Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. ~ M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, p. 2
There is a saying “Only a few books are worth reading, but in order to find which ones, you have to read a lot of bad things.”
There have been tens of books I have read or discarded, and one particular book among a few others has left an everlasting impression on me. This book is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, and so far it to a large extent has shaped my understanding of happiness and enjoyment.
Happiness seems to be directly related to this optimal experience called flow. The more a person experiences a state of flow (or being in the zone) in day-to-day life, the happier she feels. And the most promising part about flow experience, is that it can be consciously cultivated through deliberate effort. Therefore, happiness also can be cultivated.
Every year I like to reflect on my past year’s experiences and note down what I would like to accomplish next year and this year is not an exception. This time, my reflection is inspired by Csikszentmihalyi’s work more than ever.
For Friedrich Nietzsche, life is worth living only if there are goals inspiring one to live. And indeed, sense of purpose is the driving force for my life. The force that motivates me to get out of the bed and go through the day. However, sometimes I take this force for granted and forget my goals thereby becoming yet another participant in a rat race where I have the driving force for my actions, but no enjoyment for my life since my actions have no clear purpose. Even if I win the rat-race — I am still a rat.
That rat race, where dumb lab rats are mindlessly running towards a goal that has been imposed on them by their masters from the upper layers of the pyramid, a goal that from rat perspective might seem their own, but in fact they are merely tools in their master’s hands, the hands that would always condemn any acts of self-reliance, seeing such acts as a threat to the system that they have created for their own benefit. Similarly it’s for us, humans — once we are in the rat-race, there is little time for reflection on the purpose for our participation in this race, being unable to think outside the box and withdraw ourselves from the system that squeezes us out like lemons just to take the best out of us and then leave our desiccated bodies out in oblivion.
However, I always have a choice. Strive to be driven by passion and purpose, or merely by merciless rules of survival imposed on me by the dominant culture or tyranny of the genes.
Some substantial human beings, Viktor E. Frankl among them, have proven that even during the incomprehensible adversity, even in deepest abyss of despair, there is a possibility to transform threats and mundane activities into enjoyable experiences. Behind such heroic efforts is a goal worth pursuing despite the odds and opposition.
Setting Sustainable Goals
In human world one of the most effective means of controlling people’s minds is a certain value system — either religious, ethnic or political value system propagated through mass media to subtly steer our goals in certain directions — getting that degree, achieving that point in career, getting advantage over that competitor, buying that car, building that house, marrying that person, having those babies, having those hundred likes on Facebook, achieving that spiritual state, launching that product, getting that acknowledgment. Only to realize that the enormous effort put into those goals might not have brought as much happiness as one expected, or it does not last as long as wished. Unless the goal is something that one truly, independently had chosen instead of being imposed by the dominant social order.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that finds such insurrections threatening, not least because they make us less predictable and therefore harder to control. This is one reason we’re constantly reminded of the importance of leading a happy, balanced life — the kind of life that “makes sense” from the viewpoint of the dominant social order. Many of us have, in fact, internalized the ideal of a happy, balanced life to such an extent that we find it hard to imagine alternatives. As Freud has already claimed, there is little doubt about what most people want out of life: “They want to become happy and to remain so.” ~ Mari Ruti
So we must listen to our true self.
Since we can not excel in every area as it requires more effort and time investment as one has in her lifetime, it is important to set such path that is in tune to one’s natural abilities.
Natural Ability is: — An act of creative contribution that ignites you. It is easy, effortless, fun and produces the greatest good to those around you. ~ Stephen Martile
Despite the fact that our dominant, monetary culture forces us to steer in directions that may lead further away from our natural abilities, the directions that are more monetizable than others, I believe that one can, through some deliberate effort, either steer back to the right path, or at least learn to enjoy the path one is currently walking through and make the best out of it.
So, according to flow thinking, a goal (or mission statement as others may call it) becomes a wisely chosen journey rather than an end in itself, the journey where one is enjoying and appreciating every moment, being aware as much as one can be making those steps towards the final destination which becomes just merely part of the journey the the goal itself.
According to various researches, people report that they feel happiest when they are experiencing good relationships with friends or family and when they enjoy their work. We are biologically wired to other persons. Moreover, as nicely explained by Don Gilber, everything we do we think that make us happy are “actually just ways of getting more family and friends”. And it seems that we are wired to each other not only mentally, but also physically, as humans need other human’s touch to feel truly happy.
Therefore, it is wise to include other people in defined goals. Particularly, how they will benefit from me achieving the goals I have set.
While well-chosen and defined goals can certainly provide a direction for my actions, they do not guarantee happiness by themselves. In contrary, doubt whether the goal is the right one, regret over time and effort invested in a questionable goal, bitter realization that goal is not as achievable as it seemed brings new challenges for the mind to tackle with. One technique for dealing with complex problems I was taught at design engineering school was to divide the problems in smaller chunks. And the same I will do with my goals — I will divide them into smaller objectives and invent a reward for completing each sub-goal in order to feel progress in my journey.
It should be noted that the goals should motivate intrinsically otherwise one may become demotivated facing opposition or adversity.
However, according to Csikszentmihalyi, setting goals is just the tip of the iceberg, and the real work begins during the journey itself.
Becoming Immersed in The Activity
One of the prerequisites to achieve the state of flow is immersion in an activity that means a complete focus on the activity when most of the attention (or psychic energy) is being spent on whatever I am doing. Not a surprise that there is a saying which reads “worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum” (kudos to Baz Luhrmann). When a person is suffering, she is spending her limited attention somewhere else not on the activity at hand. And in contrary, if the individual is completely focused on activity, then the problem solving is much more effective since certain mental processes (mostly related to self-criticism) switch off leaving more psychic energy for the task at hand. The ability to persist despite the opposition and obstacles, known as grit, is one the most important human’s characteristics to succeed.
The normal state of the mind is chaos — unstoppable flow of information (thoughts, feelings, desires) which is a challenge for our mind since it is limited on how much information it can process at particular moment. Our focus, attention is truly an invaluable asset, especially now when environment provides so many external distractions trying to make decisions instead of me for what we should buy, want and need (did you know that six seconds before we act, our brain has already made a decision?).
Therefore, skill to bring order to our consciousness is critical.
According to recent researches, the human brain is compared to a muscle (i.e. it has malleable properties), therefore, ability to focus can also be trained. I have personally found meditation technique, particularly Headspace program, most effective in regards to focusing. Of course, there are hundreds of other approaches to meditation, including Turning the Mind in Ally book that I have enjoyed as a useful primer for the meditation. Meditation does not cut thoughts or destructive emotions off, and it is impossible since they are part of our human nature. However, meditation helps, and I personally can confirm that, to accept everything that happens in mind and decrease the intensity of resistance thus helping to be at ease with oneself which in turn yields many mental improvements, such as reduced stress, anxiety and better ability to focus.
So, carefully crafted goals, divided into sub-goals and a mastered skill of concentration are some prerequisites for immersing into state of flow (and therefore happiness) according to Csikszentmihalyi. But there is more, and it is about measuring progress during our journey.
When the appealing goals had been set out and I have developed the skills needed to concentrate on present moment, there is a need for an immediate feedback to feel the progress. If I do not get the feedback or interpret the feedback wrongly, then it leads to suffering.
“If you’re suffering, it’s because you’re telling yourself a story that isn’t true, but you believe it. “ ~ Don Miguel Ruiz
We are being taught by our culture certain values. But these values do not always comply with our dreams, thereby one needs to use her mind and eyes to spot the observations that are tightly related to reality.
(…) if one is going to act according to principle, one better be damn sure one has the right principles. The damage that can be done by clinging to false principles while ignoring consequences is examined in the case of moral dilemmas — the problem noted with “idealists” (…) ~Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.
One needs to understand that the reality is not supernatural as it sometimes may seem. Yes, a chance factor affects the actors in the system to some extent. But a lot of happenings are related to the laws of nature and can be explained if viewed closely enough.
Knowledge does not come from supernatural sources, but from human observation, experimentation, and rational analysis ~ American Humanist Association. 1933
Interpreting feedback may not be easy, sometimes it requires an extensive training and experience to be able to observe and analyse feedback from the environment, be it personal relationships, professional life, presentation skills, sport or other. But once I am able to perceive and act on feedback, I get more control over myself and environment, at least to some extent.
Happiness depends upon being self-sufficient and master of one’s mental attitude; suffering is consequence of false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a concomitant vicious character. (…) As reasoning creatures, people could achieve happiness via rigorous training, by living in a way natural to human beings. The world equally belongs to everyone, so suffering is caused by false judgments of what is valuable and what is worthless (…) ~Antisthenes
I can not predict or get rid completely of objective obstacles that will appear on my way, hence the goal and sub-goals should be inspiring enough to keep me uplifted even facing adversities and opposition. However, I can mitigate my internal sufferings I have created by myself, the sufferings seem to make up to 90% of total pain and anxiety I experience in my life; and save my energy for solving real problems. Opportunity comes to those who are prepared, and I need to make sure that when real problems come, I have my energy reserves in full readiness to deal with whatever I am facing. According to Csikszentmihalyi, life’s adversities can be translated into not only solvable and tangible, but also enjoyable challenges. And again this is a skill that can be mastered.
Translating Potential Threats Into Enjoyable Challenges
Up the stakes when the activity becomes too boring or split the problem in smaller chunks when it feels too complex. According to flow thinking, enjoyment lies somewhere between boredom and anxiety.
The universe including our world is not built for human pleasure and longevity. The asteroid that wiped off most of the life on our planet, dinosaurs amongst them, did not have any feelings of good or bad. It just complied with the laws of nature. In truth, our world is mostly a threatening place to live for humans. The odds of survival are not as stable as it sometimes might seem if we look carefully enough. Thanks to our predecessors many things can be taken for granted.
If we look at our mind, it is surrounded with noise in and out; and thanks to our mental capabilities, we are able to bring order to the chaos. A constant effort needs to be applied in order to survive, bring order to mind and attach a meaning to our life and activities we are doing.
Many have written about intrinsic motivation factors (doing something for the sake of activity) being more powerful than extrinsic (doing for the sake of external rewards e.g. money, recognition). A person who maintains such internal motivation whatever she is doing, is called autoelic and according to Csikszentmihalyi effortlessly “translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges”.
Consider few examples of autoelic person in practice mentioned in Flow book.
Suppose a person walks into a room full of people and decides to “join the party,” that is, to get acquainted with as many people as possible while having a good time. If the person lacks an autotelic self he might be incapable of starting an interaction by himself, and withdraw into a corner, hoping that someone will notice him. Or he may try to be boisterous and overly slick, turning people off with inappropriate and superficial friendliness. Neither strategy would be very successful or likely to provide a good time. A person with an autotelic self, upon entering the room, would shift his attention away from himself to the party — the “action system” he wishes to join. He would observe the guests, try to guess which of them might have matching interests and compatible temperament, and start talking to that person about topics he suspects will be mutually agreeable. If the feedback is negative — if the conversation turns out to be boring, or above one partner’s head — he will try a different topic or a different partner. Only when a person’s actions are appropriately matched with the opportunities of the action system does he truly become involved. ~ M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
Or about John, who has just lost his job.
Jim can take one of two opposite courses of action. He can withdraw into himself, sleep late, deny what has happened, and avoid thinking about it. He can also discharge his frustration by turning against his family and friends, or disguise it by starting to drink more than usual. All these would be examples of regressive coping, or immature defenses. Or Jim can keep his cool by suppressing temporarily his feelings of anger and fear, analyzing the problem logically, and reassessing his priorities. Afterward he might redefine what the problem is, so that he can solve it more easily — for instance, by deciding to move to a place where his skills are more in demand, or by retraining himself and acquiring the skills for a new job. If he takes this course, he would be using mature defenses, or transformational coping. Whatever solution he adopts, if Phil takes himself, his needs, and his desires too seriously, he is going to be in trouble as soon as things do not go his way. He will not have enough disposable attention available to seek out realistic options, and instead of finding enjoyable new challenges, he will be surrounded instead by stressful threats. ~ M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
So, whenever we experience boredom or anxiety, we know that we have left the flow channel and the current mental state can be deliberately altered to make us feel happier, be in flow or in the zone as Ken Robinson would say.
My Personal Outline for 2015
The thought that we could deliberately alter our attitude to experience happiness is quite liberating.
However, I would not let crystal clear, perfectly linear blueprints presented in books deceive me. While it is important to know, it is much more difficult to effectively apply the knowledge in practice as it is wisdom that matters the most which can be mastered for the whole life.
Setting meaningful goals, crafting skill of awareness and translating mundane tasks or adversities into enjoyable experiences sounds easy and clear on paper. But it is those moments when stress levels soar sky high, when creativity seems to be killed, mind is full of noise and hope feels crushed in countless pieces, I realize that it is a long way to master the skill of deliberate order, or to be more precise, stepping back from the chaos and learning to cope with the everlasting presence of chaos and entropy accepting it as a part of nature.
Considering the amount of uncertainty, complexity and unpredictability I can not do anything else than perceive my goals more as guidelines rather than an end in themselves. So instead of setting specific material aims (although they are inseparable parts of modern life), I feel it is more important to establish a framework for deliberately crafting the skills required to bring and keep me in the flow state as much as possible therefore cultivating the sense of happiness.
I can set a goal of mastering the skill of diving goals into sub-goals that can be approached in a playful manner and enjoyed, therefore step by step leading to the ultimate end of the journey, which I believe is more like a mirage that being approached reveals the horizon abundant with new goals;
- I can set a goal of mastering the skill of diving goals into sub-goals that can be approached in a playful manner and enjoyed, therefore step by step leading to the ultimate end of the journey, which I believe is more like a mirage that being approached reveals the horizon abundant with new goals;
- Physical body affects my efficiency to a large extent. Many scientists admit proper sleep is necessary to live fully. Not only good sleep is closely tied to mental processes as skipping sleep slows ability to process information and solve problems, kills creativity, catapults stress levels, the absence of proper sleep buries the brain in a pile of physical waste. So I promise my body to have an adequate rest as much as possible in order to be able to give something to this world.
- I can promise myself to master the skill of awareness as often as I can. In that sense my latest discovery amongst other meditation tools is Headspace, which makes my journey towards understanding nuts and bolts of my mind more enjoyable. Since I have started to use it half a year ago, I feel healthier attitude towards anxiety, stress, resistance. So instead of obtaining resilience to stress, I bound myself to the journey itself committing to enjoy and appreciate each step as I learn to be truly aware;
- Also, I can commit to doing my best to immerse in whatever I am doing that is congruent with my goals and values. Attention is a limited, hence, valuable resource that should not be wasted. It is liberating to know that more often than not it is possible to immerse in the flow state by deliberately balancing skill with challenges and vice versa.
- I will seek ways to find feedback for whatever I am doing as it is a profound ingredient of the progress;
- And probably, most importantly, I will look for ways of decreasing the intensity of my ego and experience human connectedness more. How the things I am doing contribute to others and why it is important. We are wired to other people. And if I look deeply enough, I realise that everything I do, every piece of work of self-expression I deliver, is my desire to be happy, and desire to be happy is my attempt to connect with other people and to leave this world a little bit better place, even if it means only a tiny 0.00000000000001% fraction of all the goodness. And as banal as it may sound, it is true.
Of course, I have also specific, more materialistic goals, just as many do. Like going through the world of math once more (thanks to Khan Academy it is an enjoyable process) for my product design idea, improving my prototyping skills that I need to build better products and many others that I can not be sure of whether they will be fulfilled or not during next year, since I can’t predict or control most of what is happening in real life. I won’t beat myself up for mistakes or disappointments. Life is complicated, so mistakes are inevitable. I will inspire myself and focus my energy to do the best I can to stay within the flow state as often as possible and feel happy about my journey and how people around me might benefit from it.
And in order to illustrate that it is the smallest, sometimes unplanned things during the journey that bring the most joy, consider this pearl of wisdom.
One day a father and his rich family took his young son on a trip to the country with the firm purpose of showing him how poor people can be. They spent a day and a night in the farm of a very poor family.
When they returned from their trip, the father asked his son, “How was the trip?”
“Very good, Dad!”
“Did you see how poor some people are?” the father asked.
“And what did you learn?”
The son answered: “I saw that we have a dog at home, and they have four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of the garden, while they have a creek that has no end. We have imported lamps in the garden, and they have the stars. Our patio reaches to the front yard, they have a whole horizon.”
When the little boy finished, his father was speechless.
His son added, “Thanks, Dad, for showing me how poor we are!”
This was an outline for my journey.
Good luck on yours and Happy New 2015 Year!