The Wider Community | Walking in Flow


“A person is part of a family or friendship to the extent he invests psychic energy in goals shared with other people. In the same way, one can belong to larger interpersonal systems by subscribing to the aspirations of a community, an ethnic group, a political party, or a nation…. In the ancient Greek usage, “politics” referred to whatever involved people in affairs that went beyond personal and family welfare. In this broad sense, politics can be one of the most enjoyable and most complex activities available to the individual, for the larger the social arena one moves in, the greater the challenges it presents. A person can deal with very intricate problems in solitude, and family and friends can take up a lot of attention. But trying to optimize the goals of unrelated individuals involved complexities an order of magnitude higher….The greater challenge is not only to benefit oneself, but to help others in the process.” (190)


“Any involvement in the public realm can be enjoyable, provided one structures it according to the flow parameters. . . . What counts is to set a goal, to concentrate one’s psychic energy, to pay attention to the feedback, and to make certain that the challenge is appropriate to one’s skill. Sooner or later the interaction will begin to hum, and the flow experience follows.” (190-191)


“The concept of flow is useful not only in helping individuals improve the quality of their lives, but also in pointing out how public actions should be directed. Perhaps the most powerful effect flow theory could have in the public sector is in providing a blueprint for how institutions may be reformed so as to make them more conducive to optimal experience. In the past few centuries economic rationality has been so successful that we have come to take for granted that the ‘bottom line’ of any human effort is to be measured in dollars and cents. But an exclusively economic approach to life is profoundly irrational; the true bottom line consists in the quality and complexity of experience. A community should be judged good not because it is technologically advanced, or swimming in material riches; it is good if it offers people a chance to enjoy as many aspects of their lives as possible, while allowing them to develop their potential in the pursuit of ever greater challenges. Similarly the value of a school does not depend on its prestige, or its ability to train students to face up to the necessities of life, but rather on the degree of the enjoyment of lifelong learning it can transmit. A good factory is not necessarily the one that makes the most money, but the one that is most responsible for improving the quality of life for its workers and its customers. And the true function of politics is not to make people more affluent, safe, or powerful, but to let as many as possible enjoy an increasingly complex existence.


But no social change can come about until the consciousness of individuals is changed first. When a young man asked Carlyle how he should go about reforming the world, Carlyle answered, “Reform yourself. That way there will be one less rascal in the world.” The advice is still valid. Those who try to make life better for everyone without having learned to control their own lives first usually end up making things worse all around.” (191)


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