Csikszentmihalyi's thinking about flow started with his observation of a sculptor. While the sculptor worked on a statue, he was totally absorbed in the project. But once the statue was finished, the sculptor lost interest in it, set it aside, and apparently forgot about it.
We are accustommed to seeing people absorbed in activities that, in terms of practical utility, do not deserve that level of interest. But Csikszentmihalyi treated the sculptor like a puzzle -- why was the sculptor working on the statue, with such interest?
This sculptor was paid for his completed statues, but it was not enough money to justify the enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm poured into his sculpting. Furthermore, if the sculptor was working for money, he should have lost interest after the statue was sold, not after it was completed. The sculptor could not have been working solely for a sense of accomplishment. If he was, he would have paid more attention to the statue after it was completed, because that is when the sense of accomplishment would have occurred. The sculptor also was not working solely for the aesthetic enjoyment produced by a beautiful statue. If he was, he wouldn't have put the statue in the corner. As Csikszentmihalyi concluded, there must have been something in the process of sculpting that was enjoyable.
Csikszentmihalyi's research into flow confirmed this. When people were performing at their best, they reported enjoyment of the process. For example, a composer said, "One doesn't do it [composing] for money. One does it for, perhaps, the satisfaction it gives. I think the great composers, all the great artists, work for themselves.... They primarily satisfy themselves." A rock climber said, "The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of the rock glad it's over but really wishing it would go forever."
Types of Enjoyment
There are two different kinds of enjoyment. One type of enjoyment is the opposite of sadness -- people are happy when outcomes are good and sad when outcomes are bad. Think of this as the "winning-getting happiness" -- people are happy win they win a game or get what they want.
Flow helps with this kind of enjoyment. If you flow at a sport or game, you are more likely to win; if you flow at a craft or art, you are more likely to produce something good.
The second type of happiness is the opposite of being bored -- people are happy when they are doing something interesting. So this is the "interesting-happiness". While the winning-getting happiness is an enjoyment of outcome, the interesting-happiness is an enjoyment of process. So the sculptor's enjoyment of the process had to be interest-enjoyment.
For example, you can cook for the goal of eating a good meal or getting compliments from your guests. But you can also enjoy the process of cooking. You can play tennis and enjoy winning a point or the match, but you can also enjoy the process of playing tennis. The rock climber had the goal of getting to the top of the rock, and he was happy he succeeded. But when he got to the top of the rock, the interesting process of climbing was over. He regretted that -- he wished the climb could go on forever.
Csikszentmihalyi was talking about the interest-enjoyment when he said flow was enjoyable. In other words, in addition to whatever enjoyment is produced by good outcomes when you flow, there is the interest-enjoyment in the process of flow. I admit, the process of flow usually isn't fun for me when the outcome isn't good. But when the outcome is good -- especially when I have been creative or clever -- the process of flow is enjoyable, over and above whatever good outcome has occurred.
I think that when your Inferential System solves a problem, you experience interest-enjoyment. Most people don't think of tennis as an exercise in problem solving. But I do. When the ball is hit to you, you have the problem of getting to the ball, you have the problem of returning it across the net, and you have the problem of trying to hit the ball in a way that your opponent is unlikely to be able to hit the ball back. Every situation is different, and you spend the entire tennis game solving problems.
And of course, it is not just tennis. All sports are exercises in problem-solving. Same for arts and crafts. For example, the composer has the problem of constructing an interesting or enjoyable composition; the musician has the problem of producing an interesting or enjoyable experience for the audience.
There seems to be no interest-enjoyment when you don't succeed. So, for example, there is no interest-enjoyment in the process of hitting the ball into the net (unless that is better than what you expected to do). There is no interest-enjoyment when you solve the problem without using your Inferential System. There is also no interest-enjoyment when the problem is too easy. I think that interest-enjoyment occurs only when your Inferential System is not sure of succeeding.
That leaves several ways that you can not enjoy the process of playing tennis. If your opponent is too good, you could enjoy partial success, but you also might just experience failure and no enjoyment. If your opponent is not good enough, you could still enjoy playing your best, but you also might fall into habit, which doesn't use your Inferential System, and then you will just experience boredom. If you just follow instructions, you won't experience interest.
So there are a lot of reasons why your tennis might not be interesting. None of them are insurmountable -- at least in theory, with the right attitude you can always enjoy playing tennis. But the fact remains that without knowing exactly what this right attitude is, you are more likely to enjoy the process of playing tennis when you are playing someone of about the same ability, you want very much to win, and you do not know any rules for playing tennis well.
For example, when you are skiing, your problem is to get down the ski slope without falling. Skiing down a slope that is too easy for you probably will not be enjoyable. You have already learned how to solve the problems on the easy slope. If the slope is too difficult, you won't solve the problems and you won't learn anything. Also, you will fall, which is an unhappy outcome. But successfully skiing down a challenging slope will be interesting. And when you do that, you are improving your skills and learning to be a better skier.
When I said "problem", you thought about something like a math problem; I am the only one who thinks of skiing as an exercise in problem-solving. But every enjoyable flow activity has problems for you to solve, and every enjoyable flow activity has learning that occurs when you solve the problem. In tennis, you have the problem of getting the ball over the net and into your opponent's court, and you can make the problem harder by trying to score a point.
We enjoy things for a reason -- our enjoyments have adaptive value, or at least had adaptive value for our cave-man ancestors. For example, it is enjoyable to eat because food has survival value. But why is it enjoyable to play tennis? What is the survival value in that?
Our cave-man ancestors did not have to play tennis. But they did have to use their Inferential System, and it was important for their Inferential System to learn. And it is important for your Inferential System to learn. But your Inferential System is unconscious. So how do you know if it is learning? You don't, at least not directly. All you know is that sometimes you enjoy yourself. So you engage in activities that you enjoy. When you do that, your Inferential System learns.
So the enjoyment of process is adaptive -- it causes your Inferential System to learn. And going the other way, you can know when your Inferential System is learning because the task will be interesting.
Integrating Enjoyment and Effectiveness
Our culture dichotomizes of work and play: Trying to have fun is thought to interfere with being effective. Meanwhile, having an important goal to accomplish is thought to interfere with having fun.
Flow puts the lie to this dichotomy -- flowing is effective yet the process of flowing is enjoyable. In fact, one way to flow is to do what you want. And as noted above, interest enjoyment is a sign that the Inferential System is learning. Roughly, I want my students working hard and enjoying themselves, and if they aren't doing both, I worry that learning isn't occurring.
You can have the goal of accomplishing something worthwhile and still have the goal of enjoying yourself. I once saw the Dali Lama speak. The talk was serious -- the Dali Lama had important things he wanted to communicate to a large audience. Nonetheless, he was always open to the opportunity to enjoy himself. But flow not only allows the goals of both enjoyment and effectiveness, it fuses them together. You get both when you flow. Consider the story from the last chapter of the student who set aside a day to enjoy herself flowing. She thought she was going to take the train to New York City and have a fun day. She discovered instead that she wanted to work. She still had a fun day, but it turned into a productive day too.
Or consider the simple act of cutting a chicken leg off of a chicken. The goal isn't enjoyment; the goal is to get the chicken leg off of the chicken. But ever since I read that carving meat can be a flow activity, I have approached the task of cutting the leg off of a chicken as an artisan. I am flowing. I getting in touch with my inner "It". I am emptying my mind and making the perfect cut that effortlessly slices the leg from the thigh. Okay, I am trying to sound silly. But the fact remains, I enjoy the challenge of cutting the chicken leg off of the chicken. Meanwhile, I think I am more effective for taking that attitude.
The Joy of Doing What You Want
The first chapter explained one reason why flow is enjoyable -- flow is effective, so it increases your winning-getting enjoyment. That might not work in the long run, as you adapt to increased winning and success, but there is a second reason why flow is enjoyable, as explained in this chapter -- flow increases your interest-enjoyment in the process.
But there is a third reason why flow is enjoyable -- it's just enjoyable to do what you want. For example, once I was at the beach and packing up my things to leave, when I found a button on the grass. I had the following argument with myself:
Bob #1: I want to bring home this button.
Bob #2: What use would that button ever be? You shouldn't take it home.
Bob #1: Perhaps this button could be used to repair one of my shirts if a button was missing.
Bob #2: If you lost a button from a shirt, this button probably wouldn't match.
Bob #1: An unmatched button is better than no button.
Bob #2: If you brought the button home and needed it, you probably wouldn't be able to find it.
Bob #2 had temporarily won the argument -- Bob #1 could not think of any good reason to take the button home.
Then I realized: If I want to take the button home, I should take the button home. The button did no harm -- how much extra weight is one button? What difference did it make if I never used it? On the other hand, it was enjoyable to do what I wanted. So I took it home and I was happy to take it home. I have never regretted this decision, even though I never used the button. I still have a warm feeling for the button, though of course I have no idea where to find it.
In contrast, not doing what you want is irritating, presumably because you are fighting with your Inferential System -- it wants to do one thing, and you want to do another. When your Inferential System wants to do something and you aren't doing it, you will not experience harmony. Of course, you will also be ignoring your Inferential System rather than using it, which isn't good.
One student told about searching for bikes and finally figuring out what bike she should buy. Then she bought a different bike -- she bought the bike she wanted. It was a more expensive bike. But she liked the bike she bought. Whenever she went for a bike ride, she was using a bike that she liked, and biking became her favorite hobby. When she thought about it afterward, she was confident she had made the best choice of what bike to ride. And of course, if she had bought the cheaper bike, and then not ridden it as much because she didn't like it, it wouldn't have been a good deal.
It is not always best to trust your Inferential System. The point for now is simply that it is enjoyable to follow your Inferential System and do what you want, and that is the third reason for the enjoyment in flow.
Flow is an enjoyable process. It is fun to effectively use your Inferential System, and it is irritating not to do what you want. So flow because it is effective and