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An example of flow in Anna Karenina

In part Chapter Four of Part Three of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy I came across a great example of flow, written well before Mihály Csíkszentmihályi formally identified and defined flow in 1990 and it became popular in positive psychology.

In the example, Levin, a Russian land owner, decides to go out and work side by side with the peasants who work his land. The job at hand is mowing the long grass to make hay. Levin is an inexperienced mower, but wants to try it anyway.

Initially he struggles a bit with it:

The grass was short close to the road, and Levin, who had not done any mowing for a long while, and was disconcerted by the eyes fastened upon him, cut badly for the first moments, though he swung his scythe vigorously.

And alongside the strong peasants, he begins to feel that he won’t have the energy to finish:

Levin followed him, trying not to get left behind, and he found it harder and harder: the moment came when he felt he had no strength left, but at that very moment Tit stopped and whetted the scythes.

After finishing his first row he gets a taste of victory:

And this long row seemed particularly hard work to Levin; but when the end was reached … Levin walked back in the same way over the space he had cut, in spite of the sweat that ran in streams over his face and fell in drops down his nose, and drenched his back as though he had been soaked in water, he felt very happy. What delighted him particularly was that now he knew he would be able to hold out.

Still not quite perfect, “His pleasure was only disturbed by his row not being well cut.” but he’s intent on getting it:

He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible.

Then, the great description of his feeling of flow:

Another row, and yet another row, followed–long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as smooth and well cut as Tit’s. But so soon as he recollected what he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once conscious of all the difficulty of his task, and the row was badly mown.

It’s pretty cool how closely Tolstoy’s description fits with Csíkszentmihályi’s definition.

PS – Yes, it’s been 10 months since my last post. Despite being pretty busy, I just haven’t felt I’ve had much to write. Hopefully there will be a few good posts coming up in the near future.