This article is from new staff writer Tim Sullivan.

How can you get the most out of the dollars you spend on entertainment? Though it seems counter-intuitive, I’ve found that with a small investment of time and an understanding of the things I enjoy most, the less I spend on them and the more I enjoy them.

In his popular book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychology professor and former head of the University of Chicago psychology department, writes that the most happiness comes from being in the flow of activities you love. He describes flow as follows:

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost…To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve fallen into a cycle of throwing money at things that got old quickly because I didn’t give enough of my attention to them. As something gets stale, you need to spend more to get anything out of it — buy another cookbook, another video game, another album from iTunes — just think about how many Sudoku puzzles you’d want to finish if they were all incredibly easy.

Csikszentmihalyi tells us we’ll reap the most enjoyment out of more complex activities, but to fully appreciate more complex activities, we have to increase our skill level to match. We already spend money on our leisure activities, whether it be a cable bill, a Netflix account, an occasional magazine, fitness classes, or analyzing stock portfolios. How can you have more fun with with your favorite kinds of entertainment (and ultimately reduce spending)? Learn more about them.

Assessing your recreational expenses
So what does that “entertainment” column on your monthly finances go toward? Is it music from iTunes? An occasional bottle of wine? Splurges at the bookstore? Cooking? How can you enjoy them more? The following are a couple examples:

Example one: If you’re into music…

  • If you like classical music, can you name the harmonic structure of Beethoven’s 5th symphony? Do you know if it’s major or minor?
  • If modern classical is more your thing, can you hear the slight half-step shift after 16 bars of repetition in Philip Glass’ solo piano work?
  • Ever thought about exactly what makes Radiohead sound so great?

These aren’t questions of mere pretension. If you can begin to appreciate a piece of music from yesteryear, that carries through to any music of today. You will never listen to Radiohead, Gaga, or Ben Folds the same way again. I’m not talking about learning to compose for full orchestra, it’s more about making more of an investment of time and energy into learning more about what you already love.

Pick up Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music from your local library, sit down with his “Appalachian Spring”, and just be with it. Put yourself into the landscape. Increase your skill set and know what to listen for and from that, allow music to take on a new role. Contemporary music, based on many of the same rules of melody and counterpoint, will start to sound different to you, and you might find yourself delving into other genres based on learning more about what you like.

Example two: If wine is your thing…
You don’t want to take a chance on the cheapest bottle at the grocery store, but you also don’t have a $20 bottle in your budget. Maybe you’re going to a dinner party and you want to bring something nice, but budget-friendly.

There are times when you might want to splurge on an expensive bottle of wine, but until you learn more about it, save your money and increase enjoyment by increasing your education. This doesn’t necessarily mean paying for an expensive tasting course at your local culinary school. A simple way to save money is to spend 10 minutes online and find the best widely available wines for under $12. Or invest an hour or so reading something like Jancis Robinson’s How to Taste: A Guide to Enjoying Wine. Maybe it’s just a free video podcast and a few $10 bottles over the course of a couple months (most wine stores offer 10% to 15% discounts for cases of six), and you’re well on your way to being a minor-league sommelier. At the very least, you’ll be able to savor each glass and understand more about what you’re tasting.

Engagement versus zoning out
Often our leisure activities are an afterthought: It’s Friday night, I might as well go see a movie for $12. I’ll watch a couple previews and go with whatever looks best. But is paying $12 to see the sequel to that comic book movie really the most enjoyable way to spend your money? (Hey, I’m not knocking it. I saw every X-Men movie multiple times — just on DVD because I wanted to spend that ticket money elsewhere.)

We all get that urge to zone out and simply stare at something, that’s natural and sometimes it’s just what you need after a long day, but the more we engage with the leisure activities we really enjoy — the complex activities that get our full attention — the more we can find that state of flow and the less we’ll mindlessly consume.

April’s note: I have found this to be true for my favorite pastimes. It’s so easy to overspend on one of my favorite hobbies, cooking, but the truth is you need very little to be a good cook. The best way to improve your skills is to be in the kitchen as much as possible, read Cook’s Illustrated magazine, and watch the cooking shows on PBS! The single-use gadgets and fancy tools are usually a waste of money (Cook’s Illustrated tests everything and tells you what’s worth buying.) I’ve added some fun toys here and there, but only after really establishing that I’d use them by spending hours in the kitchen.

What are your entertainment expenses? How can you increase their complexity and your skills to enjoy them more fully?

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