Criminality and Flow: Addiction, Anomie and Alienation

When I took off for the second run, I was released as the full force and energy of who I am as a person.  In a way, the second run was a perfect run.  There are few times in our lives where we become the thing we’re doing. Olympic skier Andrea Lawrence, quoted in her obituary in The New York Times, April 4, 2009


Flow is the process of total involvement with life, when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile…. But when a person becomes so dependent on the ability to control an enjoyable activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, then he loses the ultimate control: the freedom to determine the content of consciousness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience 


anomie: personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition


Sports psychology is about flow. Andrea Lawrence was in flow when she won her second gold medal on that perfect run. Pro golfers so dread choking—the self-consciousness which destroys flow—that they won’t even utter the word. But flow isn’t just for pro athletes. We’ve all had at least fleeting moments of being so into what we’re doing that we lose track of time. Transcending the physical world becomes its own reward.

In A Criminal History of Mankind, Colin Wilson says criminals engage in violent acts because the physical stimulus enables them to feel alive in a way akin to being in flow. The sharpened awareness that danger produces makes crime addictive. Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also warned flow-producing activities can become addictive. But flow and crime are linked in yet another way.

Wilson believed the insights gained from intense creative focus eliminate the boredom and dissatisfactions with life which give rise to the need to assert self-respect through criminal aggression. He even went so far as to claim that “no poet, artist or composer has ever committed a calculated, first degree murder.” (We novelists sublimate our desires.) Another way to transcend the physical world is to immerse oneself in the creative efforts of others. 

Books have long been a tool of prison reform. Fiction in particular provides a window into the minds and experiences of others, a way out of one’s own head. Reading novels enables inmates to focus and engenders a more complex world view. In teaching how others make sense of their  lives, it shows there are other ways to respond to conflicts and pressures than the decisions that lead to criminal acts.  

Duane Frye never read fiction. He thought it was a waste of time.   

How do you get into flow?


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