To be sure, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has on odd name—I once heard someone comment (though I can’t verify this) that he prefers “Mike” and that his last name sounds something like “Chick-sent-me-high.” All of this intrigues me… which in a way is what he’s after—that is, what is truly intriguing in life. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi presented a key idea for grasping how we find our passion. In the state of the mind he named “flow,” we experience deep enjoyment, challenge matched by our skills, creativity, and sense that time is moving in a different, and fuller way. How can “flow”—or “optimal experience” be described? He writes that “‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake”(6). One key example for Dr. C is the work of a surgeon, who works within certain limits (defined by keeping the patient alive), for a specific goal (the improved health of the patient), with a task that's entirely demanding and rewarding. Although paradigmatic, flow doesn't just happen for surgeons. It's actually a reasonably universal experience. But how did he find this out? He developed a new form of research, the Experience Sampling Method, in which hundreds of subjects wore pagers that beeped at odd intervals throughout their days. When paged, the participants had to quickly fill out a brief survey that noted what activity they were engaged in and a series of questions of whether they were more or less in the “flow.” Were they in “optimal experience”?
Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates some surprising results: for example, human beings more often experience flow when they are working than when they are at leisure (158-159). Although television requires mental processing, very little else mentally, like memory, is engaged. “Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television” (30). Ultimately, he asserts, optimal experience makes life worth living. When we’re in the flow, we want to do nothing else. And we don’t really care about much else. “An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous” (71).
Doesn’t this “finding your passion,” and looking for "flow" seem just a little too selfish and therefore illegitimate as a way of directing our lives? Not necessarily. I have learned from a distinction the Christian writer and literary scholar, C.S. Lewis, who delineated an important distinction: between being selfish and self-centered. Finding what we are called to do is, in a certain sense, selfish—we love doing it and therefore we find great joy—but entirely not self-centered—when we do what we love, we forget ourselves as we delight in the activity itself. Lewis writes
One of the happiest men and most pleasant companions I have ever known was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts. Either condition will destroy the soul in the end. But till the end, give me the man who takes the best of everything (even at my expense) and then talks of other things, rather than the man who serves me and talks of himself, and whose very kindness are a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude and admiration. (Surprised by Joy, 143-44)
So, in a way, I’m asking us to be more directed toward what we like because there we have the power to become self-forgetful and even other-directed. Here I’m proposing a form of enlightened selfishness. The point is not, as we often fear, that when we like to do something it will make us less moral, but what we truly love to do helps us to turn our eyes off ourselves and toward others, which is the beginning of right actions. Don’t stay selfish—that, as C.S. Lewis points out, can also “destroy the soul,” but learn to follow what you truly enjoy and follow it toward something outside of us. And that leads to mission….
So tell me, what do you think of all this?