Filed in Science

The Transcendent Imperative

At a time when our spiritual traditions struggle to remain relevant in a culture dominated by scientific materialism, Andrew Cooper considers the pros and cons of a new religious model based on the psychology of “flow.”

Andrew Cooper

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The observation that people do things for no other reason than that they bring enjoyment is hardly earth-shattering. But its simplicity can obscure the richness of its implications. For Csikszentmihalyi, it pointed directly to the deep and elusive question of human happiness. What, he wondered, do people feel when they are most happy? Why do certain activities bring enjoyment and others do not? What can we do to enhance our capacities to find enjoyment throughout the events of daily life? After receiving his doctorate, Csikszentmihalyi eventually joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he was able to pursue these questions systematically and thoroughly.

In the course of his investigations, he identified a dimension of human experience that is common to people the world over. Elderly Korean women, Japanese teenage motorcycle-gang members, Navajo shepherds, assembly line workers in Chicago, artists, athletes, surgeons—all described the experience in essentially the same words. Its characteristics include joy, deep concentration, emotional buoyancy, a heightened sense of mastery, a lack of self-consciousness, and self-transcendence. Employing an image used frequently by his subjects, Csikszentmihalyi named this optimal human experience flow.

Based on their research into flow, Csikszentmihalyi and his associates over the years produced dozens of articles for scholarly journals. In the late 1980s, he gathered twenty-five years' worth of findings on the subject and presented it in a form accessible to the lay reader. The resulting book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, was released in 1990 and was an immediate and critically acclaimed national bestseller.

Flow abounds with rich accounts, culled from the author's research, of the experience in question. Some of the accounts are highly dramatic; others are noteworthy for their ordinariness. But whatever the case, these curious moments of inner freedom entail a “merging of action and awareness,” and it is this unified consciousness that Csikszentmihalyi regards as “the most telling aspect of the flow experience.”

As Csikszentmihalyi himself is the first to point out, the “discovery” of flow is not a discovery at all, “for people have been aware of it since the dawn of time.” Indeed, the idea that, in the words of T. E. Lawrence, “happiness is absorption” is so consistent a theme in discourse on the inner life that one might well say that the condition it names is a primary feature of human nature.

Absorption in a task frees up psychic energy that would otherwise be constrained by the myriad concerns and perceptual habits of the quotidian ego. This brings a sense of enjoyment and a more vital relationship to the world. Whether the experience is felt as a moment of simple clarity or an epiphany that rattles one to the core of one's being, whether it occurs while deep in meditation or while pruning the roses, the principle—that happiness is absorption—is the same. Although we humans have devised countless means for eliciting self-transcendence, the impulse toward that experience is a constant. We are, it seems, possessed of a transcendent imperative.

Granted, there are important distinctions to uphold here. The experience of a Trappist monk lost in contemplative prayer and that of a pitcher focused on keeping his sinker low and outside can hardly be called identical. But self-forgetting concentration—the merging of action and awareness—is an essential ingredient to the experience of each. It is the precondition-the noetic springboard, if you will—from which they move forth toward their very different objectives.

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