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Sustaining flow, or flowing sustainability
July 7, 2011 - 6:31am

I was reading through a monograph on game design recently, and came across a paragraph quoted from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The topic is sustained human enjoyment, something that game designers need to be able to create. More than just "enjoyment", really -- more like what an athlete feels when (s)he is "in the zone" and performing at a peak level.

Reading it through, I was struck by how opposite what it describes is from any characterization of efforts to create sustainability. Csikszentmihalyi says:

First, the experience [of enjoyment] 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 experience 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 like expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.

I couldn't help comparing that description to what it's like to work towards sustainability, on campus or off.

First, we have no chance of completing the task. If all the developed societies of the world had gotten on board twenty years ago, it would still have taken until at least mid-century merely (!) to achieve some sort of greenhouse-gas equilibrium. That's not the same as full-blown environmental sustainability (think ocean acidification, species extinction, topsoil erosion, fresh water shortages). And it doesn't even begin to address the social and economic sustainability issues necessary for long-term stability.

Second, we can never concentrate solely on achieving sustainability, we have to focus on meeting established short-term needs in a less unsustainable manner. The day-to-day problems don't go away just because we want to do things differently in the longer term. We can't put life, or society, or food production on hiatus while we all reinvent ourselves. Sustainability is characterized by a rigid set of constraints, but you don't get the task done by concentrating solely on constraints.

Third and fourth, the task we've undertaken has nebulous goals and provides almost no feedback. We know some of the ways that what we've been doing isn't sustainable. But, to be honest, we can't fully describe what a sustainable world would look like. And there's no continuum along which we can measure and demonstrate progress every step of the way until we get there. Feedback is rough, at best.

Fifth, we're nowhere near being able to do this effortlessly and the worries and frustrations of everyday life are only augmented. That's the nature of up-hill battles.

Sixth,we have little sense of direct control, as we're often attempting to induce other people to modify their behaviors, long-term. A sense of self may disappear somewhat, but if so it's often as a result of a "martyr hero" self-image -- the opposite of what it takes to get things done by not caring who gets the credit.

Finally, there's a lot of "minutes seem like hours" and very little "hours seem like minutes". We know that we're so far behind the curve that we'll never catch up, and that no matter how fast or hard or effectively we work, it won't be enough. The months and years go by too quickly, it's true. But a lot of the hours go on for days.

None of which, of course, are inherent characteristics of sustainability work. Rather, they're implications of the fact that American society is still dominated by a paradigm to which sustainability efforts constitute an antithesis. And maybe that's the way it always will be -- after all, the fact that something called "sustainability" is even an issue pretty much implies that what we've been doing isn't.

But it does pretty much explain why, when I go drinking with other sustainability wonks, gallows humor is readily apparent. And it also explains why it can be hard to recruit enough people to form a critical mass. Let's face it, expending effort to address a nebulous problem with no expectation of seeing a solution and little clear feedback/indication of progress just isn't most people's definition of "fun".


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