Reclaim Your Life, One Experience At A Time

From work to play, how can someone get the most out of what they do? We continue our Leadership Hall of Fame series, a year-long look at the top business books and authors, with an excerpt from Flow (1990) by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.


Up to now the
main contribution of the fledgling science psychology has been to discover how past
events shed light on present behavior. It has made us aware that adult irrationality
is often the result of childhood frustrations. But there is another
way that the discipline of psychology can be put to use. It is in helping
answer the question: Given that we are who we are, with whatever hangups
and repressions, what can we do to improve our future?


To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals
must become independent of the social environment to the degree
that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments.
To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards
to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose
regardless of external circumstances. This challenge is both easier and more
difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within
each person’s hands; difficult because it requires a discipline and perseverance
that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present.
And before all else, achieving control over experience requires a drastic
change in attitude about what is important and what is not.

We grow up believing that what counts most in our lives is that which
will occur in the future. Parents teach children that if they learn good habits
now, they will be better off as adults. Teachers assure pupils that the boring
classes will benefit them later, when the students are going to be looking
for jobs. The company vice president tells junior employees to have patience
and work hard, because one of these days they will be promoted to the
executive ranks. At the end of the long struggle for advancement, the golden
years of retirement beckon. “We are always getting to live,” as Ralph Waldo
Emerson used to say, “but never living.” Or as poor Frances learned in the
children’s story, it is always bread and jam tomorrow, never bread and
jam today.

Of course this emphasis on the postponement of gratification is to a certain
extent inevitable. As Freud and many others before and after him have
noted, civilization is built on the repression of individual desires. It would
be impossible to maintain any kind of social order, any complex division
of labor, unless society’s members were forced to take on the habits and
skills that the culture required, whether the individuals liked it or not. Socialization,
or the transformation of a human organism into a person who
functions successfully within a particular social system, cannot be avoided.
The essence of socialization is to make people dependent on social controls,
to have them respond predictably to rewards and punishments. And the
most effective form of socialization is achieved when people identify so
thoroughly with the social order that they no longer can imagine themselves
breaking any of its rules.


In making us work for its goals, society is assisted by some powerful allies:
our biological needs and our genetic conditioning. All social controls,
for instance, are ultimately based on a threat to the survival instinct. The
people of an oppressed country obey their conquerors because they want
to go on living. Until very recently, the laws of even the most civilized nations
(such as Great Britain) were enforced by the threats of caning, whipping,
mutilation, or death.

When they do not rely on pain, social systems use pleasure as the inducement
to accept norms. The “good life” promised as a reward for a lifetime
of work and adherence to laws is built on the cravings contained in our
genetic programs. Practically every desire that has become part of human
nature, from sexuality to aggression, from a longing for security to a receptivity
to change, has been exploited as a source of social control by
politicians, churches, corporations, and advertisers. To lure recruits into
the Turkish armed forces, the sultans of the sixteenth century promised
conscripts the rewards of raping women in the conquered territories;
nowadays posters promise young men that if they join the army, they will
“see the world.”

It is important to realize that seeking pleasure is a reflex response built
into our genes for the preservation of the species, not for the purpose of
our own personal advantage. The pleasure we take in eating is an efficient
way to ensure that the body will get the nourishment it needs. The pleasure
of sexual intercourse is an equally practical method for the genes to program
the body to reproduce and thereby to ensure the continuity of the genes.
When a man is physically attracted to a woman, or vice versa, he usually
imagines–assuming that he thinks about it at all–that this desire is an
expression of his own individual interests, a result of his own intentions.
In reality, more often than not his interest is simply being manipulated by
the invisible genetic code, following its own plans. As long as the attraction is a reflex based on purely physical reactions, the person’s own conscious plans probably play only a minimal role. There is nothing wrong with following this genetic programming
and relishing the resulting pleasures it provides, as long as we recognize
them for what they are, and as long as we retain some control over
them when it is necessary to pursue other goals, to which we might decide
to assign priority.


The problem is that it has recently become fashionable to regard whatever
we feel inside as the true voice of nature speaking. The only authority many
people trust today is instinct. If something feels good, if it is natural and
spontaneous, then it must be right. But when we follow the suggestions of
genetic and social instructions without question we relinquish the control
of consciousness and become helpless playthings of impersonal forces. The
person who cannot resist food or alcohol, or whose mind is constantly focused
on sex, is not free to direct his or her psychic energy.

The “liberated” view of human nature, which accepts and endorses every
instinct or drive we happen to have simply because it’s there, results in
consequences that are quite reactionary. Much of contemporary “realism”
turns out to be just a variation on good old-fashioned fatalism: people feel
relieved of responsibility by recourse to the concept of “nature.” By nature,
however, we are born ignorant. Therefore should we not try to learn? Some
people produce more than the usual amount of androgens and therefore
become excessively aggressive. Does that mean they should freely express
violence? We cannot deny the facts of nature, but we should certainly try
to improve on them.

Submission to genetic programming can become quite dangerous, because
it leaves us helpless. A person who cannot override genetic instructions
when necessary is always vulnerable. Instead of deciding how to act in
terms of personal goals, he has to surrender to the things that his body has
been programmed (or misprogrammed) to do. One must particularly
achieve control over instinctual drives to achieve a healthy independence
of society, for as long as we respond predictably to what feels good and
what feels bad, it is easy for others to exploit our preferences for their own


A thoroughly socialized person is one who desires only the rewards that
others around him have agreed he should long for–rewards often grafted
onto genetically programmed desires. He may encounter thousands of
potentially fulfilling experiences, but he fails to notice them because they
are not the things he desires. What matters is not what he has now, but
what he might obtain if he does as others want him to do. Caught in the treadmill of social controls, that person keeps reaching for a prize that always dissolves in his hands. In a complex society, many powerful groups are involved in socializing, sometimes to seemingly contradictory goals. On the one hand, official institutions like schools,
churches, and banks try to turn us into responsible citizens willing to work
hard and save. On the other hand, we are constantly cajoled by merchants,
manufacturers, and advertisers to spend our earnings on products that will
produce the most profits for them. And, finally, the underground system
of forbidden pleasures run by gamblers, pimps, and drug dealers, which
is dialectically linked to the official institutions, promises its own rewards
of easy dissipation–provided we pay. The messages are very different,
but their outcome is essentially the same: they make us dependent on a
social system that exploits our energies for its own purposes.

There is no question that to survive, and especially to survive in a complex
society, it is necessary to work for external goals and to postpone immediate
gratifications. But a person does not have to be turned into a
puppet jerked about by social controls. The solution is to gradually become
free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that
are under one’s own powers. This is not to say that we should abandon
every goal endorsed by society; rather, it means that, in addition to or instead
of the goals others use to bribe us with, we develop a set of our own.

The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is
the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns
to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the
process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls
from one’s shoulders. Power returns to the person when rewards are no
longer relegated to outside forces. It is no longer necessary to struggle for
goals that always seem to recede into the future, to end each boring day
with the hope that tomorrow, perhaps, something good will happen. Instead
of forever straining for the tantalizing prize dangled just out of reach, one
begins to harvest the genuine rewards of living. But it is not by abandoning
ourselves to instinctual desires that we become free of social controls. We
must also become independent from the dictates of the body, and learn to
take charge of what happens in the mind. Pain and pleasure occur in consciousness
and exist only there. As long as we obey the socially conditioned
stimulus-response patterns that exploit our biological inclinations, we are
controlled from the outside. To the extent that a glamorous ad makes us
salivate for the product sold or that a frown from the boss spoils the day, we are not free to determine the content of experience. Since what we experience is reality, as far as we are concerned, we can transform reality to the extent that we influence what happens in consciousness and thus free ourselves from the threats and blandishments of the outside world. “Men are not afraid of things, but of how they view them,” said Epictetus a long
time ago. And the great emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “If you are pained
by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment
of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.”


From the book FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Copyright © 1990 by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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