The London Review bookshop is wonderful and not just because the adjoining café serves exceedingly good food. It’s wonderfulness lies in the amazing selection of books that it stocks. And if you can tear yourself away from the glorious history selection on the ground floor and venture below stairs you will find a marvellous range of psychology and counselling books. I’m a poorer woman since my last visit but what I lost in money I’m making up for in all sorts of other ways.
The first of my haul to be read was a book by the American-Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and the book is good enough to provide a much appreciated pronunciation guide to his name). The book was first published in 1997 and is one of many that Csikszentmihalyi has written about what makes us happy, or as he puts it, how we set about ‘finding flow’.
Essentially he has concluded that humans experience the most positive blend of emotions when they are engaged in activities that are consuming, challenging and provide positive feedback. Whether you are caught up in composing music, playing basketball or working out a challenging Sudoku you can experience that deeply satisfying sense of immersion that helps to provide us with a sense of achievement and purpose.
He proposes that we need to be able to find flow in work, leisure and relationships and describes what he terms the ‘autotelic’ personality. This is someone who strives to achieve their goals for the intrinsic pleasure experienced by so doing rather than by any extrinsic reward.
An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power or fame because so much what he of she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating and even when alone with nothing to do, they are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life composed of dull and meaningless routines. They are more autonomous and independent, because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.
This is an appealing image. When I discovered that he was motivated to begin researching what makes us happy after witnessing the impact of the second world war on the adults around him, this focus on meaning rather than possessions makes even more sense.
One could argue, that despite the occasional appearance of fulfilled factory workers in the book, this is really a study of fairly secure and educated persons and their search for meaning. There is little recognition of the power of social factors to deny access to fulfilling activities and lifestyles. The kind of poverty that forces people to work at several low paid jobs with absolutely no time for any kind of leisure activity, little contact with family members and no reward from their work is not something that is considered here. Oppression, discrimination sickness etc. might as well not exist although he does recognise that women and men generally experience work, leisure and relationships quite differently and that things are often less satisfying for women. Nonetheless it is an interesting concept and one worth considering
My other major reservation about his work is to do with his attitude to introverts which is generally quite negative. I think Susan Cain’s work on the positive attributes of introverts is a useful corrective to this but then her research postdates his and it was quite ground-breaking.
If you are interested in this work and new to it then there are lots of clips on You-tube of talks given by Csikszentmihalyi including this one ,which summarises the work very well. I enjoyed the book and can see how his ideas can help us understand how we can experience our daily lives more intensely and enjoyably providing we have a certain minimum level of financial and socio-political security. And it’s making me think I should consider learning to play the clarinet!