A couple of days ago, I finished The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz and wrote a short article on the idea that unlimited choice can make us miserable. In the meantime, I picked up a true classic of Positive Psychology: Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi* (actually, it was written about 10 years before Seligman and Csíkszentmihályi coined the term Positive Psychology). Now there are some interesting parallels in those two texts, namely on setting boundaries for oneself to enjoy more freedom and thus to experience order in consciousness (which is one definition of Flow).
I have a full-time job as a manager, I work as a coach on the side, teach at a business school, study in the MAPP, run several blogs and publish articles in practitioner journals very regularly – and I am a husband and a father. Therefore, people often ask me about my time management. The truth is: I may be somewhat of a workaholic (in a positive sense) and I do not regularly get those eight hours of sleep that my body craves for. But the other side of the coin is: I do not waste any of my time! There simply are a lot of things that I choose not to do – even though I know I would immensely enjoy them.
Let´s see what Csíkszentmihályi has to say on what could be called ‘fake flow’:
“[I]nstead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we go to admire paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action.”
Enter Barry Schwartz:
“But if unrestricted freedom can impede the individual’s pursuit of what he or she values most, then it may be that some restrictions make everyone better off. And if “constraint” sometimes affords a kind of liberation while “freedom” affords a kind of enslavement, then people would be wise to seek out some measure of appropriate constraint.”
I intuitively threw out my game console at age 14. Back then, I spent day after night after day playing strategy games like ‘Sim City’ or ‘Civilization’, which is totally fine – for a teenager. The thing is: I´m pretty sure I´d still do it today. Those games fulfill the requirements for a flow experience to a very high extent (goal clarity and immediate feedback, high level of concentration, balance between skills and challenge, feeling of control, effortlessness, altered perception of time, melting together of action and consciousness, autotelic quality).
But it is not the real McCoy. It does not get things going in the real world. And while I would never argue that playing is not for grown-ups, as always, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Same thing with watching TV: I know there are a lot of absolutely great TV series out there. I´m positively sure I would immensely enjoy ‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Boardwalk Empire’, and all the other Emmy-winning masterpieces out there. That´s why I have never watched a single episode. I choose not to be immersed in those artificial worlds. I feel my life is fascinating enough.
Let´s hear Csíkszentmihályi once more:
“The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness. The energy that could be used to focus on complex goals, to provide for enjoyable growth, is squandered on patterns of stimulation that only mimic reality.”
I take my hat off to the producers of those series. It takes a lot of effort and human consciousness to create them. But how much consciousness is lost by consuming them? I don´t like to squander mine. Maybe we can all learn a lesson from Odysseus: sometimes, we need to be tied up in order to hear the music…
*If you´ve ever wondered how to pronounce his name in English: it´s something along the lines of ‘Me-High Chicks-Sent-Me-High’. 🙂