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Quotes from “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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.
enjoyment depends on increasing complexity
The essential steps in this process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.
Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos, designed to reduce the impact of randomness on experience. They are adaptive responses, just as feathers are for birds and fur is for mammals. Cultures prescribe norms, evolve goals, build beliefs that help us tackle the challenges of existence. In so doing they must rule out many alternative goals and beliefs, and thereby limit possibilities; but this channeling of attention to a limited set of goals and means is what allows effortless action within self-created boundaries.
When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following. First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh
First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.
Few would argue that a simpler consciousness, no matter how harmonious, is preferable to a more complex one. While we might admire the serenity of the lion in repose, the tribesman’s untroubled acceptance of his fate, or the child’s wholehearted involvement in the present, they cannot offer a model for resolving our predicament. The order based on innocence is now beyond our grasp. Once the fruit is plucked from the tree of knowledge, the way back to Eden is barred forever.
But complexity consists of integration as well as differentiation. The task of the next decades and centuries is to realize this underdeveloped component of the mind. Just as we have learned to separate ourselves from each other and from the environment, we now need to learn how to reunite ourselves with other entities around us without losing our hard-won individuality. The most promising faith for the future might be based on the realization that the entire universe is a system related by common laws and that it makes no sense to impose our dreams and desires on nature without taking them into account. Recognizing the limitations of human will, accepting a cooperative rather than a ruling role in the universe, we should feel the relief of the exile who is finally returning home. The problem of meaning will then be resolved as the individual’s purpose merges with the universal flow.
If a person sets out to achieve a difficult enough goal, from which all other goals logically follow, and if he or she invests all energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then actions and feelings will be in harmony, and the separate parts of life will fit together—and each activity will “make sense” in the present, as well as in view of the past and of the future. In such a way, it is possible to give meaning to one’s entire life.
The original condition of human beings, prior to the development of self-reflective consciousness, must have been a state of inner peace disturbed only now and again by tides of hunger, sexuality, pain, and danger. The forms of psychic entropy that currently cause us so much anguish—unfulfilled wants, dashed expectations, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, guilt—are all likely to have been recent invaders of the mind. They are by-products of the tremendous increase in complexity of the cerebral cortex and of the symbolic enrichment of culture. They are the dark side of the emergence of consciousness.
Successful executives, experienced professionals, and talented craftspeople learn to trust their judgment and competence so that they again begin to act with the unselfconscious spontaneity of children. If the arena for action is challenging enough, a person may experience flow continuously in his or her calling, thus leaving as little room as possible for noticing the entropy of normal life. In this way harmony is restored to consciousness indirectly—not by facing up to contradictions and trying to resolve conflicting goals and desires, but by pursuing chosen goals with such intensity that all potential competition is preempted.
Achieving this unity with one’s surroundings is not only an important component of enjoyable flow experiences but is also a central mechanism by which adversity is conquered. In the first place, when attention is focused away from the self, frustrations of one’s desires have less of a chance to disrupt consciousness. To experience psychic entropy one must concentrate on the internal disorder; but by paying attention to what is happening around oneself instead, the destructive effects of stress are lessened. Second, the person whose attention is immersed in the environment becomes part of it—she participates in the system by linking herself to it through psychic energy. This, in turn, makes it possible for her to understand the properties of the system, so that she can find a better way to adapt to a problematic situation.
We all start with preconceived notions of what we want from life. These include the basic needs programmed by our genes to ensure survival—the need for food, comfort, sex, dominance over other beings. They also include the desires that our specific culture has inculcated in us—to be slim, rich, educated, and well liked. If we embrace these goals and are lucky, we may replicate the ideal physical and social image for our historical time and place. But is this the best use of our psychic energy? And what if we cannot realize these ends? We will never become aware of other possibilities unless, like the painter who watches with care what is happening on the canvas, we pay attention to what is happening around us, and evaluate events on the basis of their direct impact on how we feel, rather than evaluating them exclusively in terms of preconceived notions. If we do so we may discover that, contrary to what we were led to believe, it is more satisfying to help another person than to beat him down, or that it is more enjoyable to talk with one’s two-year-old than to play golf with the company president.
to arrive at this level of self-assurance one must trust oneself, one’s environment, and one’s place in it.
One fact that does seem clear, however, is that the ability to make order out of chaos is not unique to psychological processes. In fact, according to some views of evolution, complex life forms depend for their existence on a capacity to extract energy out of entropy—to recycle waste into structured order. The Nobel prize–winning chemist Ilya Prigogine calls physical systems that harness energy which otherwise would be dispersed and lost in random motion “dissipative structures.” For example, the entire vegetable kingdom on our planet is a huge dissipative structure because it feeds on light, which normally would be a useless by-product of the sun’s combustion. Plants have found a way to transform this wasted energy into the building blocks out of which leaves, flowers, fruit, bark, and timber are fashioned. And because without plants there would be no animals, all life on earth is ultimately made possible by dissipative structures that capture chaos and shape it into a more complex order.
Unselfconscious self-assurance. As Richard Logan found in his study of individuals who survived severe physical ordeals—polar explorers wandering alone in the Arctic, concentration camp inmates—one common attitude shared by such people was the implicit belief that their destiny was in their hands. They did not doubt their own resources would be sufficient to allow them to determine their fate. In that sense one would call them self-assured, yet at the same time, their egos seem curiously absent: they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.
When a family has a common purpose and open channels of communication, when it provides gradually expanding opportunities for action in a setting of trust, then life in it becomes an enjoyable flow activity. Its members will spontaneously focus their attention on the group relationship, and to a certain extent forget their individual selves, their divergent goals, for the sake of experiencing the joy of belonging to a more complex system that joins separate consciousnesses in a unified goal.
To play the trumpet well, a musician cannot let more than a few days pass without practicing. An athlete who does not run regularly will soon be out of shape, and will no longer enjoy running. Any manager knows that his company will start falling apart if his attention wanders. In each case, without concentration, a complex activity breaks down into chaos. Why should the family be different? Unconditional acceptance, the complete trust family members ought to have for one another, is meaningful only when it is accompanied by an unstinting investment of attention. Otherwise it is just an empty gesture, a hypocritical pretense indistinguishable from disinterest.
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.
There have been endless discussions about whether humans are naturally promiscuous, polygamous, or monogamous; and whether in terms of cultural evolution monogamy is the highest form of family organization. It is important to realize that these questions deal only with the extrinsic conditions shaping marriage relationships. And on that count, the bottom line seems to be that marriages will take the form that most efficiently ensures survival.
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