Coffee House Readings #3: Flow


“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.”

Flow is not yet another self-help book that will teach you a few simple steps to a happy life. Although, in the end it is pretty much about the very same idea: how to be happy. But, instead of the rather washed-out term “happiness” the author Mihály Csíkszentmihályi uses the more technical term “optimal experience”, which means the very same thing but avoids all the popular-scientific connotations attached to this concept.

One thing that is pretty cool about this book is how it is designed for laymen as well as for scholars. Csíkszentmihályi has included a Notes section that “can be read as a second, highly compressed, and more technical shadow version of the original text”. According to Csíkszentmihályi optimal experience can be reached through one simple concept: Flow.

Why is it so hard for humankind to reach happiness?

As Csíkszentmihályi puts it: “the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind.” Life is arbitrary and can therefore be very frustrating. This has led humanity to develop protective shields, like religion, philosophy or art, to make life more predictable and less chaotic. In addition, happiness, it turns out as we grow up, isn’t what the ideals of Western society led us to believe it would be: “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 chance of contentment.” So, happiness cannot lie in future accomplishments, it has to lie in the moment.

The word “Flow” describes this very concept of being in the moment, a condition all of us know but maybe without paying too much attention to its importance in our lives. Flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” So far, so good. But now comes the interesting part: Flow doesn’t have to happen occasionally and by accident; it can be controlled.

Happiness – scientifically explained

Instead of simply giving us a list of dos and donts Csíkszentmihályi gives us a scientific overview of our inner life, which is based on research, and shows us how to control it. Not only does the author explain how flow works and in what kind of enjoyable activities it automatically emerges but he also explains how to harness this energy for all other parts of life like jobs or family. Flow can thereby lead to a meaningful and happy life.

By understanding how the consciousness works we can learn to control our intentions and thereby also learn to control our subjective reality. And this is definitely something we should do: our mind has only the capacity for 185 billion events to be enjoyed over a lifetime, Csíkszentmihályi explains, so we should be able to chose the events our mind wants to occupy itself with. To some extent at least. Once you learn to focus your attention on the bits of information out there you want to enter your consciousness, you will enjoy the normal course of everyday life.

Depending on the information we focus our attention on, the author goes on, our perception of reality changes. Csíkszentmihályi illustrates this fact with the example of an extrovert, a high achiever and a paranoid attending the same party. “At the party, the extrovert will seek out and enjoy interactions with others, the high achiever will look for useful business contacts, and the paranoid will be on guard for signs of danger he must avoid. Attention can be invested in innumerable ways, ways that can make life either rich or miserable.

If you want to learn to control your consciousness Flow might be a good point to start. And while you are waiting for your copy of the book to arrive, you can check out Csíkszentmihályi’s TED talk in the meantime.

The best Viennese Coffee House to read this book in

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“At phil you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom concentrated in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.”, the phil menu lets you know. Phil is definitely one of these places where there are a lot of ideas flying around. In between all these people chatting, reading, studying and working on their laptops, you will feel like somebody brought a Coffee House right to your living room, and you’re having a few friends over who are working on their stuff. And if you come across an interesting idea, just check out phil’s bookstore section.

Photo credits: Verena Ehrnberger

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