30 Aug


If no one objects, I’m going to review a book that is currently in my queue. Meaning I haven’t read it. Yet. It is tucked neatly behind The Brothers Karamazov, between Gardening for Dummies and Bossypants. This is really more of a concept review. The book was a doctoral dissertation before it hit the press, and, once it did, psychology buffs and corporate executives alike dropped their pens to listen. The actual book is called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago.

Csikszentmihalyi’s exploration of the psychology of happiness and innovation led him to a construct which he named flow. He describes flow as the experience of immersion in a skilled activity such that the mind catches a wave of rhythmic engagement, which it finds to be both perfectly challenging and deeply satisfying. Sound familiar? His assertion is actually audacious and it grabbed my attention: flow is the reason happy people are happy. Apparently, people report deeper satisfaction during meaningful work than they do amidst what they describe as leisure. The pleasure one might chase through a gripping novel or a primetime series is meanwhile lingering in the chance to decorate a cake or fix a leaky faucet. This is not to say that leisure is futile. It just fails to compare to the happiness of being suitably occupied. So he says, anyway.
After the impulse to fill my Amazon cart like an eager disciple subsided, I caught myself pondering how vaguely familiar this all sounded. In fact, the founder of modern Christian monasticism taught something of the sort. The secret to the good life—he argued—is this: prayer and work. In a word, flow. Saint Benedict of Nursia’s teachings were so popular that millions of people have sold all that they own to live a life founded on this principle. To this day, his monks quietly experience what their religion has taught for thousands of years: man is built for work and for contemplation of the great mysteries of the universe.

Work satisfies the heart as man expresses his inherent urge to create, to make, and to make of himself what he wasn’t before. Prayer is the reciprocal engagement in which man finds the paradox of present satisfaction met with ever increasing longing and desire to chart into deeper and deeper waters of the soul. Sounds pretty complex, but apparently it’s really not. Meaningful investment in daily duties and purposeful activities is my best shot at happiness. Saint Benedict would add: an active contemplation of the Life that lives and moves in me. However you spin it, both of these guys would agree that more flow means more fulfillment. And this leaves me hopeful. Hopeful that my queue of endless to-do’s, including the challenge of daily prayer, is a list of joys within my reach.

The Rule of Saint Benedict

-Emily Stevens

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