FLOW

...THE PSYCHOLOGY OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE

More than anything else, men and women seek happiness. ~ Aristotle

Each year hundreds of books are published with advice on how to stay trim, how to grow rich, or how to develop self-confidence. While these self-help books may help a reader in the short term, they are likely to be unsatisfying, for they do little to enhance the quality of the experience. But what really does make people glad to be alive. What are the inner experiences that make life worthwhile?

The author has been studying for over 20 years the states of optimal experience--those times when people report feelings of concentration and deep enjoyment. These investigations have revealed that what makes experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow--a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity. Everyone experiences flow from time to time and will recognize its characteristics: people typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities. Both a sense of time and emotional problems seem to disappear, and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience describes how this pleasurable state can be controlled, and not just left to chance, by setting ourselves challenges--tasks that are neither too difficult nor too simple for our abilities. With such goals, we learn to order the information that enters consciousness and thereby improve the quality of our lives.

It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, good and bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly. J.S. Mill

Happiness does not depend on outside events, but rather on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy. Therefore, happiness depends on inner harmony. The individuals who have inner harmony lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live. They enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult; they are hardly ever bored, and they can take in stride anything that comes their way.

Optimal experience, where we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished, does not come through passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. Yet, in the long-run, optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery, or perhaps, better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life. 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. This happens when psychic energy--or attention--is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.