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How to Shape Our Selves

An interview with the University of Chicago's eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of 'The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium,' discussing evolution and the complexity in our lives.

The psychologist who invented "flow" now makes the case for"complexity." We need to be as different as we can from each other while at the same time integrating our efforts. It is our contribution to the continuation of evolution, says the University of Chicago's eminent Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D.

With his last book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the man with the unpronounceable name (say Chick-sent-me-HIGH) added a new, intuitively clear concept to the language. In his new book, The Evolving Self. A Psychology for the Third Millennium (HarperCollins; 1993), he looks beyond happiness to consider what we need to grow as individuals and as a society. Csikszentmihalyi exhorts us to develop complexity in our consciousness, to acquire multiple interests and abilities. Our future, he contends, depends on it.

PT: You said in your book that evolution is taking care of increasing the complexity in our lives. Why should we be concerned with trying to help this along?

MC: Well, because at this point we are one of the major--if not the major--selective mechanisms on the planet. Whether we like it or not, what we do is going to make a huge difference in the quality of the atmosphere, the quality of water, plant life, animal life, human life.

Before, evolution could make all kinds of mistakes, and natural selection could have obliterated all types of life forms on the Earth. Slowly, over thousands of years, millions of years, some forms that were obviously more complex had a slight advantage and survived. And the effect has been that we have had more and more complex forms with time.

But now we are in a position that we are selecting what's going to happen, not the blind forces of the physical environment. So we are doing it, and if we don't know what we are doing, we can make the kind of mistake that would stop evolution-at least in its human form.

This is, in a way, the testing ground for whether our species can really survive. I think it depends on whether we can realize it's simply the end and do something that will make evolution more complex, instead of breaking down into warring hordes.

PT: You suggest that people should try to overcome their individual problems, to transcend" their personal dramas....

MC: I think that's the first step. I think without resolving one's own conflicts and the kind of psychic entropy that we carry in our own psyche, it's hard to be concerned and do effective work for others.

PT: Are there some people who are better at finding complexity (and transcendence) in their lives than other people?

MC: Clearly, that's true. We know that people vary in how self-centered, selfseeking, and selfish they are, and how much they're willing to be concerned about others. Unfortunately, we don't have a measure for it like we do for IQ. If we did, it would be a big help because then people could get recognized for this ability. At this point, it's a very private matter, and you can't recognize people unless they are really extreme in this capacity.

PT: Besides rock climbing, which Aldous Huxley said was the ideal basic training for citizenship, what would be your prescription?

MC: Well, I think we find that the arts are generally enjoyed by students even through high school, whether it's dance, music, painting. When the arts are taught systematically, they do teach you discipline, they do teach you the kinds of habits of mind that you want school to inculcate. But, unfortunately, those are exactly the subjects knocked off school curricula as soon as there is a pinch in the budget.

PT: You say that it's useful to develop a complex family. What are the elements that make up a complex family, and what are the ways you can strive to get it?

MC: Well, the notion of complexity is useful because it can be applied to one's state of conscience at the moment and one's personality over time. It can be applied to families, communities, schools, and institutions. So it's a very useful way of categorizing psychosocial systems.

Complexity is made up of two dialectically linked processes. One is differentiation; the other is integration. At the level of the family, differentiation means that each person feels free to pursue their own individual goals and their own individual skills so that the parents support the child's individuality, and that the children respect the parent's own individual values or interest. This kind of understanding and practice allows each person to be as different as they want or can be from each other. That's one half of complexity.

The other half is integration, which means families where each member is aware of the other person's goals--even if they are not the same, or even contrary--and helps that person to realize their goals.

If the family's only differentiated, there's a lot of stimulation, high expectations, and encouragement of differences, without the love and support. You have kids who may be very ambitious and achieve well in school but are not really happy. They're insecure, and that tends to a result.

If you have an only integrated family, there is lots of love and support but no challenge, no pressure, no expectation of higher achievement or accomplishment. Then you have kids who act fairly happy and ad j usted and content, but thev don't seem to develop much ambition.

If you have neither differentiation nor integration, that's the worst, of course. But if you have both, that's when we're talking about complex family.

PT: You're one of the most prominent psychologists in the country. Do you practice what you preach?

MC: Well, complexity, yes. Transcendence, I don't claim to get that far. (Laughs.) But complexity, I think not so bad. My family is happy, and we are happy with each other. My work is going very well, and I've time to enjoy myself,

PT: Do you agree that the concepts that you've introduce in this book re both very complex and very simple?

MC: Well, the major principles have to do with pointing out what the major programs are that we carry in our genotype and in our culture. That is, the kind of obstacles to complexity that have been introduced by the way the nervous system works, by the emergence of the self, or by the needs we have that are necessary for survival--but can overload our circuits or get us addicted to pleasure.

So the principles have to do with the recognition of our programming, of getting the reader to sit back and say, "Now, let me think. How much of my life is really under my conscious control? How much of it is programmed for me?"

In the second half, the major principle is complexity and how to apply that to one's life in a way that is enjoyable.

These are, of course, principles that have been understood at some point by philosophers, by certain religions, by people in different cultures, by psychologists. However, I tried to interpret them in a way that is more understandable--something we can fit into the way we think at the end of the 20th century.

PT: Do you have any take-home advice for developing ourselves in the future?

MC: I think that people should realize how important what they do can be in changing both their lives and history. We are unaware, really, of the powers we have, and partly it is because we trust too much of what we are born with. We think that if you just go ahead and do what you are programmed to do, that that's what life is about.

We need to realize that in many ways life, or at least conscious life, begins only after you realize what you are supposed to do in terms of genetic and social instructions. It's only when you free yourself from the basic conditioning that we are born with do you start living.

At the same time, realize that you are free to do it or not to do it. It is up to you, and you don't have to feel guilty, you don't have to feel necessarily responsible. If you don't do it and nobody else does it, the matter will disappear, and so maybe that's how it should be. Evolution will proceed some other way, somewhere else.

PT: How do you account for the differences between you and Alvin Toffler, another prominent futurist, whose pessimistic predictions make us quite anxious. You, on the other hand, tell us that there's much to be cheerful for.

MC: What I have noticed in Mr. Toffler's work is that he takes whatever is the major trend at the moment and then projects it mechanistically into the future, which is certainly one way of dealing with prediction. It's a more or less sensible way, but it does not take into account what people can do to change the situation. Certainly, if I were to follow his method, I would come up very pessimistic, too. But if everybody becomes pessimistic and gives up trying to do something about the current condition, then it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I try to point out that we have the ability to reflect on what we do and ask ourselves "Is this the only way?" If enough people have the energy to do something about it, we may move in a somewhat better direction.