Book Review: The Evolving Self

The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third MillenniumThe Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Inside you there are two wolves who invented positive psychology. One is a hippy huckster fixated on character strengths, named Seligmann. The other is a cynical reductionist immigrant that brought flow to the table, named Csikzentmihalyi. Feed Csikzentmihalyi. He subsists mostly on vowels.

This book caught me off guard because through most of my college career the courses focused on mindfulness, virtues, and all that other good vibes only Deepak Chopra bullshit that has come to be synonymous with positive psychology via Seligmann, with flow added as an afterthought and Csikzentmihalyi going virtually unknown. In retrospect, it probably has something to do with its unpronounceability. But since these dudes are the two pillars of positive psych, and positive psych is the end-all-be-all approach right now if you ignore CBT (which is less of a therapeutic treatment and more of a band-aid beloved of insurance companies for its reliable billing structure), I expected it to be another four-hundred page kumbaya singalong ending with some “affordably priced” seminars.

Not so. Csikzentmihalyi is so jaded and evolution-minded that I had to make sure this book wasn’t ghost-written by Yuval Noah Harari. He catalogs the myriad things that are wrong, depressing, and shitty in the world, wrapping up each chapter with some fun little self-talk questions designed to make us really zero in on our maladaptive and self-destructive behaviors and thought patterns. Then, he offers the same solution, again and again, paraphrased as follows:

“Go justify your life. Find a purpose and hurl yourself headlong into it. The more time you spend in flow, the happier your life is. Farm up the flow by building a skill and then challenging it appropriate to your skill level. Bonus points if your preferred activity, hobby, or trade is prosocial.”

This is not the old “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life” chestnut, because you will. But the studies show that people tend to experience the most flow at their jobs. If you ask them, nobody’s going to say, “I’m happiest at work. Woo lads! Rise and grind and don’t even give me the bread, I’m just here for the subjective well-being!” Everyone thinks they want leisure time, and every once in a while that’s true, but a life of leisure will drive you insane. Even Sunday mornings will sometimes drive you insane if you’re not a churchie.

It’s the way our brains are set up. We’re goal-motivated. The limbic system is built to drive us along to the next objective. The dopamine don’t hit the same unless we’re earning it.

If you don’t believe me, that’s cool. I wouldn’t either if some handsome stallion on a book review told me that my desire to Scrooge McDuck it on a money pile and never have to worry about anything for the rest of my life was fake. You can google around and look at the stats on the interplay between depression and unemployment/retirement/SSI/other situations where you get money without having to do anything, but those can be rationalized away by any of billions of confounding variables too.

The best argument is flow itself. It’s what makes us self-actualized, and that’s what makes a life. Take it from Csikzentmihalyi. The miserable old fuck.

Five stars. I couldn’t put it down, and I don’t even like positive psych.

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