Flow

“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi isn’t about running. In spite of that, it probably informs my running more than any book I’ve read for a very long time.

Csikszentmihalyi (he says the easiest way to pronounce his family name is “chicks make me high”) is one of the primary architects of positive psychology, which attempts to find a scientific and rational understanding of happiness. He’s best known for his research into the notion of flow, what it is, how it works, and how we can attain it.

Wikipedia says it better than I could. “According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.”

Flow, says Csíkszentmihály, sometimes comes unexpectedly. (Think of those runs when you suddenly find yourself almost floating at speed, unaware of how long you’ve been doing it and feeling you could do it forever.) More importantly, Csíkszentmihály says you can “invoke” flow. It’s all a question, he suggests, of attention. If, rather letting yourself experience the world passively, you engage with it and get deeply into an attentive state, you can get into flow. He also suggests that the ongoing act of gathering information about the subject of your attention can make the flow experience deeper.

I became aware of flow when I started doing long training runs (25K and up) in minimalist shoes or barefoot. I learned about Csíkszentmihály at about the same time, and read bits and pieces about him and about his theories. It was only recently, though, that I read “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”

Now I understand better the runs I’ve had when I find myself in a “Zen state,” and discover rhythms and states that take me out of ordinary, day-to-day experience. I think of the feeling I had during last Sunday’s Tannenbaum 10K race, when the rain, the wind, and the cold didn’t matter at all, because I was focused – and lost in the focus. I look forward to finding and keeping a flow state when I run next June’s Transcendence 6 Hour Race, during which I’ll run a one kilometer loop over and over again for six hours, simply to see how far I can go.

For all he’s a scientist and a psychologist, Csíkszentmihály writes elegantly, often lyrically. “Flow” isn’t a how-to book by any means, but it does point the way to developing strategies for achieving the flow state at will. It’s the kind of book you read slowly, re-reading some parts, and reflecting on what you’ve read. It’s that good.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m keen on two things: running in as minimalist a way as possible; and learning to run longer and longer distances. Having read this book, I now know that understanding what flow is, how it works, and how I can come to it are integral parts of both goals.

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6 comments

  1. I picked up my book and realized that the copy I have is not Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work, ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’ but a later work built upon the first, ‘Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life.’ I’m still excited to dig into my copy, but I may need to look for a copy of of the first. Have you read other titles of his?

  2. I’ve have this book on my nightstand for two weeks now (I’m a bit of a 5-6 books at one time kind of reader… never getting through any one book very quickly). I happened upon it while reading Daniel Pink’s ‘A Whole New Mind’ and purchased it as part of my year’s reading list for my position as a counselor, not even thinking about the relationship to my running. I’m now even more eager to have a look see. Thanks for the review.

  3. Alan:

    Thanks once again, not only for a reading recommendation, but also for the great book review.

    I’ll check this out.

    T

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