Think back on your life’s happiest moments thus far and it’s unlikely that expensive vacations, that 10-hour binge of Netflix last week, or whatever other pleasurable activity we design for ourselves make the list. On the contrary, life’s most enjoyable moments – the times we would consider ourselves to be happiest – are usually formed while in the thick of hard, strenuous activity, either mental, physical or both. You and I know this flow state: when time seems to fly by, when intense mental focus quiets consciousness, pushes aside the concerns of the day, and all that matters is the task at hand. Paradoxically, it is when happiness is the least of our concerns that we draw the most fulfillment from life. This is the thesis behind Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”. Released in 1990, it’s considered the definitive examination of the “Psychology of Optimal Experience”, a book I can say without treading too far into hyperbole that has significantly enriched my life.
Unlike the dozens of titles that seemed to have spawned from the bloggers-turned-self-help gurus over the years, Csikszentmihalyi’s timeless work forgoes the anecdotal in favor of decades worth of hard research on the symbiosis of creativity and happiness, laying out the real emotional matter behind what constitutes our vague idea of joy. In so doing, he shows that what we often try so hard to avoid – complex work that challenges us, sharpens skills and instills discipline – are the very things that bring us happiness. We live to engage with our work, he argues, whatever the definition of “work” may be. Csikszentmihalyi may have set out to write the definitive book on the condition of flow, but in the process, he managed to craft a guide for an enjoyable life, where order in consciousness is the center from which all other things orbit.