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Education Bookcast

Mar 14, 2016

What's the best kind of experience you have? When do you feel happiest? Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced me-HIGH CHEEK-sent-me-HIGH) shows us that the conditions for optimal experience are also those of when we have our greatest learning.

Flow, a psychology term coined by the author, refers to the feeling of utter concentration and complete absorption in what one is doing, when it feels as though the world has melted away and all that there is is this moment. Rock climbers often experience flow - they are completely in the present, and the only thing that they can think of is what to do next on the rock face, their time horizon of thought narrowing to less than five minutes from now. Experienced chess players also get the feeling that the chess board is its own universe, and that nothing else exists during a game, claiming things like "the ceiling could have caved in while we were playing, and if it didn't hit us, we wouldn't have even noticed".

Csíkszentmihályi developed his own psychological research method known as experience sampling in order to study the topic of optimal experience. With the help of a pager, participants were asked to record what they were doing and how they felt at random times in the day. This is how he discovered that many leisure activities, such as watching TV and "chilling out", actually made people feel worse, and that people felt best when they were concentrating on doing something challenging. 

What kind of activities can produce flow? It seems that, in principle, any activity can do, but the author refers us to some that seem to do so more than others. Cooking, farming, surgery, yoga, and reading are some of the examples given, but a large class of activities seem designed specifically to create flow, and those are sports and games. An important reason why we enjoy these is that they demand our concentration on a clear goal.

The author also considers what kinds of people are more likely to experience flow. Although, by the time of the publication of this book, not much research had been done on this question, it seems that there are certain factors in upbringing that can affect a person's propensity to experience flow, and a related tendency to seek out activities that require effort can feel like hard work. The most important factors appear to be (1) the stability and consistency of the home environment, and (2) the level of intellectual stimulation at home (those who have more of this are more likely to become inclined to intellectual pursuits throughout their life, in work and in leisure).

As mentioned above, an interesting feature of the conditions that create flow is that they are also very good conditions for learning. A clear goal, with quality feedback, in a challenging situation that puts you at the edge of your capabilities, are likely to produce both high levels of flow and of learning. As a result, we can look to Flow for ideas both on how to live happier, and on how to learn better.

Enjoy the episode.