Would You Rather: Stare At A Chair, Or Reel In a Ten-Foot Shark?

A few years ago, when I was re-writing my first book, Stuffocation, for the umpteenth time, I gingerly reached out to one of the greatest psychologists of our times. I was hoping, as you do, that in the midst of all the requests he obviously received, that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might be interested in how I was referencing his concept of flow to explain why experiences are more likely to make us happy than material goods. He replied the following day.

“This is shaping up as a very congested Fall — everyone seems to want to celebrate my 80th birthday later this month . . . Except myself, of course,” he emailed. “But if you are not in a huge hurry, I should like to read what your book is saying, especially about flow.”

On October 20 2021, aged 87, Csikszentmihalyi passed away. Like many others, I felt a real sadness. (Which is strange. I’ve read his books, his published papers, even the odd email. But we’ve never met in person. Still, in someone’s writing you can hear them a little, no?)

Here’s a passage from that book:

Flow is a mental state, originally identified by a psychologist named called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that you get into when you are effortlessly engaged in whatever it is you are doing. This is what athletes mean when they talk about confronting a challenge and getting “in the zone.” It is what spiritual gurus like Eckhart Tolle mean when they say you should be “in the present.” It is what psychologists refer to when they say we are exercising competence. To see why experiences are better than material goods for achieving flow, and thus happiness, consider this comparison: would you find it easier to focus on a chair or a pair of shoes, or to concentrate when you are performing a task that challenges you, like playing tennis, singing in a choir, or reeling in a ten-foot shark?

Stuffocation (Penguin, 2015)

Here’s a picture of that book:

Campfire 30, on Wednesday, November 17 is in honour of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. We will, of course, focus on flow, and how to design it. If you are not yet a member of the WXO but would like to join us, please apply via this page.