Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Deceiving Chaos

Although everything is clear by now, some people may still think that it must be easy for people to feel happy as long as they are lucky enough to be healthy, rich and beautiful. But how can our quality of life improve when things don't go our way, or when luck isn't fair to us? People can afford to think about the difference between enjoyment and pleasure if they don't have to worry about running out of money at the end of each month. For most people, such a distinction is too luxurious to think about. You can think of challenges and complexities if you have an exciting, well-paying job, but why try to improve a job that is fundamentally silly and brutal? And how can we expect those who are sick, needy, or possessed of bad luck to control their consciousness? Inevitably they will need to improve specific physical conditions before experiencing flow that can add anything worthwhile to their quality of life. In other words, the optimal experience should be seen as the sugar coating on the cream cake made from durable ingredients such as health and well-being; It is itself just a flimsy decorative material. Only with a solid foundation of these real advantages does the flow help the subjective aspects of life be satisfied.

It should be made clear, the whole thesis of this book argues against such a conclusion!

Subjective experience is not only one of the aspects of life, but life itself. Material conditions are secondary: they affect us only indirectly, by means of experience. On the contrary, flow, and even pleasure, benefits the quality of life directly. Health, money, and other material advantages may, or may not, improve life. Unless one learns to control one's mental energy, it is likely that such advantages will become useless.

On the contrary, many individuals who experience harshness end up not only surviving, but also enjoying their lives to the fullest. How can people achieve harmony in their minds and thrive in complexity, even when the worst things happen to them? It's a seemingly simple question that this chapter will explore. Throughout this process, we'll look at some of the strategies people use to cope with stressful events, as well as assess how a self-directed ego can manage to create order in the midst of chaos.


The statement that no matter what happens to a person, as long as he controls consciousness he will still be happy, is a naïve idealized statement. There are limits to how much each person can endure pain, hunger, or loss. And it's quite true, as Dr. Franz Alexander made it clear: "Although biology and medicine ignore the aspect of the mind, the fact that the mind controls the body is the most basic truth we know about the course of life." Holistic medicine and books like Norman Cousins' about his successful battle against the terminal illness and Bernie Siegel's descriptions of self-healing are beginning to reshape materialists' confusing view of health that has become so common this century. The appropriate perspective to elaborate here is that a person who knows how to seek the flow experience in life is capable of savoring even situations where there seems to be only despair.

Somewhat extraordinary examples of how humans acquire the experience of flow despite extreme obstacles have been collected by Professor Fausto Massimini of the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Milan. The group he and his team studied included people with limb paralysis, generally young people who had lost the ability to use their limbs, often because of a past accident. The surprising finding of the study was that a large proportion of victims mentioned a paralyzed accident as one of the most negative and positive events in their lives. The reason tragic events are seen as positive is because they present victims with clear goals while reducing conflicting and unnecessary choices. Patients who learn to master new challenges in their disability will feel a sense of clarity of purpose that they lacked before. Learning to live again is itself a material of enjoyment and pride, and they can turn that accident from a source of entropy into a pretext for inner order.

Lucio, one of the members of the team studied, was a twenty-four-year-old gas station worker who lived by a "go where or go there" philosophy before a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed in the lower half of his body. Before that, he enjoyed playing rugby and listening to music, but he basically remembered his life as aimless and relatively calm. After the accident, his interesting experiences increased in both number and complexity. Since recovering from the tragedy, he has enrolled in university, graduated with a degree in linguistics, and now works as a freelance tax consultant. Study and work were both abundant sources of flow experience for him; The same goes for fishing, shooting or archery. He is currently the region's archery champion – he competes in his wheelchair.

Lucio shared a few words in his interview: "When I became a paraplegic, it was as if I was born again. I had to relearn from scratch what I used to know, but in a different way. I learned to dress myself and use my mind more effectively. I have to become part of the environment, take advantage of it without trying to control it... This requires commitment, willpower and patience. As for the future that I care about, I hope I will always improve, always breaking the limits due to my obstacles. Everyone must have a purpose. After becoming paralyzed, these improvements became my life's goal."

Franco is another member of this group. His leg was paralyzed five years ago and he also suffers from serious urinary problems, requiring several surgeries. Before the accident, he was an electrician and he was usually very happy with his job. But his most intense flow experience came from acrobatic dances on Saturday nights, so the fact that his legs were paralyzed was a particularly painful blow to him. Franco now works as a counselor for other paralyzed people. In this case, too, utopian regression leads to enrichment, rather than diminishment, of the complexity of the experience. Franco sees his main challenge now as helping other victims not fall into despair and supporting their physical recovery. He said his most important goal in life was to "feel useful to others, to help recent accident victims accept their condition." Franco was engaged to a girl who was also paralyzed, who endured a negative life after the accident. On his first date, he drives (handicapped style) on a trip to the hills around the area. Unfortunately, the car breaks down and the two are stranded on a deserted road. His fiancée freaked out; even Franco admitted that he was quite nervous. But they eventually managed to find help and as usual, after small victories like this, both of them recovered from it and felt a lot more confident about themselves.

Another sample studied by Milan's team included several dozen people who were born blind or lost their sight at some point after birth. Again, what was most remarkable in these interviews was the number of people who described vision loss as a positive event that enriched their lives. For example, Pilar, a thirty-five-year-old woman, suffered retinal detachments in both eyes when she was twelve and has since been unable to see anything. Her blindness freed her from poor family circumstances and painful violence, making her life more purposeful and healthy than life when she remained at home with her eyesight intact. Like many blind people, she now works as an operator at a manual call center. Among her common flow experiences, she mentions working, listening to music, washing your car, and "anything else I do randomly." When she works, what she enjoys most is knowing that the call she is handling is going smoothly and that the entire flow of the conversation matches like instruments in an orchestra. At such times, she feels "as if I am a god, or someone like that. It feels very fulfilling." Among the positive influences in his life, Pilar highlighted the loss of his eyesight, because "it helped me grow in ways that I couldn't even with a college degree, for example; The things that are difficult to deal with no longer affect me with the intense emotions they once did, nor with the way they have affected many people like me."

Thirty-year-old Paolo lost his sight completely six years ago. He doesn't list blindness as a list of positive influences, but he did mention four positive consequences of this tragic event: "First, although I understand and accept my limitations, I am constantly striving to overcome them. Second, I've decided to always try to change situations I don't like. Third, I'm very careful not to repeat any of the mistakes I've made. And finally, I don't have any illusions now, but I try to be patient with myself so I can be patient with others too." How astonishing Paolo's case is, because for most people with disabilities, the control of consciousness appears in its completely rustic appearance as a primary goal. But this does not mean that challenges are purely internal-psychological. Paolo belongs to the National Chess Federation; he participated in sports competitions for the blind; He made a living by teaching music. He lists guitar playing, chess playing, sports and listening to music as his common flow experiences. He recently finished seventh in a disabled swimming competition in Sweden and he also won the chess championship in Spain. His wife is also a visually impaired and coaches a sports team for visually impaired women. He currently plans to write a classical guitar instruction using Braille. But none of these surprising achievements would mean much if Paolo didn't feel that he was in control of his inner life.

And there is also Antonio, who teaches at the high school and is married to a woman who is visually impaired; Their current challenge is to adopt a blind child, the first time such adoption has been deemed feasible nationwide. Anita, who narrated extremely intense flow experiences while sculpting clay, making love, and reading the braille system. Dino, a born blind man now eighty-five, married and with two children, described his work, mainly recycling old chairs, as a complex and readily available flow experience: "When I fix a broken chair, I use natural rattan rather than the synthetic wood that people use in the factory. It feels pretty good when the "squeeze" is accurate, the tension is elastic – especially when it happens on the first attempt. When it's done, this chair can last up to twenty years." and a lot of other cases like them.

Another group that Prof. Massimini and his team studied included the homeless, "people living on the streets," a force commonly found in the largest European cities as well as in Manhattan. We tend to feel sorry for these destitute fates, and not long ago, many of them, who seemed unable to adapt to "normal" lives, were diagnosed with mental illness or worse. In fact, many of them have proved to be unhappy, helpless individuals whose powers have been exhausted by various tragedies. Yet again, how surprising it is to learn how many of these people are able to convert bleak conditions into an existence that has the characteristics of a satisfying flow experience. Among many examples, we'll quote extensively from an interview that might represent a lot of others.

Reyad is a thirty-three-year-old Egyptian who currently sleeps in Milanese parks, eats in charity kitchens and occasionally washes dishes for restaurants whenever he needs money. During the interview, he read a log of his flow experience and when asked if this had ever happened to him, he replied:

Yes. These records describe my entire life from 1967 to the present. After the War in 1967, I decided to leave Egypt and start hitchhiking to Europe. Since then, I have lived with my mind focused on myself. It's not just a trip, it's a search for my identity. Everyone has something inside them to discover. The people in my town were sure that I was crazy when I decided to start walking to Europe. But the best thing in life is knowing yourself. My ideal since 1967 has always been the same: find yourself. I struggled with many things. I went through Lebanon and the war there, through Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Yugoslavia, before I got here. I've faced all sorts of different natural disasters; I slept in the ditches near the main road during the storm, I had many accidents and I also saw my friends die right next door, but my concentration never diminished. It's an adventure that's been twenty years now, but it will continue for the rest of my life.

Through these experiences, I have come to realize that the world is not worth much. The only thing that makes sense to me now, first and last, is God. I focus most when I pray with the beads. Then I can calm my feelings, calm myself down, and avoid going crazy. I believe that destiny determines life and it makes no sense to struggle so vehemently. Throughout my journey, I have seen hunger, war, death and poverty. Now through prayer I have begun to listen to myself more, I have returned to my core, I have gained concentration and I understand that the world has no value at all. Humans are born to be tested on this earth. Cars, televisions, clothes are all secondary. The main thing is that we were born to praise God. Everyone has their own destiny and we should be like lions in aphorism. The lion, when chasing a herd of antelope, can catch only one at a time. I try to do the same, unlike Westerners, who work frantically even though they can't eat more than their daily meals. If I live another twenty years, I will try to live and enjoy every moment, instead of killing myself to get more. If I lived as a free person independent of anyone, I could go slowly; And if I don't earn anything today, it doesn't matter. It means that this is my destiny. The next day I could make $100 million — or get terminally ill. As Jesus said, what good is there for a person if he gains the whole world and loses himself? I tried to conquer myself first; I don't mind if I lose the world.

I began this journey as a young bird newly hatched from an egg; Since then I have walked in freedom. Every person should gradually know himself and experience life in all its states. I was able to live peacefully in bed and find work in town, because there was a job available to me, but I decided to sleep with poverty, because one needs to go through suffering to be a true man. One does not become a man by marrying, or making love: being a true man means being responsible, knowing when to speak, knowing what to say, and knowing when to keep quiet.

Reyad spoke at length much longer than that and all of his remarks were consistent with the steadfast purpose of his mental search. Like the disheveledly dressed prophets who roamed the desert in search of enlightenment 2,000 years ago, this traveler turned everyday life into an explicitly psychedelic goal: to control his consciousness to establish a connection between his ego and God. What made you give up the "good things in life" and chase such a fantasy? Was he born with a hormonal imbalance? Or did his parents hurt him? These questions, questions that often interest psychologists, will not be our concern here. The point is not to explain what makes Reyad different, but to rely on the fact that Reyad has become, recognizing that he has transformed the living conditions that most people find intolerable into a enjoyable and meaningful existence. And this is more than many people living in comfort and luxury can get.


"When a man knows that in two weeks he will be hanged, it focuses his mind wonderfully," Samuel Johnson said in a speech whose arguments correspond to the cases just presented. A major event that deprives the central goal of life destroys the ego, forcing a person to use all his mental energy to erect a barrier around the remaining goals, protecting them from further attacks from fate; Or it will create a new, more urgent, clearer goal: overcoming the challenges born of failure. If one chooses the latter, tragedy is not necessarily a damage to the quality of life. Indeed, as in the cases of Lucio, Paolo and countless people like them, what seems like an objectively destructive event can enrich the lives of victims in many new and unexpected ways. Even the loss of one of the most basic human abilities, such as eyesight, does not mean that one's consciousness needs to become poorer; but what usually happens is the other way around. But what made the difference? How is it that with the same blow one person is destroyed while another will convert it into inner order?

Psychologists often study the answers to such questions under the heading of coping with stress. Obviously, certain events cause more psychological stress than others: For example, the death of a spouse is on a much higher hierarchy in terms of severity of stress than mortgaging a house, etc But a home mortgage is more stressful than getting a traffic ticket. But at the same time, it is clear that with the same stressful event, it can make one person completely miserable, while another has the courage to face it and make the most of it. The difference in how a person responds to these stressful events is called "coping ability" or "coping pattern."

In an effort to realign what explains an individual's ability to cope with stress, it is helpful to divide into three different types of resources. The first is the external support available and especially the network of social supports. For example, a serious illness will be mitigated to a certain extent if the person has good insurance and a family loves him. The second bulwark against stress includes the person's psychological resources, such as intelligence, education, and related personality factors. Moving to a new city and establishing new friendships is more stressful for an introvert than for an extrovert. And finally, the third type of resource relates to coping strategies that the person uses to cope with stress.

Of these three, the third is most relevant to our goals. External support by itself is not very effective in relieving stress. They tend to be helpful to those who can help themselves. And psychological resources are largely beyond our control. It's hard to become smarter, or superior to your natural level. But how we deal with stress is simultaneously the most important factor in determining the impact of stress and the most flexible resource that is most in our personal control.

There are two main ways that humans respond to stress. The positive response known as "mature defense" was proposed by George Vaillant, a psychologist who studied the successful and relatively failed lives of Harvard University graduates over a period of about thirty years; Others call this method "metabolic coping." According to these models, the negative response to stress would be "psychotic defense" or "regressive coping."

To describe the difference between them, let us take the example of Jim, a financial analyst who was just fired from his comfortable job at the age of forty. Job loss is listed as the peak in the severity of life stressors; Of course, its impact varies with the age and skills of the person, the amount of money he earns and the conditions of the labor market. Faced with this unhappy event, Jim is able to perform one of two opposite sequences of actions. He can withdraw himself, sleep buried, deny what happened and avoid thinking about it. He may also explode his despair by turning his back on family and friends, or cover it up by starting to drink more than usual. All of these actions will serve as examples of regressive countermeasures, or immature defenses.

Or Jim can stay calm by temporarily suppressing his feelings of anger and fear, analyzing the problem rationally, and reshaping his priorities. He can then redefine what the problem is so that he can solve it more easily — for example, by deciding to move to a place that needs his skills more, or by retraining himself and acquiring skills for a new job. If you choose this sequence of actions, you use mature defenses, or transformative coping methods.

Quite a few people rely on just one of these two separate strategies. It is very likely that Jim will get drunk on the first night; quarrels with his wife, who kept telling him for years that his job sucks; And then the next morning, or the week after, he would calm down and start thinking about what to do next. But people differ in their ability to use one strategy or another. The paralyzed person who becomes an archery champion or a blind chess master, who has experienced misfortunes so severe that they go beyond the scale of stressful life events, are examples of individuals who have mastered transformative coping methods. However, others, when faced with much milder levels of stress, may give up and react by reducing the complexity of their lives permanently.

The ability to take misfortune and create something good out of it is an extremely rare gift. Those who possess this gift are called "survivors" and are said to have "self-healing abilities" or "courage." No matter what we call them, they are generally understandable that they are rare people who have overcome extreme hardships and overcome obstacles that discourage most people. In fact, when ordinary people are asked to give the names of the individuals they admire the most and explain why these people are admired, courage and the ability to overcome adversity are qualities that are often cited as reasons for that admiration. As Francis Bacon emphasized, quoted from the speech of the stoic philosopher Seneca: "Man desires good from prosperity, but admires the good that comes from adversity."

In one of our studies, the list of admirable individuals included an elderly woman, who was always cheerful and willing to listen to the troubles of others, despite the fact that she was paralyzed; a summer camp mentor for teenagers, who was very calm and successfully tried to rescue a missing swimmer that panicked everyone; a female manager who, despite ridicule and gender pressures, prevailed in a difficult work environment; and Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who a century ago insisted that many mothers' lives would be saved in childbirth if obstetricians washed their hands, even though the rest ignored and mocked him. These and hundreds of others mentioned are respected for the same reason: They stand firmly by their beliefs and don't let anything contrary to them discourage them. They had courage, or what in earlier times was known simply as "virtue" — a term drawn from the Latin word vir, meaning man.

Of course, it makes sense that people should emulate this quality more than any other. Of all the virtues we can learn, none is more useful, more essential for survival, and more capable of improving the quality of life than the ability to turn adversity into a challenge of enjoyment. Admiring this quality means that we pay attention to those who embody it and accordingly we have the opportunity to follow their example if the need arises. It is for this reason that admiration for courage itself implies the capacity for positive adaptation; Such people may be better prepared to avoid the blows of misfortune.

But simply calling the ability to deceive chaos "transformative coping" and those who are good at it "courageous" is not enough to justify this remarkable gift. Like a character in Molière's work, who says that sleep is created by "the power of sleeping pills," we fail to clarify problems if we attribute effective coping to the virtue of courage. What we need is not just names and descriptions, but an understanding of how the process unfolds. Unfortunately, our ignorance in this is still enormous.


However, it is relatively clear that the ability to create order out of chaos is not unique to psychological processes. In fact, from some evolutionary perspectives, complex life forms depend on their ability to extract energy from the entropy state—to regenerate attrition into structured order. Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine calls physical systems that harness energy, which would otherwise be scattered and lost in random motion, "dissipative structures." For example, our planet's entire plant kingdom is a giant dissipative structure because it absorbs light, which is normally just a useless byproduct of the sun's combustion. Plants have found a way to convert this wasted energy into the basic building blocks from which flowers, leaves, fruits, bark and wood are formed. And because without plants there would be no animals, all life on this earth was eventually produced by dissipated structures that captured chaos and shaped it into a more complex order.

Humans have also made use of wasted energy to serve their goals. The first major technical invention, fire, is a prime example. Initially, the fires started randomly: volcanoes, lightning, and natural combustion burned fuel in many places, and the energy of decomposing wood was dispersed aimlessly. Having learned how to control fire, humans use the dissipated energy to heat their caves, cook food, and eventually to melt and forge items from metal. Steam, electricity, fuel and nuclear fusion engines are based on the same principle: take advantage of energy sources that, if not utilized, would be lost or would go against our goals. If humans hadn't learned various tricks to convert the power of chaos into something usable, we wouldn't have survived as successfully as we did.

As has been seen, our spirit operates on the same principles. The integrity of the ego depends on the ability to take destructive or neutral facts and turn them into positive forces. Being fired from a job can be a godsend, if the person seizes the opportunity to look for something else that better aligns with their aspirations to do. In the life of every human being, the likelihood of only good things happening is extremely slim. The likelihood that our aspirations will always come true is too low, to the point of negligibility. Sooner or later, people will face events that contradict their goals: disappointing things, serious illness, financial upheaval, and even inevitable death. Each of these types of events is negative feedback that creates chaos in the mind. Each of these events threatens the ego and impairs its functioning. If the injury is severe enough, one may lose the ability to focus on the necessary goals. And if that happens, the ego is no longer in control. If the impairment is severe, consciousness becomes chaotic and they "lose their reason" – then the various symptoms of mental illness will take over. In less severe cases, the endangered ego survives, but stops growing; Cowering under the onslaught, retreating behind multiple layers of defenses and living a tasteless life in a constant state of disbelief.

It is for this reason that courage, resilience, perseverance, and mature defenses, or transformative coping—dissipative structures of the mind—are essential. Without them, we will endure the chaotic bombardment of scattered psychological "meteorites". On the other hand, if we develop such positive strategies, most of the most negative events can be at least neutralized and can even be used as challenges that make the ego stronger and more complex.

These metabolic skills usually develop in late adolescence. Children or early adolescents still rely largely on supportive social networks to reduce shocks to help them avoid mistakes. When a blow hits a teenager — even with something as mundane as a bad grade, a pimple on his chin, or a friend ignoring them at school — it seems to them that the whole world is over and they have no purpose in the world. Positive feedback from others in just a few minutes can lift their mood; A smile, a phone call, a good song grabs their attention, distracts them from their worries and restores order in their minds. We learned from the Experiential Sampling Method study that, on average, a healthy teenager maintains a depressed state for about half an hour. (The average adult takes twice as long to recover from a bad mood.)

However, over the next few years — by the time they're seventeen or eighteen — adolescents are generally able to put negative events in a farther and broader perspective and they are no longer ruined by things that don't turn out as they expected. At this age, most people begin to have the ability to control consciousness. In part, this ability is the product of a certain stage: having been frustrated and having survived despair, older adolescents learn that a situation may not be as bad as it seems at the time it takes place. In part, they know that others have gone through similar problems and they can solve them. Recognizing that human suffering is a common ground contributes an important panorama to the self-centered way of young people.

A young person reaches the pinnacle of developing coping skills when they acquire a sufficiently strong sense of self, based on chosen goals as individuals, that no external disappointment can completely destroy who they are. For some, strength stems from a goal that involves identification with family, country, religion, or ideology. For others, it depends on mastery of a system of harmonious symbols, such as art, music, or physics. Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young Indian mathematical genius, devoted so much of his mental energy to arithmetic theory that poverty, disease, pain and even death were coming, no matter how exhausting, they had no chance to distract his mind from calculations – in fact, They just motivated him to be more creative. On his deathbed, he was constantly in awe of the beauty of the equations he was discovering and the serenity of his mind that reflected the order of the symbols he used.

Why do some people get weaker from stress, while others gain strength from it? Basically, the answer is simple: those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new, controllable flow activity will be able to find joy on their own and emerge stronger from challenges. There are three main steps that seem to be associated with such transitions:

1. Unconscious confidence. As Richard Logan has found in his research on individuals who have survived extreme physical ordeals—polar explorers wandering alone in the Arctic, fellow concentration camp prisoners—there is a common attitude often seen in such people is an absolute belief that their fate is in their hands. They do not doubt whether their resources will be enough for them to decide their own destiny. In this sense, one could say that they are confident and, at the same time, their ego seems strangely absent: they are not self-centered; In particular, their mental energy is not so much directed at dominating their environment as on finding ways to operate it harmoniously.

This attitude occurs when a person no longer perceives himself in a state of opposition to the environment, as an individual insists that his goals, his intentions take precedence over anything else. Instead, he feels part of whatever is going on around him and does his best to fulfill his shoulders in the system he has to operate. Paradoxically, this sense of humility—the realization that one's goals may depend on a larger existence and that to succeed, one must play by rules that differ from what they like — is a sign of the qualities of strong people.

To take this mundane but fairly common example, suppose that on a cold morning, you are rushing to the office but when you try to fix the engine, the car engine does not start. In such situations, many people become so obsessed with their goal — getting to the office — that they can't come up with any other plans. They'll probably curse the car, twist the keys more frantically, punch the dashboard in irritation — things that are often in vain. Ego involvement prevented them from effectively dealing with frustration and prevented them from realizing their goals. A more sensible approach would be to realize that rushing down the street makes no difference to the car. The car follows its own rules and the only way to get it moving is to reconsider it. If you don't know what the problem with the car starter is, then it makes more sense to call a taxi or come up with an alternative goal: cancel the appointment and instead find something more useful to do at home.

Basically, to achieve this level of confidence, one must believe in oneself, in one's circumstances and one's place in that situation. A good pilot knows her skills, has confidence in the aircraft she is flying, and understands what actions are needed in the event of a storm, or when the propeller freezes. That's why she's confident in her ability to cope with any weather conditions that may arise — not because she'll force the plane to her liking, but because she'll be instrumental in helping the plane's characteristics match the air conditions. As such, she is an indispensable link to aircraft safety, but it is only as a link – a catalyst, a component of an aircraft-human system, obeying the rules of that system – so that she can achieve her goals.

2. Focus your attention on the world. It is difficult to pay attention to the environment when attention is focused primarily inward, as long as most of the mental energy is absorbed by the ego's preoccupations and desires. People who know how to turn stress into an indulgent challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. They don't use all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe are their own needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead, their attention is always alert, constantly processing the information around them. The focus is still set by an individual's goals, but it extends enough for him to notice and adapt to external events even if they are not directly related to what he aspires to achieve.

An open attitude makes it possible for an individual to be objective, to be aware of alternative possibilities, to be able to feel part of the world around him. This holistic connection to the environment is evident by rock climber Yvon Chouinard, who recounts one of his climbs to the terrifying El Capitan peak in Yosemite National Park: "Each individual crystal in the granite stands out strongly. Clouds of different shapes constantly attract our attention. Then, for the first time, we noticed tiny bugs lying all over the cliffs, so small that they were barely recognizable. I started watching a bug for fifteen minutes, watching it move and admiring its brilliant red glow. How can one feel so depressed when there are so many good things to look at and feel! This fusion with this joy-filled environment around us, this super insight awareness, gives us a feeling we haven't had in years."

Achieving this integration with an individual's surroundings is not only an important component of an enjoyable flow experience, but also a central mechanism for managing adversity. First, when attention is no longer focused on the ego, frustration with the aspirations of the individual will have less chance of disrupting the order of consciousness. There is the experience of mental entropy, where one has had to focus on internal disorders; But if the person instead focuses on what's going on around him, the destructive effects of stress will be lessened. Second, those who put their attention completely immersed in the environment become part of it – this person participates in the system by connecting himself to the environment through mental energy. This results in this person being able to understand the characteristics of the system so that he can find ways to better adapt to a difficult situation.

Again, going back to the example of the car that failed to start: if your attention is completely drawn to the goal of arriving at the office on time, your mind will likely be flooded with images of what would happen if you were late and spiteful thoughts about your uncooperative car. Then you won't be able to pay attention to what the car is trying to tell you: that the engine is flooded or that the battery is drained. Similarly, a pilot who spends too much energy contemplating what he wants the aircraft to do can cause him or her to miss out on information that would help him fly the plane safely. The feeling of complete openness to the environment is very meticulously described by Charles Lindbergh, who experienced it during his journey to usher in a new era when alone crossing the Atlantic:

My cockpit was quite small and the walls around me were thin: but inside this cocoon I felt safe, despite my mental guesses. I gradually became aware of the details of my cockpit – the tools, the pushers, and the corners of the structure. Everything begins to take on a new value. I studied welds on pipes (cold steel ripples that transmit hundreds of kilograms of invisible stress), a dot of paint on the surface of the altimemeter, the battery of the fuel valve — all that, things I hadn't paid attention to before, now it's very clear and important... I may be flying a complex plane, crossing space, but in this cockpit I am surrounded by simplicity and thoughts that are released over time.

A former colleague of mine, G., once told a horrific story from his years in the air force, one that sheds light on how dangerous excessive concern for safety can be, when it requires so much attention that we don't remember the rest of reality. During the Korean War, G.'s unit participated in parachute training. One day, the group was preparing for a jump when they discovered that there were not enough proper parachutes for everyone and one of the right-handers was forced to use a parachute intended for left-handed people. "It's just like the others," the logistics sergeant assured him, "but the umbrella cord hangs to the left of the shirt. You can parachute with both hands, but it's easier to do with your left." The team boarded the plane, reached an altitude of nearly 2,500 meters and above the target area, jumping off one by one. Everything went quite well, except for one: his parachute did not open, he fell straight down and died in the desert below.

G. was part of the investigation team sent to determine why the parachute failed to deploy. The deceased soldier was the one assigned to the left-handed parachute key. The part of his uniform on the right side of his chest — where the parachute strap of a regular parachute should have been — had been completely ripped off; Even the flesh on his chest was etched with long cuts by his right hand stained with blood. A few centimeters to the left is the parachute wire, which seems to have not been touched yet. There was no problem with the parachute. The problem was that while falling into that terrible eternity, the man stuck with the thought that in order to open the parachute he had to find a place to unfasten it in a familiar location. His fear was so great that it blinded him to the fact that safety lay precisely at his fingers.

In a dangerous situation, it's perfectly natural to mobilize mental energy, pull it inward, and use it as a defense against a threat. But this instinctive response often compromises the ability to cope. It exacerbates the experience of inner turmoil, reduces the flexibility of reactions, and perhaps worse than anything else, it isolates the person from the rest of the world, leaving him alone with his own frustrations. On the other hand, if the person continues to connect with what is going on, new possibilities may emerge, resulting in new responses being able to be given, and the person is less likely to be completely excluded from the flow of life.

3. The discovery of new solutions. Basically, there are two ways to deal with a situation that generates mental entropy. One is to focus attention on obstacles to achieving an individual's goals and remove them, thereby restoring harmony in consciousness. This is a direct approach. Another way is to focus on the entire situation, including the person himself, to find out if alternative goals are not more appropriate and accordingly other solutions are feasible.

For example, let's assume that Phil, who is about to be promoted to vice president in his company, perceives that the appointment will likely go to a colleague who gets along better with the CEO than himself. At this point, he has two basic options: find a way to change the CEO's mind about who is better suited for the job (the first approach), or consider other goals, such as moving to another part of the company, changing careers entirely, etc. or reduce his career goals and invest his energy in his family, community, or personal development (second approach). There is no absolute "better" solution; what matters is whether it aligns with Phil's overall goals and whether it helps him maximize the joy in his life.

No matter what solution Phil chooses, if Phil puts too much emphasis on himself, his needs and his desires, he will get into trouble as soon as things don't go his way. He won't have enough attention available to find realistic options and instead of looking for exciting new challenges, he will be surrounded by intense threats.

Almost every situation we encounter in life presents us with possibilities for growth. As we have seen, even terrible adversities such as blindness or limb paralysis can turn into conditions for greater pleasure and complexity. Even the approach to death itself can contribute to creating harmony in consciousness instead of despair.

But these transformations require a willingness to see unexpected opportunities. Most of us are so rigidly fixed in the ruts defined by genetic programming and social conditioning that we ignore the options of any other sequence of actions. It's okay to live solely by genetic and social instructions as long as everything goes smoothly. But at the moment when social and biological goals frustrate us — which are inevitable in the long run — an individual must set new goals and create a new flow activity for himself, otherwise he will waste his energy on inner chaos.

But how can someone begin to discover alternative strategies? Basically the answer is quite simple: if a person operates with unconscious confidence, keeps openness to the environment and sticks with it, then a solution is likely to emerge. The process of discovering new goals in life in many aspects is similar to an artist traveling around creating unique works of art. While a traditional artist starts painting a canvas, she knows what she wants to paint and keeps her original intention until the work is completed, an original artist trained with similar techniques will start with a deep but undefined sense of purpose in mind. This person constantly adjusts the painting in response to the unforeseen colors and shapes that appear on the canvas and then the finished work will not be the same as what she started. If the artist is ready to respond to her inner feelings, always perceive what she likes and dislikes, and also pay attention to what is happening on the canvas, then a beautiful picture will definitely be born. On the other hand, if she clings to a preconceived notion of what the painting should look like, without responding to the possibilities suggested by the shapes being developed before her, the painting can be quite cliché.

We all start with a predetermined idea of what we want in life. This includes basic needs programmed by genetics to ensure survival—the need for food, comfort, sexuality, superiority over other species. They also include the aspirations that our distinctive culture has inculcated in each of us – slim physique, wealth, education and well-liked. If we pursue these goals and get lucky, we can be an ideal physical clone and social figure that represents our historical times and places. But is this the best use of our mental energy? And what if we can't achieve these results? We will never recognize other possibilities unless, like the artist who meticulously observes what goes on on canvas, we pay attention to what is happening around us and judge events on the basis of their direct impact on our emotions rather than judging them solely predetermined ideas. If we do, we may discover that, contrary to what we have been led to believe, helping others is more satisfying than defeating them, or that chatting with a two-year-old is more enjoyable than playing golf with the company president.


In this chapter, we have shown time and time again that external pressures do not determine whether adversity can be translated into enjoyment. A person who is healthy, wealthy, strong and powerful has no superiority in controlling his consciousness over a sick, poor, weak and oppressed person. The difference between someone who enjoys life and someone who is buried by life is the result of a combination of external forces and how people see them—that is, whether one views challenges as dangers or opportunities for action.

The "self-purposed self" is the self that easily recognizes and turns potential threats into enjoyable challenges and thus maintains inner harmony. A person who is never bored, rarely anxious, focuses his mind on what's going on, and is in a state of flow most of the time can be considered to have a purposeful ego. In theory, the word means "the self has independent goals" and it implies that such an individual has relatively few goals that are not rooted within their ego. For most people, goals are directly shaped by physiological needs and social norms, and for that reason their origins lie outside the self. For a person with a self-purpose, basic goals come from consciously evaluated experience and therefore originate in the self.

The ego has the purpose of transforming the potential experience of entropy into flow. Therefore, the laws of developing such an ego are quite simple and they are derived directly from the flow model. Briefly, they can be summarized as follows:

1. Set goals. To be able to experience flow, an individual must have clear goals to strive for. A person with a purposeful ego learns to make choices — from lifelong commitments, like getting married and settling down, to casual decisions like what to do on the weekends or how to spend time waiting in the dental office — without much fuss or panic.

Choosing a goal involves an awareness of the challenges. If I decide to learn tennis, then accordingly I will have to learn serve, how to hit a backhand and a forehand, how to develop my patience and reflexes. Or, the cause-and-effect sequence can be reversed to: because I love hitting the ball over the net, I can develop the goal of learning how to play tennis. Either way, goals and challenges are mutually inclusive.

As soon as the goal and challenge define an action system, they will in turn suggest the skills needed to operate within that system. If I decide to quit my job and become a resort owner, then I should then study hotel management, finance, business locations, etc. Of course, sequentiality can also start with reverse order: what I perceive in terms of my skills can lead to the development of a specific goal formed based on those strengths – I may decide to become a resort operator because I see myself as having the right competencies for he.

And to develop skills, people need to pay attention to the outcome of their actions — to monitor feedback. To become a resort operator, I had to understand exactly what the bank lending me money was thinking about my business plan. I need to know which features of my business will appeal to customers and which they don't like. Without constantly paying attention to feedback, I would soon be removed from the system of actions, stopped developing skills, and became less effective.

One of the fundamental differences between a person with a purposeful ego and a person without it is that a person with a purposeful ego knows that they are the one who chooses the goal they are pursuing, whatever it is. What this person does is not accidental, nor is it a consequence of external forces. This fact leads to two seemingly contradictory results. On the one hand, gaining a sense of mastery over one's decisions, one will devote oneself to one's goals more strongly. The actions of this person are reliable and internally controlled. On the other hand, knowing that the choice is one's own, one can more easily adjust one's goals whenever the reasons for pursuing them no longer make sense. In this respect, one's behavior is more consistent and also more flexible.

2. Immerse yourself in the activity. After choosing an action system, a person with a purposeful personality gradually becomes more and more deeply attached to what he or she is doing, whatever it is. Whether it's flying a nonstop flight around the world or washing dishes after dinner, this person's attention is focused on the task at hand.

To do so successfully, one must learn to balance the opportunities for action with the skills one possesses. Some people start with false expectations, like trying to save the world or becoming millionaires before their twenties. When their hopes are dashed, most become discouraged and their egos wither as they lose the mental energy that was spent on fruitless efforts. At another extreme, many people go away because they no longer believe in their potential. They choose the safety of trivial goals and stop the development of complexity to the lowest possible level. To achieve coherence with the system of action, one must find a relative fit between the requirements of the environment and their ability to act.

For example, suppose a person walks into a room full of people and decides to "join in the fun," that is, get to know as many people as possible while having a good time. If the person lacks a purposeful ego, he probably cannot initiate an interaction on his own and cower into a corner, hoping that someone will notice him. Or he may try to be overly warm and quick, making people lose interest with inappropriate and superficial friendliness. None of those strategies will succeed or are likely to create a good time. A person of self-righteous character, from the moment he enters the room, will divert his attention from himself and put it on the party – into the "system of actions" he wishes to join. He would observe the guests, try to guess which of them might have the same interests and personalities that suited him, and then start chatting with the person about topics he thought they would both agree on. If the feedback is negative — if the conversation becomes boring, or beyond the other person's comprehension — he will try talking about a different topic or talking to another person. Only when a person's actions are commensurate with the opportunities of the system of action does he truly become attached to it.

The ability to concentrate makes it super easy to put your mind to one thing. People with attention disorder, who can't stop their minds from wandering, will always feel left out of the flow of life. They are under the control of any scattered stimuli that happen to pass by. Being distracted unintentionally is the surest sign that a person is losing control. And how little is the effort people put into improving their attention control. If reading a book seems too difficult, then instead of increasing our concentration, we tend to put it aside and instead turn on the television, which not only needs very little attention but in fact tends to disperse little control of attention with a twisted fashion. By the interruption of advertising and content, it is generally quite meaningless.

3. Pay attention to what's going on. Concentration will lead to putting your whole mind to one thing, which can only be sustained by constant inputs of attention. These athletes are aware that during a race, even momentary errors can lead to a complete failure. A heavyweight champion can be defeated if he doesn't see his opponent's bottom-up hook punch. The basketball player will not be able to throw the ball into the basket if he allows himself to be distracted by the cheers of the crowd. Such pitfalls threaten anyone involved in a complex system: to be in it, he must constantly invest mental energy. Parents who don't listen closely to their children are ruining interaction, distracted lawyers can lose whole cases, and absent-minded surgeons can kill a patient.

Having a purposeful ego means being able to maintain focus on one thing. Being overly self-conscious (worrying about what others see of you)—which is the most common source of distraction—is not a problem for such a self-serving person. Instead of worrying about how they are doing, what they look like on the outside, people with goals on their own will wholeheartedly pursue their goals. In some cases, it is the depth of attention that pushes anxiety about the outside view out of awareness, while sometimes the opposite direction takes place: it is the lack of self-awareness that makes deep attention possible. The elements of personality have intrinsic purpose related to each other by the links of reciprocal causality. It doesn't matter where an individual starts — like whether the individual chooses goals first, then develops skills, cultivates concentration, or eliminates excessive self-awareness. One can start from anywhere, because once the flow experience starts moving, other elements are a lot easier to achieve.

A person who pays attention to an interaction instead of worrying about the ego will have a paradoxical result. This person no longer feels like a separate individual, and their ego becomes stronger. Purposeful individuals grow beyond personal limitations by investing mental energy in the systems to which they belong. It is through this fusion of the individual and the system that the ego emerges at a higher level of complexity. This is why love and loss are better than never love.

The ego of someone who views things from a selfish perspective may be more solid, but it is certainly a poorer ego than that of someone who is willing to commit and pay attention and of someone who is willing to pay attention to what's going on because of the interaction itself rather than purely self-interest.

During the celebration of the inauguration of Chicago's giant open-air Picasso sculpture monument in the plaza across City Hall, I happened to be standing next to a personal injury lawyer I knew. As the inaugural speech progressed, I noticed a heightened focus on his facial expressions and his lips moving. When asked what he was thinking, he replied that he was trying to estimate how much the city would have to pay to settle litigation involving children injured while climbing the statue.

Was this lawyer fortunate because he was able to convert everything he saw into a professional subject that his skills could master and thus always live in flow? Or is he depriving himself of the opportunity to grow by paying attention only to what he finds familiar and ignoring the social, civic and aesthetic aspects of the event? Perhaps both interpretations are correct. However, in the long run, looking at the world from a small window created by an individual's ego will always have limits. Even the most respected physicist, artist, or politician becomes an empty boring person and no longer wants to enjoy life if all he is interested in is his limited role in the universe.

4. Learn to enjoy the instant experience. The result of possessing a purposeful self — of learning how to set goals, developing skills, being responsive to feedback, focusing and paying attention — is that people can enjoy life even when objective circumstances are brutal and bad. Being mind-controlled means that whatever happens can be a source of joy. Feeling a breeze on a hot day, seeing clouds reflecting off the glass of a tall building, handling a business transaction, watching a child play with a puppy or drinking a glass of water can all be seen as deeply satisfying experiences that enrich our lives.

However, achieving this control requires determination and discipline. The optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic, leisurely approach to life. A relaxed, liberal attitude is not an effective defense against chaos. As we have seen from the first pages of this book, in order to be able to convert from random events to flow experiences, one must develop skills that can enhance their competence, which makes a person better than they were before. The flow brings individuals to creativity and outstanding achievements. The necessity of developing subtle skills to prolong pleasure is what lies behind the cultural revolution. It motivates both individuals and cultures to change into more complex entities. The rewards of creating order in experience will provide the energy that drives revolution — they pave the way for the generation of descendants we have dimly envisioned, more complex and wiser than we are, who will soon take our place.

But to change all existence into a flow experience, it is not enough simply to learn to control the state of consciousness at each moment. There also needs to be a broad range of goals to make everyday events more meaningful. If an individual moves from one flow activity to another without any order of connection, it will be difficult for him or her to look back at years and find meaning in what happened. Creating harmony in whatever an individual does is the ultimate task that the theory of flow experience offers to those who desire to achieve optimal experience; It is a task that involves transforming the whole life into a flow activity, with unifying goals that will constantly provide purpose for that individual.

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