This weekend I started reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow. First published in the early 1990s, it's now considered something of a classic in psychology, and has influenced scientists in a number of areas, from psychoanalysis to human factors research.
The first and maybe most important thing to know is that the author's name is pronounced "chick-sent-me-high" (or "cheek-saint-me-high-ee" depending on who you ask), with the accent on the first syllable.
It's a fascinating, rich book; a couple parts of it are a bit dated (the information theory vision of the brain and consciousness feels a bit old, but that doesn't fatally affect his argument). What I really like about the book is that it's interested in the fundamental question, what is happiness? Csikszentmihalyi's answer is a bit counterintuitive, but quite rich and interesting. This means he's not just interested in isolated experiences, but in the overall shape and tone of life: it's an interest in values rather than merely specific ends. "Happiness is not something that happens," (2) he argues:
It is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.... It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly. [Reaching happiness involves] a circuitous path that begins with achieving control over the contents of our consciousness. (2)
So what defines that control?
We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like. This is what we mean by optimal experience.... Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times.... The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. (3)
Immediately one can see that this isn't about making life easy-- a position that, pace Yvonne Rogers, has significant implications for HCI-- but rather making things challenging in rewarding ways. Personally, having lost a lot of weight and gotten into shape in the last couple years, I'm a very big believer in the ideas that 1) some of the most rewarding things in life are hard, not easy; and 2) we shouldn't shy away from things that are going to be hard, because 3) the hardest things can be the most valuable. Nearer to home, I think we can see the sort of calmness that Marc Weiser advocated in his "calm computing" results from the same kind of skilled action that defines flow. And as Csikszentmihalyi puts it,
Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery-- or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determing the content of life-- that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine. (4)
So what defines flow, or optimal experiences? It involves
a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-conciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous. (71)
You can immediately see how such a list can be used, or misused, in things like game design and interface design. How it's used in the real world, and how we can thoughtfully employ it in design, is a subject for the future.