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12 Aug 2016
Creating 'Flow' in our Experience

Once in a while, there comes along a book that rips of some of our long built-in erroneous notions. It happens very rarely and when it does so, it is very blissful. I happened to stumble on one such book. After finishing the book, I made a decision to write a review on the same. So here you are, reading my review. Oh! But wait, it isn’t actually a review. Honestly, I don’t know how to write one. Here I have taken a few of my favorite extracts from the book and presented my thoughts on it.

How it all started

Most of us must have done some sort of soul-searching at one point of our life. I am no different. I remember asking myself some tough questions from a very young age. From stories of History and of various Religions, I got some satisfactory answers. One question, still remained though. “What to do with one’s life?”. There is a spike in this activity, right when you move from teenage to adulthood. Maybe that’s when we become more concerned about the future. Slowly slowly, I understood that materialistic goals can never make a person happy.

One day, I happened to stumble on this TED talk , by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In the talk, he talks about his own soul-hunting in his younger years. He happened to attend a talk on “Flying Saucers” (Yes, Aliens). He expected the talk to be more fantasy-oriented, but instead the speaker was speaking on how the mind illusions one into thinking about extra-terrestrial life, on how we can be fooled into living in a world of our own thinking. The speaker was Carl Jung. Csikszentmihalyi was greatly influenced by the talk. He did not who Carl Jung was at that time. He began his study on what makes people happy, about consciousness, about what motivates people. He has been described as the world’s leading researcher in positive psychology (which I found out later on) . His work that caught the world’s attention is “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, written in 1990. Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one”. This last sentence was copied from his wiki page.

Cover pic of the book

I am very picky about reading books. So before deciding to spend my time on this book, I did some research to see whether it would be worth it. The last two self-help books I picked up for reading turned out to be great disappointments. One was “The Secret” - by Rhonda Byrne and the other was “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari” - by Robin Sharma. They make a great first impression. But they didn’t appeal to me and I gave up reading them midway. Interestingly, I found a lot of people who have added the book written by Csikszentmihalyi in their influential books list. I even read a very lengthy review of the book here. So, Ladies and Gentleman I present to you my own review of this marvelous book.

Extracts from the Book

Despite the fact that we are now healthier and grow to be older, despite the fact that even the least affluent among us are surrounded by material luxuries undreamed of even a few decades ago (there were few bathrooms in the palace of the Sun King, chairs were rare even in the richest medieval houses, and no Roman emperor could turn on a TV set when he was bored), and regardless of all the stupendous scientific knowledge we can summon at will, people often end up feeling that their lives have been wasted, that instead of being filled with happiness their years were spent in anxiety and boredom.

This appears in the very beginning of the book. Once I read it, I was all ears to listen to what more the author had to say. I was often perplexed by this human behavior. No matter how much wealth and luxuries men acquire, they just don’t stop at that and more importantly they are not satisfied. It is like Gandhi said, “There is enough for Man’s need but not enough for our greed”.

People who control their inner experience knows the quality of their life.

The author is absolutely right. It is how we interpret our experiences and feelings that matter at the end of the day. When others may applaud you for your achievement, you may not be actually going through the same experience. Inside you may be feeling regret that you snatched the prize from another deserving friend. Life is very strange. Not only do we have to strive hard to succeed, we also have to learn how to make the most of that moment by being totally relishing it.

The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chances of contentment.

“Remember - Life is a race. If you don’t run fast enough, someone will overtake you and move faster.” - Virus, (3 Idiots). I am sure, you have heard that before. These words echoed once more in my ears as I imagined all those poor souls. Over fixating on our aims might actually help us achieve them. It will give you a dopamine-high feeling once you reach there, but it is similar to addiction. You crashed your opponents and thrashed your friends and relatives to get what you want and reach where you wanted. Finally when you had to sit down to relax and cherish your achievements, who will stand with you to share your celebration? The fact that there is a rising number of psychologists, life gurus and consultants who teach you the art of living tells us clearly that people are not happy. Learning to live in the moment is not something that can be taught. It takes time and self-realization.

Every generation believes that they live in an era far advanced and modern than the one before. If our grandparents, living in the ridiculously primitive past could be content, just imagine how happy we would be. Sadly we understand that we have been cheated. We rework our efforts. We succeed. But it becomes clear that money, power, status and possessions don’t add (by themselves) an iota to the quality of life.

I always wanted to convey this thought. I never got the right words to express it myself. The first step to solving any problem is to accept that there is a problem.

To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. He/she must develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.

Csikszentmihalyi is very precise here. You never know when you are going to win a jackpot, neither do you know if there is going to be a life-changing accident awaiting you on your next step. The circumstances and environment we live in are so volatile. If we come to depend on them for life’s joys, it could lead us to an ugly mess. It is vital that we learn how to live independent of them and be more open to the surprises that await us, whether they be merry or melancholy.

We grow up believing that what counts most in our lives is that which will occur in the future.

True fact! The purpose of doing the things we do today is to make tomorrow a better day. This is an endless loop. One that is almost impossible to break. The trick is to rewrite the code with no loops. Make today more important than tomorrow. That being said, it is very interesting to see that nobody thinks too much about the seemingly far-far future - the pinnacle of one’s life. Wondering what that is? I am referring to the moment when we take our last breath on this planet. Yes, every loop has a breaking point.

…the only authority people trust today is their instinct. This liberation is dangerous. A person who can’t override genetic instructions when necessary is always vulnerable.

I remember all times I had a fight with my parents. I fought because I believed I was right and they were wrong. Who told me, I was right? My instinct of course! There was no overriding the voice of my instinct in my younger immature years. Now things have changed. As we mature, we take more factors into consideration before arriving at a decision. This training of the mind only comes after years of trial and error experiences.

The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

Midway through the book, Csikszentmihalyi introduces to us the “autotelic” personality. It is an embodiment of all the ideas that he is trying to tell us.

A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time may be said to have an autotelic self.For an autotelic person, the primary goals emerge from experience evaluated in consciousness, and therefore from the self-proper. The autotelic self-transforms potentially entropic experience into flow.

This definition is given at almost the end of the book. The first time I read it, it sounded synonymous to that of the life of a meditating Monk who is able to find inner peace in all walks of life. But if you think it over, he is not referring to being a Monk. He is encouraging any man from any origin, culture, ethnicity and background to transform their personalities. He is inviting the readers towards a more thoughtful way of living where they can have complete control of their consciousness. He gives several examples and stories of real people who have done the same. It was very motivating to read them.

“Those have most power to hurt us that we love.” It is clear that the family can make one very happy, or be an unbearable burden. Which one it will be depends, to a great extent, on how much psychic energy family members invest in the mutual relationship, and especially in each other’s goals.

I often hear people saying , “I am not ready for marriage”. They give different excuses, the most common being “financial”. But deep inside, I think they are afraid to start a relationship, to start a family. There is no shame in being afraid, with so many stories of failed marriages around us. Maybe all we have to do is invest in each other. (Full Disclosure: These words are coming from a bachelor, so you don’t have to take them seriously)

Cicero once wrote that to be completely free one must become a slave to a set of laws. In other words, accepting limitations is liberating.

I don’t know who is Cicero. I did find this statement very amusing. We all know what freedom what feels like, yet it means different to different people at different times. When I was just a boy, I was expected to be home in the evening before 7 pm and back then getting a chance to go out with a relative in the late hours was a royalty. Now, if the same rules were imposed on me, I would say I am no longer free. The statement by Cicero implies that a land with no rules is a land of chaos. We like to have rules in place, so as to maintain order. Indians love rules a bit more, that should justify why we have the longest constitution in the world. We should understand that having rules in place does not constrict freedom. These laws keep our freedom alive.

One does not get to be a man by getting married, by having sex: to be a man means to be responsible, to know when it is time to speak, to know what has to be said, to know when one must stay silent.

A very strong sentence to define how a man should be. Sadly Csikszentmihalyi forgot to attend to the female audiences of the book. Otherwise he would have written something along these lines, “One does not get to be a woman by looking beautiful, by raising kids: to be a woman means to be responsible, to know when it is time to speak, to know what has to be said, to know when one must stay silent”.

Inner conflict is the result of competing claims on attention. Too many desires, too many incompatible goals struggle to marshal psychic energy toward their own ends. It follows that the only way to reduce conflict is by sorting out the essential claims from those that are not, and by arbitrating priorities among those that remain. There are basically two ways to accomplish this: what the ancients called the vita activa, a life of action, and the vita contemplativa, or the path of reflection.

We are so easily distracted these days. There is so much to do, but nothing really gets done. We have become masters of procrastination. We go after non-tangible goals. So what is the remedy? Wrong question, buddy! First, you have to understand to there is no magic pill. There is no starting and stopping, there is only doing and learning. The “life of action” is the part where you constantly “do” things and the “path of reflection” is where you constantly “learn” things.

…the confusion in our soul is the necessary consequence of unlimited opportunities and constant perfectibility.

At least this is one problem our ancestors did not have to face. The world today is so big that we have worlds with-in this world. There is a lot we can be and a lot we can do. And we are left with the agony of making a choice. How strange, life is!


One aspect I liked about this book is that it is not really a self-help book. Such books mostly give you tricks and techniques on how to do that and this. Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t take that approach. He studied the mind and its working and explains life as it is. “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. Maybe that is why I like this book so much. To me, it was a collection all the best things I heard in my life so far.

I have barely taken 1000 words from the book and tried to tell how amazing and transforming this book can be. In the preface, Csikszentmihalyi tells us that the book is an outcome of over twenty years of his research. I was a bit worried whether I could assimilate all that he had to tell. But he assured right away that this book has been written for the common man of average intelligence. I can at least guarantee you that much. It is written in a very simple language and if you are in 20-s or 30-s then it is the perfect time to read this book.

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aslam abbas


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