The Alex Kidd complex: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on living for the future

Living for the future is what our social system encourages: it promises ‘the good life’ and we work for its goals. This article considers how we can apply the concept of flow to improve our lives today.

As a child of the 80s, the first video game I ever played was Alex Kidd in Miracle World on Master System. I remember the wonder and joy of it, grappling with the controls to navigate Alex Kidd around his world.

Then, reaching what seemed to be the end, but which was actually the gateway to the next level, my mindset shifted: this was no longer a pleasant romp around Miracle World but an urgent quest to get to the end!

Like a lot of people these days, it seems, I often live as though life were a video game with the goals to get the furthest the fastest: Level 1 – School, Level 2 – University, Level 3 – Get a Job, Level 4 – Go for Promotion …

In playing this game, there is, to quote Eckhart Tolle, a tendency to be “so busy getting to the future that the present is reduced to a means of getting there.”

In the introduction to his great work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say “chick sent me hi yi”) observes:

We grow up believing that what counts most in our lives is that which will occur in the future. Parents teach children that if they learn good habits now, they will be better off as adults. Teachers assure pupils that the boring classes will benefit them later, when the students are going to be looking for jobs.

The company vice president tells junior employees to have patience and work hard, because one of these days they will be promoted to the executive ranks. At the end of the long struggle for advancement, the golden years of retirement beckon ….

As people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they sooner or later face an increasingly nagging question: “Is this all there is?”

Living for the future is what our social system encourages: it promises ‘the good life’ and we work for its goals.

We must, to an extent, accept this deal to function in society; to have somewhere to live, meet living expenses and participate meaningfully in the world.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

But, Csikszentmihalyi argues, to achieve a high quality of life, it is not necessary to put all one’s time and energy into conventional goals, what he calls ‘social controls’, such as climbing the career ladder, power, possessions, money and reputation.

Instead, what is required is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment:

If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders ….

Instead of forever straining for the tantalising prize dangled just out of reach one begins to harness the genuine rewards of living.

He goes on to explain that the way to enjoy the process of living is to find more opportunities to enter into states of ‘flow’ – the feeling of being completely absorbed in an activity.

He summarises decades of research thus:

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

And so the goals of the game change, and now the challenge is to find my flow in miracle world.


Author: Rachel Linton

Psychologist, reader, writer from Sydney, Australia. On this blog I write about ideas from leading thinkers in a relatable way for our time. Enjoy xx

5 thoughts on “The Alex Kidd complex: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on living for the future”

  1. Loved reading this – such an interesting way to look at a video game and apply it to how we live our lives. Thank you for sharing!


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