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Until only a few years ago, I did not own a camera. This was partly because of the cost of printing photos and partly in keeping with my preference to have only simple technologies that I easily understand between me and the activity I am engaged in. And also because I enjoy the direct process of making visual notes with pencil on paper. I still find that I remember the circumstances of a quick sketch better than I recall the occasion of a photograph. Maybe it’s something to do with the mental absorption of repeatedly looking and interpreting.
But the technological age has found me since and I have a small digital camera. And find that I rarely stop now to take sketches. Why bother when it is so easy to make and record an image and move straight on to the next distraction?
But back in the stone-age early ’90s, when I couldn’t even begin to imagine the miracle of digital pixels, I read a work of popular psychology that made a big impression on me. The book was ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihali, then a professor at the University of Chicago who has studied human enjoyment since 1963. I recently came across another of his titles, ‘The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millenium’ which goes beyond human happiness to consider what we need to grow as individuals and as a society. The following is a (lengthy) extract to explain the concept of “flow”:
“When a painting was beginning to get interesting they could not tear themselves away from it; they forgot hunger, social obligations, time, and fatigue so that they could keep moving it along. But this fascination lasted only as long as a picture remained unfinished; once it stopped changing and growing, the artist usually leaned it against a wall and turned his or her attention to the next blank canvas.
“It seemed clear that what was so enthralling about painting was not the anticipation of a beautiful picture, but the process of painting itself. At first this seemed strange, because psychological theories usually assume that we are motivated either by the need to eliminate an unpleasant condition like hunger or fear, or by the expectation of some future reward such as money, status, or prestige. The idea that a person could work around the clock for days on end, for no better reason than to keep on working, lacked credibility. But if one stops to reflect, this behavior is not as unusual as it may seem at first. Artists are not the only ones who spend time and effort on an activity that has few rewards outside itself. In fact, everyone devotes large chunks of time doing things that are inexplicable unless we assume that the doing is enjoyed for its own sake. Children spend much of their lives playing. Adults also play games like poker or chess, participate in sports, grow gardens, learn to play the guitar, read novels, go to parties, walk through woods–and do thousands of other things–for no good reason except that the activities are fun….
“This conclusion, however, does not get us very far. The obvious question is, Why are these things fun? Strangely enough, when we try to answer that question, it turns out that contrary to what one would have expected, the enormous variety of enjoyable activities share some common characteristics. If a tennis player is asked how it feels when a game is going well, she will describe a state of mind that is very similar to the description a chess player will give of a good tournament. So will be a description of how it feels to be absorbed in painting, or playing a difficult piece of music. Watching a good play or reading a stimulating book also seems to produce the same mental state. I called it “flow,” because this was a metaphor several respondents gave for how it felt when their experience was most enjoyable–it was like being carried away by a current, everything moving smoothly without effort.
Contrary to expectation, “flow” usually happens not during relaxing moments of leisure and entertainment, but rather when we are actively involved in a difficult enterprise, in a task that stretches our mental and physical abilities. Any activity can do it. Working on a challenging job, riding the crest of a tremendous wave, and teaching one’s child the letters of the alphabet are the kinds of experiences that focus our whole being in a harmonious rush of energy, and lift us out of the anxieties and boredom that characterize so much of everyday life.
It turns out that when challenges are high and personal skills are used to the utmost, we experience this rare state of consciousness. The first symptom of flow is a narrowing of attention on a clearly defined goal. We feel involved, concentrated, absorbed. We know what must be done, and we get immediate feedback as to how well we are doing. The tennis player knows after each shot whether the ball actually went where she wanted it to go; the pianist knows after each stroke of the keyboard whether the notes sound like they should. Even a usually boring job, once the challenges are brought into balance with the person’s skills and the goals are clarified, can begin to be exciting and involving.
The depth of concentration required by the fine balance of challenges and skills precludes worrying about temporarily irrelevant issues. We forget ourselves and become lost in the activity….
The well-matched use of skills provides a sense of control over our actions, yet because we are too busy to think of ourselves, it does not matter whether we are in control or not, whether we are winning or losing. Often we feel a sense of transcendence, as if the boundaries of the self had been expanded. The sailor feels at one with the wind, the boat, and the sea; the singer feels a mysterious sense of universal harmony. In those moments the awareness of time disappears, and hours seem to flash by without our noticing.
This state of consciousness… comes as close as anything can to what we call happiness….”
Although there’s another side to this potentially life changing revelation. For me, and I imagine many others, “flow” experiences are “slow” experiences – like gardening or fishing or trekking in the mountains. But for some they might be speedy and addictive like power-boating, fast driving, or even surfing the net. Our modern age has been characterised by its ever accelerating pace of change, and our future seems likely to bring abrupt changes too. In preparing for this, we may do well to practice ‘slow flow’.
The notion of reintroducing ‘slowness’ into our multi-tasking modern lives originated in Italy with the ‘Slow Food’ movement which grew up as a reaction to our processed fast-food culture, emphasising the simple pleasures of preparing and eating local seasonal food from locally sustainable agriculture. The Canadian journalist, Carl Honore, writes in his book ‘In Praise of Slowness’ of a personal satori as he waited at Rome airport for a flight home, laptop open in front of him, talking to the office on his cell-phone whilst scanning a newspaper at the same time. His eye was caught by an advert. ‘The One-Minute Bedtime Story’. How brilliant! Another way to cut down on squandered time whilst still fulfilling his paternal duties. And then the full absurdity of it struck him.
I expect we might do well to begin slowing down and building “flow” into our lives. If we were to use fast technologies judiciously to reduce, not increase, the stress in our lives and we became more accomplished in “slow-flow” we might notice that we can enjoy an improved sense of well-being as we move towards a future in which simpler lifestyles become less a matter of personal choice and more a matter of forced necessity.
Here are some of my ’90s sketchbooks that remind me of people, time and place
Spain and France 1997
(The last time I flew on holiday…)
Atlantic Crossing 1995