As are most of this blog's readers, I'm a computer programmer. We coders know a state which is familiar to everyone, even if a bit hard to explain. This is the state of "being in the zone", or "being in flow". It's when we get so immersed in coding that time passes by very quickly. Being "in the zone" is a very desirable state, because it's the one where programmers are most productive. Not many know, however, that such a state has been clearly defined and explained by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 1970s. In this book (from 1990) Csíkszentmihályi summarizes his ideas in a layman-friendly fashion (previous publications have been more academic). He calls it "flow", defining it as:
the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The author claims that flow is a major key to happiness. A person in flow is a happy person, and thus directing one's life on a path to being in flow as much as possible is desirable. Clearly, flow is possible not only in computer programming. In fact, one of the author's goals is to explain how a person can and should find flow in practically every activity he's engaged in. More specifically, flow can be achieved in both physical and mental activities, both with people and alone, and both at work and during leisure. The book covers all these topics, based on interviews and research the author and his group conducted with thousands of individuals world-wide. The research quite literally asked people what made them happy and dissected their answers to common "clusters". Here are a couple of other useful quotes. The first one is about what's enjoyable. Engaging in an activity with as many components out of the following as possible is a recipe for good time:
[...] the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. [...]
  • First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.
  • Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
  • Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.
  • Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
  • Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.
  • Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experiences is over.
  • Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.
The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.
Here's another:
In all the activities people in our study reported engaging in, enjoyment comes at a very specific point: whenever the opportunities for action perceived by the individual are equal to his or her capabilities. [...] Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person's capability to act.
And another:
[...] every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.
I think this is a great book, a must read for everyone. While reading, I actually felt that I'm understanding myself better. Understanding why some things are fun and some aren't, and understanding why I prefer certain activities over others, and have specific preferences of the methods of doing them. This is an important self-knowing process, having someone define in concrete terms something you've only felt intuitively. It's a bit too long and repetitive towards the end, but all in all it's highly recommended.