the authentic, autotelic self.

As he is careful to point out, our programmed needs, social and genetic, are not in themselves capable of effecting this self-willed transformation. It takes conscious effort to establish any sort of higher context of meaning, and that alone results in an increase of order within the psyche and the greater possibility for energy flow with less resistance, because our psyche is then "in harmony" with the goals established by the mind.

As Csikszentmihaly tells only slightly less plainly, the mechanism of society itself is essentially parasitic (or at least predatory), subsisting by the exploitation of our genetically- and socially-determined desires and proclivities. Only, he reasons, in the event that we become aware of possibilities outside those programmed contexts, do we have the chance to establish the authentic autotelic self, or to accept or reject the finding of authentic meaning within those programmed contexts.

Your radical ideas of society as a form of social exploitation have definitely occured to others -
one of whom holds a Doctorate in Psychology, is a Fulbright Fellow and a world-recognized scholar


written to celebrate my finally returning this book to the library!

Flow is a heightened state of consciousness that occurs when:

  • You are working on tasks that match your skills.
  • There's a clear goal.
  • There's constant feedback as to progress and attainment of the goal.
  • You are free to fully engage in the task, e.g.
    • No time pressure.
    • No interference from other goals. You focus on one goal at a time.
      • To avoid interference, schedule your other goals by writing them down, using an alarm to remind you of other goals, or structuring your task so that after a set time the goal will have been achieved.
      • You can't sleep if you worry about not waking up.
      • You can't exercise efficiently if you worry about exercising for too long.
  • You believe in the possibility of achieving the goal immediately.

The Flow Theory explains the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, totally unaware of their surroundings but enjoying the task and having fun while doing it.

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