This book is presented as a sequel to Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's influential 1990 bestseller which summarized his many years of research into the nature of happiness. In the book, Csikszentmihalyi observed that the activities which give us the most satisfaction in life are those that engage our psychic energy in increasingly complex and challenging tasks, such as mountain-climbing, painting, playing an instrument, figure-skating, or solving a difficult business problem. When we are in "flow," the activity involves, concentrates, and absorbs the body and mind and we lose our awareness of time.
In The Evolving Self, Csikszentmihalyi looks beyond happiness to consider what we need to grow as individuals and as a society. His thesis is that "the good life" can only be achieved by becoming fully conscious. "To know ourselves is the greatest achievement of our species," he writes. "And to understand ourselves — what we are made of, what motives drive us, and what goals we dream of — involves, first of all, an understanding of our evolutionary past. Only on that foundation can we build a stable, meaningful future."
The book is divided into two parts. The first, "The Lure of the Past," looks at our evolutionary heritage — the genetic and cultural forces that have brought us to where we are today. Csikszentmihalyi maintains that genetically programmed behaviors that once helped humans adapt and multiply now threaten our survival as a species. These traits include obsessions with food and sex, addiction to pleasure, excessive rationality, and a tendency to dwell on negative and depressing thoughts. But just as our genes give us a distorted view of reality, so do our "memes" — our cultural programming. Unless we understand how they shape the way we think and act, it is difficult to gain control over consciousness.
In Part Two, "The Power of the Future," Csikszentmihalyi turns his attention to the further evolution of human nature. In his view, the development of culture and consciousness depends on promoting "complexity" in society. Complexity refers to two dialectically linked processes: differentiation and integration. Realizing our highest potential involves developing to the fullest our individual uniqueness, yet at the same time identifying with the larger processes at work in the world. Differentiation and integration go hand-in-hand. For example, in a classroom that is differentiated but not integrated, there is a lot of stimulation, high expectations, and encouragement of differences, but without caring and support. As a result, the students are ambitious and perform well, yet feel insecure and unhappy. By contrast, a classroom that is integrated but not differentiated is characterized by caring and support, but the students are unmotivated, unchallenged and fail to develop ambition.
Csikszentmihalyi contends that the good society is one that encourages individuals to realize their potential and permits complexity to evolve. Its task is not to build the best institutions or create the most compelling beliefs, since institutions and beliefs age quickly. Rather, it is to make it possible for creativity to keep asserting itself. He points out that it is practically impossible to achieve the good life today without some attention to social change given that "the social system is devoted to greed and blind exploitation." To change the system, he writes, "one needs to step out of the cocoon of personal goals and confront larger issues in the public arena." The best hope of effecting change is at the grassroots level, where enthusiasm and commitment are strongest. To that end, he recommends "evolutionary cells" — voluntary citizen groups small enough to allow "intense face-to-face interaction" as well as the greatest amount of flow for its members. The power of these cells is that they can embody the principle of evolution in the very way they operate. Over time, isolated cells can also coalesce in a loose confederation, "an evolutionary fellowship that could provide a vision and a conscience for society as a whole."
Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.