Written April 2011
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is an advocate of “positive psychology,” and has spent many years exploring the possibilities of the human body and psyche. In the book Flow, he summarizes decades of research, and describes the concept of the optimal experience, flow, and the many ways in which it can be achieved. This state is not automatic, it is not easy, but by consciously using the mind and senses, one can have a rewarding experience even from the most mundane of activities. Self-imposed barriers and those present in cultures must be overcome. Skills must be consistently improved and new challenges discovered. When a person has the right amount of interest, challenge, skill, and lack of mental barriers, flow can become the epitome of enjoyment.
Attaining the state of flow is possible using the human body in many different ways. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi describes the flow potential of the senses and associated dangers in activities like dancing, listening to music, and even tasting. These very normal experiences can become something greater when consciousness is controlled and skills are cultivated. Eating is certainly pleasurable, but by itself is not enough to reach flow. “In our culture, despite the recent spotlight on gourmet cuisine, many people still barely notice what the put in their mouths, thereby missing a potentially rich source of enjoyment” (Csikszentmihalyi 114).Most days I eat in a hurried state in front of a screen, but in taste I have given myself goals, developed my skills, and occasionally have reached the optimal experience. My father, a master of home cooking, started cultivating my sense of taste before I could read. Standing over a pot of spaghetti sauce, it was my job to figure out what was missing. Over time, the smell and tastes of individual herbs and spices made themselves known. Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t directly describe flow through smell, but I think it is possible, especially when combined with taste. Over the last several years I have attempted to hone my sense of smell even further by picking up subtle notes in a glass of wine and distinguishing ingredients before I even taste a dish. Csikszentmihalyi discourages doing this based on trends, but encourages exploring cuisine “in a spirit of adventure and curiosity.” He also warns against the gluttony that can accompany culinary enjoyment (115). However, if one is truly achieving flow through taste, it would be difficult to overeat. My internal challenges of smell and taste have made a glass of wine very enjoyable, but it takes a great amount of time to smell, to look, to process – drunkenness is rare. Being aware of flow will now help me to consciously develop my senses further.
In everyday life reading is as common as eating, and humans are guilty of letting the activity speed by. “The normal state of the mind is chaos,” and it is easy to lose concentration, even when reading something interesting (Csikszentmihalyi 119). This has been obvious to me when reading for schoolwork as opposed to pleasure. When reading essays or books I enjoy and find fascinating for an assignment, I stop constantly. I look at the due dates, I process the assignment and what I should be concentrating on within the reading, and I try to envision parallels and comparisons to reflect on later. My reading skills have worsened, partially because I go about it in the wrong way. When reading for pleasure, I still lose concentration, my mind still wanders, but into a daydream. I reflect more on characters and the possibilities and motivations of their choices. When considering the optimal experience of flow, this is a much better channel for mental energy. When reading for an assignment, my goals are too external for it to be a positive experience. Csikszentmihalyi states that, “reading is currently perhaps the most often mentioned flow activity around the world” (117), but the concentration required to improve skills can be difficult to achieve. When flow is truly reached, there should be no energy left to concentrate on outside worries.
There are many video games that could help to achieve a state of flow; games combining mental and physical skill are especially valuable. The Wii game Okami (originally developed for PS2) contains many opportunities for flow through seeing, movement, reading and more. The game’s art is inspired by traditional Japanese watercolors, and the protagonist (a goddess in the form of a white wolf) must restore order to nature and society. There are mountains, large bodies of water, and huge trees illustrated throughout the game, and the wolf is equipped with a mystical paintbrush to beautify the surroundings and conquer challenges. By painting with the Wii-mote, the player sees and interacts with nature in the game. According to Csikszentmihalyi, “Visual skills…can provide constant access to enjoyable experiences” (107), and Okami explores the benefits of seeing. There are certain trees that have a major effect on surroundings, and when the wolf heals the cherry trees through painting the results are shown. Winds carry protective spirits with petals, and dark gloomy places become beautiful as balance is restored. In these scenes, visual skills are easily developed. A person with knowledge of art history could use their background to see more richness the game’s art than an average player. There is also a rhythm to using the paintbrush/Wii-mote, and the battles can become like a dance, swaying and slicing in patterns with the fascinating and imaginative enemy creatures. The themed music and the in-depth story presented on virtual parchment add even more opportunities for flow.
The optimal experience can be achieved through mind, body, or any combination of the two; flow is often a few thoughts away in our daily activities. The autotelic experience must be controlled in order to be beneficial, and Csikszentmihalyi’s writings can help a person to shape life accordingly. “We don’t usually notice how little control we have over the mind, because habits channel psychic energy so well that thoughts seem to follow each other without a hitch” (119). The daily grind does nothing for flow when we are on autopilot. We just let the mind absorb whatever is around, and things are done out of necessity and desire, but rarely produce pleasure. Learning and enjoyment can happen in unison when optimal experience is an intrinsic goal. By truly experiencing things like food, books, and games, the mind can go deeper, closer to the path of flow.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990. Print.