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My highlights of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


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Twenty-three hundred years ago Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. 

There are many ways we have sought happiness since Aristotle was around. And in many ways, we have been seeking in the wrong places. 

Flow intends to show us the right places. 

According to the author’s research, a fulfilling life comes from having ultimate experiences, which he calls “Flow”. 

What is Flow?

Flow is a state where you are focused on doing something complex that requires intense concentration and effort and has a clear goal and feedback system.   

You become so absorbed, you can’t think of anything else.   

 “In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. “Why am I doing this? Should I perhaps be doing something else?” Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions, and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because the action carries us forward as if by magic.”

These kinds of experiences “order your consciousness” and avert the default chaos of our minds. 

You want this

Flow occurs with activities you do for the sake of doing them, regardless of the outcome.

Surgeons speak of their work:

“It is so enjoyable that I would do it even if I didn’t have to.”

The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

Playing the stock market in order to make money is not an autotelic experience; but playing it in order to prove one’s skill at foretelling future trends is—even though the outcome in terms of dollars and cents is exactly the same.

For me, writing is such an activity. It would be great to make an income from my writing, but even if I don’t make any money or gain any recognition I still write because I enjoy it.

Many writers, when asked why they chose to write, despite writing being rarely lucrative, answer: “This is the only thing that when I am doing it, I never wonder if I should be doing something different.”

A dancer describes how it feels when a performance is going well:

“Your concentration is very complete. Your mind isn’t wandering, you are not thinking of something else; you are totally involved in what you are do- ing…. Your energy is flowing very smoothly. You feel relaxed, comfortable, and energetic.”

A mother who enjoys the time spent with her small daughter:

“Her reading is the one thing that she’s really into, and we read together. She reads to me, and I read to her, and that’s a time when I sort of lose touch with the rest of the world, I’m totally absorbed in what I’m doing.”

You don’t want this

The opposite of Flow sucks. That’s when people feel like they’re in a rut. As Dr. Maxwell Matlz writes in Psycho-Cybernetics:  

“It has been pointed out earlier that since man is a goal-striving being, he is functioning naturally and normally when he is oriented toward some positive goal and striving toward some desirable goal. Happiness is a symptom of normal, natural functioning and when man is functioning as a goal-striver, he tends to feel fairly happy, regardless of circumstances.” 

Csikszentmihalyi demolishes the commonly held belief that effortless leisure such as watching TV is the pinnacle of “feeling great”. Instead, such activities are typically ranked at the bottom of “experience” quality.   

We’ve all felt hungover from scrolling social media for too long or binge-watching Netflix. (if you are overindulging often, read this)

Watching TV or scrolling social media are prime examples of entropic behavior. We yearn for these experiences because they feel pleasurable (for a while at least) but leave us unfulfilled afterward.

Designing your life for Flow 

You want to structure your life in a way that you spend most of your time in flow, and the least in entropy.    

With Flow activities you are an active participant in life, you are involved, you are there, you are living


“Get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.” —  Theodore Roosevelt.  


So creating music will make your life more fulfilling than just listening to music:

Playing sports > Watching sports 

Writing > Reading 

Talking to friends > Watching “Friends” on the TV

Playing golf > Talking about playing golf

Why do we avoid doing things that are good for us? 

“Instead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we  go  to  admire  paintings  that  brought  in  the  highest  bids  at  the  latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock- meaningful action.”

So why do most people prefer to dedicate their leisure time to a vegetative entropic state?

“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.” 

If you make that initial effort, the rest is easy. It’s like jump-starting a car. You just need energy to start the car, but once you do, you can drive without trouble.

Work sucks…or does it?  

As much as we like to complain about our jobs, for a lot of people, Flow happens more often during work hours than leisure hours. 

The author interviewed an assembly line employee, who despite having a very repetitive job experiences Flow quite often.   

  “The task he has to perform on each unit that passes in front of his station should take forty-three seconds to perform—the same exact operation almost six hundred times in a working day. Most people would grow tired of such work very soon. But Rico has been at this job for over five years, and he still enjoys it. The reason is that he approaches his task in the same way an Olympic athlete approaches his event: How can I beat my record? Like the runner who trains for years to shave a few seconds off his best performance on the track, Rico has trained himself to better his time on the assembly line.”

Any activity can achieve Flow states if we aim to improve it. 

“For Pam Davis it is much easier to achieve this harmonious, effortless state when she works. As a young lawyer in a small partnership, she is fortunate to be involved in complex, challenging cases. She spends hours in the library, chasing down references and outlining possible courses of action for the senior partners of the firm to follow. Often her concentration is so intense that she forgets to have lunch, and by the time she realizes that she is hungry it is dark outside. While she is immersed in her job every piece of information fits: even when she is temporarily frustrated, she knows what causes the frustration, and she believes that eventually the obstacle can be overcome.”

Examples of activities that lead to Flow 


  • Physical activity: Running, rock climbing, martial arts, yoga, playing team sports, sex, dancing. 
  • Senses: learning to appreciate beauty and aesthetics, appreciating and creating music (creating is more rewarding), enjoying food (people feel the most happy and relaxed at mealtimes).
  • Thought: reading, chess, scientific discovery, puzzles, memorization, philosophy,  studying, 
  • Work: work can be an absolute misery but it can also be thoroughly enjoyable.
  • Social relations: Maintaining good relationships and doing worthwhile activities with others can be a huge source of Flow.

Memorable passages from Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience 


“One of our respondents, a well-known West Coast rock climber, explains concisely the tie between the avocation that gives him a profound sense of flow and the rest of his life: “It’s exhilarating to come closer and closer to self-discipline. You make your body go and everything hurts; then you look back in awe at the self, at what you’ve done, it just blows your mind. It leads to ecstasy, to self-fulfillment. If you win these battles enough, that battle against yourself, at least for a moment, it becomes easier to win the battles in the world.”


“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.”


“Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. “Ask yourself whether you are happy,” said J. S. Mill, “and you cease to be so.” It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, summarized it beautifully in the preface to his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”


Yet we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.


My first studies involved a few hundred “experts”—artists, athletes, musicians, chess masters, and surgeons—in other words, people who seemed to spend their time in precisely those activities they preferred. From their accounts of what it felt like to do what they were doing, I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—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.


The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives.


 “The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly,” in the words of J. H. Holmes. “It is simply indifferent.”


Each of us has a picture, however vague, of what we would like to accomplish before we die. How close we get to attaining this goal becomes the measure for the quality of our lives. If it remains beyond reach, we grow resentful or resigned; if it is at least in part achieved, we experience a sense of happiness and satisfaction.


Though the evidence suggests that most people are caught up on this frustrating treadmill of rising expectations, many individuals have found ways to escape it. These are people who, regardless of their material conditions, have been able to improve the quality of their lives, who are satisfied, and who have a way of making those around them also a bit more happy. Such individuals lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live. They enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult; they are hardly ever bored, and they can take in stride anything that comes their way. Perhaps their greatest strength is that they are in control of their lives.  


Such symptoms of disillusion are not hard to observe around us now. The most obvious ones relate to the pervasive listlessness that affects so many lives. Genuinely happy individuals are few and far between. How many people do you know who enjoy what they are doing, who are reasonably satisfied with their lot, who do not regret the past and look to the future with genuine confidence?


The person who cannot resist food or alcohol, or whose mind is constantly focused on sex, is not free to direct his or her psychic energy.


This simple truth—that the control of consciousness determines the quality of life—has been known for a long time; in fact, for as long as human records exist. The oracle’s advice in ancient Delphi, “Know thyself,” implied it. It was clearly recognized by Aristotle, whose notion of the “virtuous activity of the soul” in many ways prefigures the argument of this book, and it was developed by the Stoic philosophers in classical antiquity.


AT CERTAIN TIMES in history cultures have taken it for granted that a person wasn’t fully human unless he or she learned to master thoughts and feelings. In Confucian China, in ancient Sparta, in Republican Rome, in the early Pilgrim settlements of New England, and among the British upper classes of the Victorian era, people were held responsible for keeping a tight rein on their emotions. Anyone who indulged in self-pity, who let instinct rather than reflection dictate actions, forfeited the right to be accepted as a member of the community. In other historical periods, such as the one in which we are now living, the ability to control oneself is not held in high esteem.


We all know individuals who can transform hopeless situations into challenges to be overcome, just through the force of their personalities. This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.


Most people, however, adopt “sensible” goals based on the needs of their body—to live a long and healthy life, to have sex, to be well fed and comfortable—or on the desires implanted by the social system—to be good, to work hard, to spend as much as possible, to live up to others’ expectations. But there are enough exceptions in every culture to show that goals are quite flexible. Individuals who depart from the norms—heroes, saints, sages, artists, and poets, as well as madmen and criminals—look for different things in life than most others do. The existence of people like these shows that consciousness can be ordered in terms of different goals and intentions. Each of us has this freedom to control our subjective reality.


The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer.


The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used. Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested.


Similarly, if Jim had been more independent, the divorce would not have affected him as deeply. But at his age his goals must have still been bound up too closely with those of his mother and father, so that the split between them also split his sense of self. Had he had closer friends or a longer record of goals successfully achieved, his self would have had the strength to maintain its integrity.


“The self becomes more differentiated as a result of flow because overcoming a challenge inevitably leaves a person feeling more capable, more skilled. As the rock climber said, “You look back in awe at the self, at what you’ve done, it just blows your mind.” After each episode of flow a person becomes more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills.”


The self becomes complex as a result of experiencing flow. Paradoxically, it is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again


 In a comprehensive survey entitled The Quality of American Life published a decade ago, the authors report that a person’s financial situation is one of the least important factors affecting overall satisfaction with life.


Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.


When all a person’s relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, that person’s attention is completely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess psychic energy left over to process any information but what the activity offers. All the attention is concentrated on the relevant stimuli. As a result, one of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience takes place: people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.


One of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life.


Many people feel that the time they spend at work is essentially wasted—they are alienated from it, and the psychic energy invested in the job does nothing to strengthen their self. For quite a few people free time is also wasted. Leisure provides a relaxing respite from work, but it generally consists of passively absorbing information, without using any skills or exploring new opportunities for action. As a result life passes in a sequence of boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control.


The Marquis de Sade perfected the infliction of pain into a form of pleasure, and in fact, cruelty is a universal source of enjoyment for people who have not developed more sophisticated skills. Even in societies that are called “civilized” because they try to make life enjoyable without interfering with anyone’s well-being, people are attracted to violence.


Veterans from Vietnam or other wars sometimes speak with nostalgia about front-line action, describing it as a flow experience. When you sit in a trench next to a rocket launcher, life is focused very clearly: the goal is to destroy the enemy before he destroys you; good and bad become self evident; the means of control are at hand; distractions are eliminated. Even if one hates war, the experience can be more exhilarating than anything encountered in civilian life.


In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.


If we assume, however, that the desire to achieve optimal experience is the foremost goal of every human being, the difficulties of interpretation raised by cultural relativism become less severe. Each social system can then be evaluated in terms of how much psychic entropy it causes, measuring that disorder not with reference to the ideal order of one or another belief system, but with reference to the goals of the members of that society. A starting point would be to say that one society is “better” than another if a greater number of its people have access to experiences that are in line with their goals. A second essential criterion would specify that these experiences should lead to the growth of the self on an individual level, by allowing as many people as possible to develop increasingly complex skills.


Without a challenge, life had no meaning. 


One of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is this great availability of leisure that somehow fails to be translated into enjoyment. Compared to people living only a few generations ago, we have enormously greater opportunities to have a good time, yet there is no indication that we actually enjoy life more than our ancestors did. O


Without interest in the world, a desire to be actively related to it, a person becomes isolated into himself. Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers of our century, described how he achieved personal happiness: “Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.


Plato believed that children should be taught music before anything else; in learning to pay attention to graceful rhythms and harmonies their whole consciousness would become ordered.


The ESM studies done with electronic pagers have shown that even in our highly technological urban society, people still feel most happy and relaxed at mealtimes.


Peasant women in Eastern Europe, for instance, were not judged to be ready for marriage unless they had learned to cook a different soup for each day of the year.


Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos. Without training, and without an object in the external world that demands attention, people are unable to focus their thoughts for more than a few minutes at a time.


When Kant supposedly placed his watch in a pot of boiling water while holding an egg in his hand to time its cooking, all his psychic energy was probably invested in bringing abstract thoughts into harmony, leaving no attention free to meet the incidental demands of the concrete world.


People without an internalized symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers, and exploited by anyone who has something to sell. If we have become dependent on television, on drugs, and on facile calls to political or religious salvation, it is because we have so little to fall back on, so few internal rules to keep our mind from being taken over by those who claim to have the answers.


Not only the quantity of work, but its quality has been highly variable. There is an old Italian saying: “Il lavoro nobilita I’uomo, e lo rende simile alle bestie”; or, “Work gives man nobility, and turns him into an animal.” This ironic trope may be a comment on the nature of all work, but it can also be interpreted to mean that work requiring great skills and that is done freely refines the complexity of the self; and, on the other hand, that there are few things as entropic as unskilled work done under compulsion. The brain surgeon operating in a shining hospital and the slave laborer who staggers under a heavy load as he wades through the mud are both working. But the surgeon has a chance to learn new things every day, and every day he learns that he is in control and that he can perform difficult tasks. The laborer is forced to repeat the same exhausting motions, and what he learns is mostly about his own helplessness.


When asked for his recipe for happiness, he (Freud) gave a very short but sensible answer: “Work and love.”


For much of history, the great majority of people who lived at the periphery of “civilized” societies had to give up any hope of enjoying life in order to make the dreams of the few who had found a way of exploiting them come true.


Yet somehow the culture has evolved in such a way that the people living in it find these tasks enjoyable. Instead of feeling oppressed by the necessity to work hard, they share the opinion of Giuliana B., a seventy-four-year-old lady: “I am free, free in my work, because I do whatever I want. If I don’t do something today I will do it tomorrow. I don’t have a boss, I am the boss of my own life. I have kept my freedom and I have fought for my freedom.”


Hunting, for instance, is a good example of “work” that by its very nature had all the characteristics of flow. For hundreds of thousands of years chasing down game was the main productive activity in which humans were involved. Yet hunting has proven to be so enjoyable that many people are still doing it as a hobby, after all practical need for it has disappeared.


When we feel that we are investing attention in a task against our will, it is as if our psychic energy is being wasted. Instead of helping us reach our own goals, it is called upon to make someone else’s come true. The time channeled into such a task is perceived as time subtracted from the total available for our life. Many people consider their jobs as something they have to do, a burden imposed from the outside, an effort that takes life away from the ledger of their existence. So even though the momentary on-the-job experience may be positive, they tend to discount it, because it does not contribute to their own long-range goals.


Instead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we go to admire paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock meaningful action. This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But it is a very pale substitute for attention invested in real challenges. The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. 


STUDIES ON FLOW have demonstrated repeatedly that more than anything else, the quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people. The most detailed information about who we are as individuals comes from those we communicate with, and from the way we accomplish our jobs. Our self is largely defined by what happens in those two contexts. 


Whether we are in the company of other people or not makes a great difference to the quality of experience. We are biologically programmed to find other human beings the most important objects in the world. 


Therefore a person who learns to get along with others is going to make a tremendous change for the better in the quality of life as a whole.


While interacting with television, the mind is protected from personal worries. The information passing across the screen keeps unpleasant concerns out of the mind. Of course, avoiding depression this way is rather spendthrift, because one expends a great deal of attention without having much to show for it afterward.


While alcohol and other drugs are capable of producing optimal experiences, they are usually at a very low level of complexity. Unless consumed in highly skilled ritual contexts, as is practiced in many traditional societies, what drugs in fact do is reduce our perception of both what can be accomplished and what we as individuals are able to accomplish, until the two are in balance. This is a pleasant state of affairs, but it is only a misleading simulation of that enjoyment that comes from increasing opportunities for actions and the abilities to act.


The same argument holds for what might at first sight seem the opposite of pleasure: masochistic behavior, risk taking, gambling. These ways that people find to hurt or frighten themselves do not require a great deal of skill, but they do help one to achieve the sensation of direct experience. Even pain is better than the chaos that seeps into an unfocused mind.


The ultimate test for the ability to control the quality of experience is what a person does in solitude, with no external demands to give structure to attention. It is relatively easy to become involved with a job, to enjoy the company of friends, to be entertained in a theater or at a concert. But what happens when we are left to our own devices? Alone, when the dark night of the soul descends, are we forced into frantic attempts to distract the mind from its coming? Or are we able to take on activities that are not only enjoyable, but make the self grow?


Life-styles built on pleasure survive only in symbiosis with complex cultures based on hard work and enjoyment. But when the culture is no longer able or willing to support unproductive hedonists, those addicted to pleasure, lacking skills and discipline and therefore unable to fend for themselves, find themselves lost and helpless.


Cicero once wrote that to be completely free one must become a slave to a set of laws.


If the parents enjoy playing music, cooking, reading, gardening, carpentry, or fixing engines in the garage, then it is more likely that their children will find similar activities challenging, and invest enough attention in them to begin enjoy doing something that will help them grow. If parents just talked more about their ideals and dreams—even if these had been frustrated—the children might develop the ambition needed to break through the complacency of their present selves. If nothing else, discussing one’s job or the thoughts and events of the day, and treating children as young adults, as friends, help to socialize them into thoughtful adults. But if the father spends all his free time at home vegetating in front of the TV set with a glass of alcohol in his hand, children will naturally assume that adults are boring people who don’t know how to have fun, and will turn to the peer group for enjoyment. 


One of the most basic delusions of our time is that home life takes care of itself naturally, and that the best strategy for dealing with it is to relax and let it take its course. Men especially like to comfort themselves with this notion. They know how hard it is to succeed on the job, how much effort they have to put into their careers. So at home they just want to unwind, and feel that any serious demand from the family is unwarranted. They often have an almost superstitious faith in the integrity of the home. Only when it is too late—when the wife has become dependent on alcohol, when the children have turned into cold strangers—do many men wake up to the fact that the family, like any other joint enterprise, needs constant investments of psychic energy to assure its existence.


“The worst solitude,” wrote Sir Francis Bacon, “is to be destitute of sincere friendship.” 


When a young man asked Carlyle how he should go about reforming the world, Carlyle answered, “Reform yourself. That way there will be one less rascal in the world.”


The unexpected finding of this study was that a large proportion of the victims mentioned the accident that caused paraplegia as both one of the most negative and one of the most positive events in their lives. The reason tragic events were seen as positive was that they presented the victim with very clear goals while reducing contradictory and inessential choices. The patients who learned to master the new challenges of their impaired situation felt a clarity of purpose they had lacked before. Learning to live again was in itself a matter of enjoyment and pride, and they were able to turn the accident from a source of entropy into an occasion of inner order.


Lucio, one of the members of this group, was a twenty-year-old happygo-lucky gas station attendant when a motorcycle accident paralyzed him below the waist. He had previously liked playing rugby and listening to music, but basically he remembers his life as purposeless and uneventful. After the accident his enjoyable experiences have increased both in number and complexity. Upon recovery from the tragedy he enrolled in college, graduated in languages, and now works as a freelance tax consultant. Both study and work are intense sources of flow; so are fishing and shooting with a bow and arrow. He is currently a regional archery champion—competing from a wheelchair.


 Man was born to be tested on this earth. Cars, television sets, clothes are secondary.


Every man should get to know himself and experience life in all its forms. I could have gone on sleeping soundly in my bed, and found work in my town, because a job was ready for me, but I decided to sleep with the poor, because one must suffer to become a man. One does not get to be a man by getting married, by having sex: to be a man means to be responsible, to know when it is time to speak, to know what has to be said, to know when one must stay silent.


When average people are asked to name the individuals they admire the most, and to explain why these men and women are admired, courage and the ability to overcome hardship are the qualities most often mentioned as a reason for admiration.


A relaxed, laissez-faire attitude is not a sufficient defense against chaos. As we have seen from the very beginning of this book, to be able to transform random events into flow, one must develop skills that stretch capacities, that make one become more than what one is.


In the past few years I have come to be quite well acquainted with several Muslim professionals—electronics engineers, pilots, businessmen, and teachers, mostly from Saudi Arabia and from the other Gulf states. In talking to them, I was struck with how relaxed most of them seemed to be even under strong pressure. “There is nothing to it,” those I asked about it told me, in different words, but with the same message: “We don’t get upset because we believe that our life is in God’s hands, and whatever He decides will be fine with us.” Such implicit faith used to be widespread in our culture as well, but it is not easy to find it now. Many of us have to discover a goal that will give meaning to life on our own, without the help of a traditional faith.


People who find their lives meaningful usually have a goal that is challenging enough to take up all their energies, a goal that can give significance to their lives. We may refer to this process as achieving purpose. To experience flow one must set goals for one’s actions: to win a game, to make friends with a person, to accomplish something in a certain way. The goal in itself is usually not important; what matters is that it focuses a person’s attention and involves it in an achievable, enjoyable activity.


We may call this resolution in the pursuit of one’s goals. What counts is not so much whether a person actually achieves what she has set out to do; rather, it matters whether effort has been expended to reach the goal, instead of being diffused or wasted. When “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” Hamlet observed, “…enterprises of great pith and moment…lose the name of action.” Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it. “He who desires but acts not,” wrote Blake with his accustomed vigor, “breeds pestilence.”


Through trial and error, through intense cultivation, we can straighten out the tangled skein of conflicting goals, and choose the one that will give purpose to action.


Inner conflict is the result of competing claims on attention. Too many desires, too many incompatible goals struggle to marshal psychic energy toward their own ends. It follows that the only way to reduce conflict is by sorting out the essential claims from those that are not, and by arbitrating priorities among those that remain.


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