BOOK REVIEW: Running Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, et. al.

Running FlowRunning Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines how Flow can be achieved by runners. Flow, in this usage, means a specific state of mind in which the activity at hand becomes effortless, self-criticism quiets, and one becomes pleasantly fixated on a task. It’s a term coined by the book’s lead author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, based on his research into how some people were able to slip into a mental state in which even mundane activities could become an almost blissful obsession. This was part of a broader inquiry into how people can achieve a higher quality of life at work or at home.

The book is divided into two parts. The first four chapters lay out the concept of Flow in detail, and provide the necessary background for readers who may not be familiar with the concept. These chapters describe the role Flow can play in running, examine the components of Flow (i.e. necessary conditions and outcomes), and explain what personality traits are most conducive to achieving Flow.

The second part consists of five chapters, and it delves into how a runner can achieve Flow. Chapter five explores in detail three of the nine components that were introduced in chapter two, and tailors the explanation for runners. These three are the antecedents of Flow: clear goals, a match of challenge level and skill level, and immediate feedback. Chapters six and seven suggest the ways in which Flow can be facilitated in non-competitive and competitive runs, respectively. Chapter eight discusses the limits of flow. Because Flow is associated with feelings of effortless performance, some think of it as a sort of panacea for all that plagues their running. Furthermore, it’s not a state that easily happens and consistently returns; it’s often fickle and elusive. This chapter not only disabuses one of such notions, but also explains how failing to achieve Flow need not be the end of the world (or of one’s race.) The final chapter takes Flow beyond the concept of running and suggests what it’s pursuit can do for an individual more broadly.

The chapters use mini-case studies in which the authors describe the experience of professional runners in races and the effects of Flow on their performance and their experiences of races. There are numerous graphics. Many of these are color photos of the athletes who the authors spoke to, but there are also diagrams used to clarify key concepts. There is a glossary and references section as well.

I enjoyed this book. I’ve always thought of running as a task for which Flow would be hard to achieve because the matching of skill level to the amount of challenge is so crucial to achieving Flow and the movement pattern of running is so repetitive and monotonous. (The reason this matching is important is that if one’s skill level is far beyond the challenge, then one is bored, and if it’s the other way around, one is frustrated and overwhelmed – and neither boredom nor frustration facilitates Flow.) The book is a quick read that offers runners everything they need to make their mental experience of running more enjoyable and productive.

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BOOK REVIEW: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Recently, I read and reviewed Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, which is about how extreme athletes use a mental state called “the flow” to pull off some miraculous feats (e.g. “hanging righteous air” to use an appropriate term of art.) That book got me intrigued about the flow, and wanting to learn more. The logical next read was the book by the man considered the godfather of flow, the man who coined the term, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi is a Professor of Psychology at the Claremont Graduate University and formerly of the University of Chicago.

A Note on Editions: The book I read is the 2013 edition of a book that was first published in 1990. The two editions have different subtitles. The 1990 edition was entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and the 2013 edition is Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. It’s not hard to imagine what happened. The 1990 version was titled to appeal to scholars, and the former title both has more syllables and suggests that one might be able to use LaGrangian Methods (the calculus of constrained optimization) to maximize bliss—which would be double bliss for an academic. As Csikszentmihalyi’s work attracted widespread attention, there was a need for a title that didn’t sound painfully dull. To be fair, the word “happiness” has gained some purchase in scholarly literature in recent years, but in 1990 saying one was studying “happiness” would be akin to saying one would study the “cuddliness quotient” of kittens (actually the latter, having the word “quotient” in it, would test better with department chairs and funders.)

Flow is a state in which one’s entire mind and body is devoted to overcoming a challenge that is intrinsically rewarding. There’s a lot packed into that definition. First, the task must be difficult but within the skill-level of the individual. If it’s too easy, it’s too boring for flow. If it’s far too challenging relative to one’s skill, it may become frustrating before one can build enough skill to achieve it. Flow states can be achieved via many different kinds of tasks, and the middle chapters of the book are devoted to different types of flow-inducing events. Chapters 5 through 8 address, respectively: physical activities like yoga and the martial arts, mental activities like poetry, word play, and chess, work activities, and solitude and social activities.

Second, tasks must usually be autotelic, or intrinsically rewarding. If the only reason that one is doing an activity is for a paycheck, to stave off nagging, or to attract attention, one will be unlikely to find the flow. That doesn’t mean that one can’t receive external rewards, but the activity has to have something intrinsic that keeps one at it. Csikszentmihalyi’s approach was to interview people to access how happy they were, and what activities allowed them to achieve said happiness. He shares many anecdotes about individuals who were blissful, including people who derived happiness from work activities such as factory work, work that most people would find unpleasant and only tolerable to earn a living. Of course, these happy individuals didn’t just do the job in the manner of the poor schlubs who hated their work-life. Instead, they found ways to make the work challenging and, in doing so, they often made themselves indispensable and gained not only job security but also the respect and admiration of others. What is key is that one’s mindset determines all of this, and the book focuses on the notion of controlling one’s inner life to achieve happiness via the flow.

Third, flow is not achieved in a distracted state; all of one’s being has to be surrendered to the act at hand. Multi-tasking is not conducive to the flow.

The ability to override one’s evolutionarily-programmed instincts is key to being able to obtain a flow state. One must be able to stay on task and devote one’s consciousness to the action at hand. This is the central theme in chapter 2, entitled “The Anatomy of Consciousness.” The book also speaks to a subject that I’m currently interested in, which is how states of mind and body that have been known since ancient times, but whose mechanism of action weren’t well-understood, are explained in the world of modern science. Csikszentmihalyi refers to yogis and Taoist masters as he describes the flow. Flow state isn’t new; it’s just newly put in the context of science, rather than mythology.

I enjoyed this book and found the chapter on the flow in movement and bodily activities particularly educational. Csikszentmihalyi has written a few related books on creativity and the flow applied specifically to sport. I would like to learn more about the neuro-anatomy and neurochemistry of the flow, as this book doesn’t delve into the hard science of the flow, and much of this science has occurred since the time this book was first published anyway.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human PerformanceThe Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is NOT a book about the comic book hero. It’s a book about a mental state called “the flow” and how adventure and extreme athletes have used it to make tremendous strides in their sports. The characteristics of the flow include extreme focus, time dilation / time distortion, a vanishing sense of self, extremely high performance, fearlessness, and a falling away of everything non-essential to the task at hand.

Kotler is by no means the first author to write about the flow. The term was inaugurated by a book entitled Flow first published in 1990 by a University of Chicago Psychology professor named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in the process of conducting a study on happiness. He found that happy people tended to engage in activities in which they could immerse themselves and find the zone. Contrary to the early part of Kotler’s book–in which it sounds like adventure athletes cornered the market on flow–Csikszentmihalyi says that said activity could be work or hobby and that the flow is to be found in poetry writing, yoga, martial arts, copy writing, or potentially any activity in which the skill level and challenge are both high.

(To be fair, Kotler does get around to recognizing that extreme athletes neither invented nor exclusively exploit the flow. However, his—well-taken—point is that such athletes are unusually good at finding, and dropping deep into, the flow in part because risk-taking behavior is an important trigger. And for free climbers [rock climbers without ropes], mega-ramp skateboarders, and bodysuit skydivers sometimes there are only two possible states of existence—the flow and being scraped off a rock.) It should be noted that some of the elements of flow sound a lot like the states that have been described by various mystical religious traditions for centuries, e.g. the dissolution of a feeling of separation between self and the rest of the universe. Warning: religious readers may find it disconcerting to read that there are scientific explanations for states that were once attributed to communion with god or the like.

While I’ve given Kotler’s book high rating, I haven’t yet given one reason to read it—and I do recommend people read it. First, while Csikszentmihalyi is the “father” of flow research, his methods were decidedly low tech–i.e. surveys and interviews—but Kotler reports on more recent studies involving neuroanatomy, neuroelectricity, and neurochemistry. Second, while Kotler delves into the science of the flow, he does so in a manner that is approachable to non-scientists. Finally, all of the narrative accounts of extreme athletes interspersed with the more technical commentary make for a very readable book, even if one is not particularly knowledgeable of—or interested in—such sports. I gave this book a high rating both for its food-for-thought value, and because of its high readability.

I will admit that I was not so enamored of the book when I first began it, and other readers may find the same irritation. For one thing, Kotler’s adoration of extreme athletes comes off sounding like diminishment of mainstream athletes and others involved in “flowy” activities. A prime example of this is seen in Chapter 1. Kotler gives us an endearing description of how gymnast Kerri Strug won the gold in the 1996 Olympics by sticking a landing on a shattered ankle. However, he then comes off a bit douchey when he suggests that Strug’s achievement pales in comparison to Danny Way’s skateboard jumps at the Great Wall of China.

For another thing, in his zealousness to prove that extreme sports practitioners are full-awesome while mainstream athletes are “meh,” Kotler makes some comparisons that seem apples and oranges to a neophyte such as me. If they are fair comparisons, he certainly doesn’t explain why they should be considered so. The best example of this is when he states that Olympic divers took decades to achieve increases in rotation that extreme skiers and skateboarders surpassed in much less time. This seems unreasonable for two reasons. First, divers have a very standard distance in which to achieve their acrobatics. In other words, they don’t get to build a “mega-platform” that’s 50% taller like Danny Way creates “mega-ramps” that were bigger than ever before. Of course, if you can increase the distance between yourself and the ground you can increase your spins, rotations, or whatever much more quickly (yes, your danger goes up vastly, I’m not diminishing that.) Second, the divers gained zero advantage from technological improvements, but the same cannot be said for skiers and skateboarders. In other words, if you go from skis made of oak to ones made of carbon nanotubes (that are 50 times stronger and 1/100th of the weight) of course you’re going to make gains faster.

Perhaps, I’m overstating Kotler’s disdain for mainstream athletics, but that’s what happens when one uses a national hero as a set up to show how much more awesome a relatively unknown skateboarder is (among skateboarders Way is extremely well-known but he’s not a household name as the Olympian was–at least for a short time in the late 90’s.) I suspect that Kotler was just trying to convince a general audience that the athletes he’s speaking about aren’t pot-smoking knuckleheads who are as likely to be seen on America’s Funniest Home Videos crushing their nads on a handrail as setting a new world record. These men and women are serious people engaged in serious activities, and they give it their all. They do deserve more respect for that than they are probably given by broad sectors of the populace. Perhaps, the importance of what these folks are achieving does need to be conveyed because the demographic that reads books and the one that follows extreme sports probably has wide wings of non-overlapping area. (I’m not saying skateboarders are illiterate or bookworms don’t skate–just that the Venn diagram has substantial areas of mutual exclusivity.)

As I indicated above, in each chapter we get both some insight into the nature of the flow and its triggers and stories of adventure / extreme athletes that serve as examples of what’s being discussed. In chapter 2 we learn what the flow looks like in terms of brain waves (i.e. high theta/low alpha, or between meditation and a relaxed / resting state of wakefulness.) In chapter 3, we learn about the neuroanatomy of the flow in terms of what areas of the brain it lights up, and what areas shut down–which is more important to flow states. In chapter 4, we learn about the neurochemistry of the flow and that a cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin makes up the chemistry of flow, but, critically, not so much with the adrenaline. The subsequent chapters deal with triggers of the flow, and what conditions best set up achievement of this state of mind.

Chapter 9 stands out as an important, but quite different, portion of the book. It deals with the downside (or dark side) of the flow. This has a lot to do with the fact that the aforementioned internal substances (and the flow state in general) are quite addictive. While it’s unfair to say, and unlikely, that the extreme athletes Kotler writes about (i.e. the ones at the top of their games) are drug addicts as some might assume of skate boarders, snow boarders, and the like, it may not be unreasonable to say that they have a kind of monkey on their backs—albeit a perfectly legal one rooted in their own neurochemistry.

As I’ve said, I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in this state of mind. One needn’t be interested in extreme sports to get a lot out of the book.

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