Csikszentmihalyi: Life’s Meaning

Oh dear! We have come to the last round – round 10 – of our overview of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s great book “Flow”! This is it! The last segment.

What to remember from round 9: We can use flow to build our capacity to use solitude and get more out of relationships. And in doing that we need to build our instrumental and expressive skill sets.

What is in round 10?  In this round we tie everything together looking at how to build flow in the face of extreme adversity and find meaning in our life story.

This is my last chance to chat about happiness, and I want to use this to focus on two final ideas. These are not new. Instead, they build on the ideas we have already talked about. The first is the challenge to face up to loss and suffering. The second is the challenge to build and share the meaning of our life stories. And yes, both challenges are made easier to handle with flow.

First let’s be honest about a tough truth. Life is short. We all will die. Worse still, before we do, we will have moments of intense suffering. Life is not all pleasure. Sounds pretty bleak.  On the other hand, we might take a different view of this. it is ancient wisdom that we value most what comes out of adversity. Conversely, we get bored with things that we get too easily. And so we should value that adversity as well. It gives us a chance to fight for what we believe in — challenges that forces us to “up our game”, meaning master higher levels of skills. And the age old wisdom is quite right — success earned through adversity is far more valuable than success given for nothing.  So, is this a game that you want to play? Then read on!

There are three aspects to winning this game. First, we need to nurture a belief that our destiny is in our own hands. That even in turbulent moments, we have control. This is a feeling we get when we nurture the skills to meet that challenge. Second, we need to nurture an outward perspective. We meed to look out at the world not obsess about our own feelings. Why? Because it is upon that world that we will impose our sense of order. Third, we need to see the larger context, not just the barrier at hand. BTW, it is a natural tendency to focus on barriers rather than context. And if this interests you, ask for a follow up for a story that will help you remember this.

This focus gives us the basis to tell our life story. By that, I mean how we create meaning. And in this vein, here comes a very big idea. According to Professor Csikszentmihalyi, life has no meaning other than what we give it. We give that meaning by first being courageous enough to set goals.  And the trick is then to see the story of our life in how we have tried and still try to bring our goals and intentions (what we actually intend to make happen) into harmony.

Drum roll please: This is the key idea. We can and we should strive to create meaning rather than look for it outside of ourselves. This happens on an individual basis first as we differentiate ourselves from the herd (finding our “true self”). But the most sophisticated meaning is found in how well our life stories then integrate into our relationships, into our communities and beyond.

Ok – you might believe that. You might even remember it tomorrow. But will you live it? To live this idea, you need to focus on it. That means you need to say “no” to other stuff that seems like fun. That seems ok. But that does not help you build your life story. If you want to think further about that, there is one last follow up. Just ask!

That is it. The real journey beyond this series is at hand. Do you have the courage to take it and enjoy it? I hope that with Prof. Csikszentmihalyi’s framework in mind, the answer is “of course!”



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