Short works

Books : reviews

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: experiencing flow in work and play.
Jossey-Bass. 1975

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 1 October 2007

This is the first of Csikszentmihalyi's books on flow, if not the first that I've read. This 25th anniversary edition, published in 2000, differs from the original in having an interesting retrospective preface, and some peculiar typographic effects due to the reproduction process (the text near the top of the pages exhibits disconcerting line by line changes in letter height, which took me right out of the flow of reading). It is rather more academic in style that some of the later popularisations: this helps give added depth and meat to the discussion, and you can just skip over the reported p-values and other statistical tests if you want to.

Csikszentmihalyi discusses four different flow activities: chess, rock climbing, "rock dancing" (freeform dancing to rock music), and surgery. Pulling out the commonalities and differences of these activities was what helped define the concept of flow, and its characteristics, in the first place.

p182. [a flow activity] provides opportunities for action which match a person's skill, limits the perceptual field, excludes irrelevant stimuli, contains clear goals and adequate means for reaching them, and gives clear and consistent feedback to the actor.

In my earlier review of Finding Flow, I mentioned computer games as an obvious flow activity. This description is also a great characterisation of (current day) computer programming. It probably wasn't so close back in 1975, because of the batch-oriented nature of the task didn't give "clear and consistent feedback", or at least not until the following day. This would suggest that practices that increase the clarity, consistency (and immediacy) of the feedback could improve the flow experience -- such as the Test First or Test Driven Development approach advocated by agile methods such as Extreme Programming.

Although not discussed here, one flow activity mentioned in Finding Flow is driving. What is mentioned here is that flow activities are often constrained by quite strict rules (extremely so in chess, rather less so in rock dancing), which help define the activity, and focus the performance. I wonder if this could be (part of) the explanation for the weirdly extreme phenomenon of "road rage": that disproportionate response to a seemingly trivial action? Maybe it is because when someone breaks the relevant rules (those consensually agreed, if not always the legislated, Rules of the Road), they flip the driver out of the enjoyable and life-enhancing flow experience (or contribute to them not getting into it in the first place).

Explaining the title: boredom occurs when the task is too easy for the skills, and anxiety when it is too difficult. Where people can adjust the task (or their skills, for example, by handicapping themselves), they can enter the flow state, where there is a skill-task match. The final chapter, "Politics of Enjoyment", takes these ideas further, and discusses how more of our life, especially our work, might be enhanced by increasing the opportunities for flow. But there are downsides: the flow experience can be so enjoyable that some people get addicted, perpetually rock climbing, or doing surgery, to the neglect of all else. Yet if more activities in general were enjoyable in this way, maybe these people wouldn't be so likely to get addicted to the sole flow activity in their life?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention.
HarperCollins. 1996

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Finding Flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life.
Basic Books. 1997

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 25 March 2004

"Flow" is that state of engagement in a skillful challenging task, where time seems to fly by. It is a desirable state, and Csikszentmihalyi (the back-cover blurb helpfully tells us this is pronounced "chick-SENT-me-high") explains why this state is to be sought, and suggests ways of achieving it, even in humdrum tasks, but mainly as new leisure activities.

The two activities that most people report achieving flow are during work-time (flow is not necessarily related to expressed happiness) and, strangely, while driving. (This might go some way to explaining why it is so hard to get people out of their cars and onto public transport -- there is a lot more in the driving experience than simply getting from A to B, and there is relatively little else in our lives that gives us this quality of experience.)

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that our increased leisure time would be more satisfyingly spent on high challenge, high skill "flow" activities, rather than our more typical low challenge, low skill, leisure activities that result in boredom and apathy, such as TV watching. He identifies many such possibilities, including mountain climbing, playing a musical instrument, collecting, reading, playing a sport. He explains why this is quite hard: although the experience is ultimately rewarding, it is initially hard work -- there's a sort of "potential barrier" to be overcome: gaining the skills, going to the place of activity, setting up the equipment, etc, that can often be simply too much bother. But if we can persevere through this point, then life becomes more fulfilling.

p4. ... in this book "life" will mean what we experience from morning to night, seven days a week, for about seventy years if we are lucky, for even longer if we are very fortunate. This might seem a narrow perspective when compared to the much more exalted views of life that myths and religions have made us familiar with. But to turn Pascal's wager on its head, it seems that, when in doubt, the best strategy is to assume that these seventy or so years are our only chance to experience the cosmos, and we should make the fullest use of it. For if we don't, we might lose everything; whereas if we are wrong and there is life beyond the grave, we lose nothing.

There's one obvious "flow" leisure activity Csikszentmihalyi strangely fails to mention: computer games. These are challenging, require high levels of (somewhat obscure) skill, and are designed to progress the player through various levels so that skills grow with the challenges. This is presumably the reason for their "addictive" nature -- they are designed to encourage flow, and without too many of the set-up barriers of other such activities. I don't know if Csikszentmihalyi would approve of these, he seems keen on more "productive" activities, yet they are clearly superior to passive TV watching. He is also quite keen on "social" activities, as the data seems to show that people are happier when engaged in these, yet stresses we need to learn how to enjoy solitude, too, as many flow activities require us to be alone.

The message is a little obscure. There is a lot of discussion about what activities make us happy, and flow activities are not in this class (we are too engaged to notice, or be, happy). There is also discussion about living a life that amounts to something -- but yet again, not all flow activities are productive. However, there is a lot of good argument about why flow is desirable, and good advice on how to achieve it. The advice on how to convert necessary tasks to more flow-like tasks is probably even more valuable than what to do with leisure time. If we can enjoy the humdrum as well as the leisure time, quality of life can improve dramatically. Good food for thought.