Flow (30 Years Later)

In all the books I’ve ever read on gaming, and its power to change education, the author invariably references Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I finally had a chance to read the original book to see what it says and I was surprised.

First of all, instead of being a state that is hard to reach, available only to those who are deeply immersed in complex tasks, Csikszentmihalyi says that flow is achievable in almost any task, however mundane, and the happiest people in the world “flow” through all their days. His concept of flow is much more akin to that of ‘mindfulness’ in the Buddhist tradition.

He also wrote this book before our explosion of knowledge in brain science over the last 15 years. It seems odd to read about states of flow in every day tasks without the obligatory references to fMRI studies.  As as result, his attempt to draw together his research into cohesive advice on how to live a happy life seems dated. Here he is on the “complexity of modern culture” and why it’s difficult for us to be happy:

“Just a few decades ago a woman felt perfectly justified in placing the welfare of her family as her ultimate goal…. Today, now that she can be a businessperson , a scholar, an artist, or even a soldier, it is no longer “obvious” that being a wife and mother should be a woman’s first priority.” p. 224

Hasn’t he seen the Stepford Wives? Observations about the banality of modern life are dull, and Flow doesn’t add much weight to the conversation.