|The Conditions of Flow|
This excerpt from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience examines activities that lead to and the cultural effects on flow as well as family conditions that nurture the autotelic personality. Loosely "autotelic personality" means to have the purpose for existence within the self. Added emphasis appears in red, and my reactions are enclosed in a box: (Note 143)
We have seen how people describe the common characteristics of optimal experience: a sense that one's skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous. . . .
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. . . .
Among schoolchildren, a great variety of learning disabilities have been reclassified under the heading of "attentional disorders," because what they have in common is lack of control over attention. Although attentional disorders are likely to depend on chemical imbalances, it is also very likely that the quality of childhood experience will either exacerbate or alleviate their course. From our point of view, what is important to realize is that attentional disorders not only interfere with learning, but effectively rule out the possibility of experiencing flow as well. When a person cannot control psychic energy, neither learning nor true enjoyment is possible.
A less drastic obstacle to experiencing flow is excessive self consciousness. A person who is constantly worried about how others will perceive her, who is afraid of creating the wrong impression, or of doing something inappropriate, is also condemned to permanent exclusion from enjoyment. So are people who are excessively self centered. A self centered individual is usually not self conscious, but instead evaluates every bit of information only in terms of how it relates to her desires. For such a person everything is valueless in itself. . . . Consciousness is structured entirely in terms of its own ends, and nothing is allowed to exist in it that does not conform to those ends.
Although a self conscious person is in many respects different from a self centered one, neither is in enough control of psychic energy to enter easily into a flow experience. Both lack the attentional fluidity needed to relate to activities for their own sake; too much psychic energy is wrapped up in the self, and free attention is rigidly guided by its needs. Under these conditions it is difficult to become interested in intrinsic goals, to lose oneself in an activity that offers no rewards outside the interaction itself.
Attentional disorders and stimulus over inclusion prevent flow because psychic energy is too fluid and erratic. Excessive self consciousness and self centeredness prevent it for the opposite reason: attention is too rigid and tight. Neither extreme allows a person to control attention. Those who operate at these extremes cannot enjoy themselves, have a difficult time learning, and forfeit opportunities for the growth of the self. . . .
When a society suffers from anomie, flow is made difficult because it is not clear what is worth investing psychic energy in; when it suffers from alienation the problem is that one cannot invest psychic energy in what is clearly desirable. It is interesting to note that these two societal obstacles to flow, anomie and alienation, are functionally equivalent to the two personal pathologies, attentional disorders and self centeredness. At both levels, the individual and the collective, what prevents flow from occurring is either the fragmentation of attentional processes (as in anomie and attentional disorders), or their excessive rigidity (as in alienation and self centeredness). At the individual level anomie corresponds to anxiety, while alienation corresponds to boredom. . . .
The family context promoting optimal experience could be described as having five characteristics. The first one is clarity: the teenagers feel that they know what their parents expect from them. . . . The second is centering, or the children's perception that their parents are interested in what they are doing in the present, in their concrete feelings and experiences. . . . Next is the issue of choice: children feel that they have a variety of possibilities from which to choose, including that of breaking parental rules. . . . The fourth differentiating characteristic is commitment, or the trust that allows the child to . . . become unselfconsciously involved in whatever he is interested in. And finally there is challenge, or the parents' dedication to provide increasingly complex opportunities for action to their children. . . .