I just finished reading Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. As its the classic work on happiness, and given my interest in the subject (see my blogs on what drives us, being happier at home, learning to be happy and being inspired by The Happiness Project) I am kicking myself for not having read it sooner. It’s brilliant and is what much of later work on happiness is based on. It’s packed full of great insights so I’ll just focus here on a few key ones that really resonated with me.
Firstly, what is flow? He defines it as the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. It seems to me you know when you get it (for me when out for a run or when writing when I know I won’t be interrupted), but how do we get better at seeking it out? Key is not trying to look for it directly, but instead gaining it by being fully involved in every detail of our lives. We need to be doing activities that are intrinsically rewarding – paying attention to an activity as an end in itself, rather than focusing on consequences.
Seeking flow experiences that are not available in everyday life leads to thrill seeking. This is unproblematic when it comes to a passion for white-water rafting, less so when it means only being able to get there through illegal drugs.
Mastery, and the difference between pleasure and enjoyment
Another lesson for me was that the best moments of our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times (so should I stop longing for lying on the beach?), but are rather when the body or mind are stretched to their limits to achieve something difficult and worthwhile. There’s a difference between pleasure (watching a really good TV box set maybe) and deep enjoyment, which occurs when you’re confronted with a task that you have a chance of completing, can concentrate on what you’re doing, and have clear goals and immediate feedback.
Such deep but effortless involvement removes the worries and frustrations of everyday life, and give you a sense of control, whilst your sense of self disappears (but returns more strongly afterwards), as your sense of time is altered. Enjoyment really appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety – when challenges are perfectly balanced with a person’s ability to act.
So what does all this mean for the world of work where we spend so much of our time and energy? Well the good news is that ironically jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because, like flow activities, they have built in goals, feedback, rules and challenges (perhaps that’s why I often end up structuring my free time?).
But when it comes to work, people often disregard the quality of their immediate experience and base their motivation on the cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like. We can then end up in jobs doing things we don’t really want to do, or fighting against the experience. To some degree whether a job has meaning depends on a person’s approach to it, but if we feel we are investing attention in a task against our will it means we’re actually making someone else’s goals come true, which we then perceive as subtracting time from the total available for our life. And clearly, that’s not good.
Becoming one of those people that get it
So who are these people that seem to have figured out how to maximise flow in their everyday life at work and at home and have worked out what they want from their life as a whole? More importantly, how can we learn from them?
The ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others and is the most important trait for succeeding in life and enjoying it as well. These are the people who lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live. They rarely get bored, do not constantly need a favourable external environment to enjoy the moment, and have passed the test for having achieved a creative life. How do they achieve this control over their own destinies?
Essentially, your feelings, thoughts and actions need to be in sync – that way you get rid of doubt, regret, guilt and fear and build an inner strength and serenity that basically means you have come to terms with yourself. This is all about feeling that destiny is in your hands, and not being in control, but developing a sense of exercising control. It’s all too easy to know what you should do but to not do it, whether that’s staying in a failed relationship, in a job that doesn’t fulfil you, or putting off doing the thing you know will really make you happy. Ensuring your feelings, thoughts and actions are congruent enables you to create a strong sense of self that means external disappointment doesn’t undermine who you are.
All this is not a panacea and is not suggesting that people don’t face circumstances of poverty, illness and mental health that are really tough to overcome. But it is offering a steer on ways to help to try to.
Key to it all is doing some proper thinking about what your life goals are. Dedication to a cause greater than yourself and to a unified purpose can give deep satisfaction and meaning to life, in contrast to chasing success for its own sake and being left with a sense of disappointment after the transient pleasure of having jumped through yet another hoop has passed.
People in relationships need shared goals, whether those are living in the country, having children, or changing other people’s lives for the better through their work. Goals then need revising as things change or we end up frustrated. Still wanting to be living a pre-children life after having kids is not a recipe for happiness, neither is expecting the same personal space you had when you lived alone when you start sharing a flat.
But critically goals must not be set because they are expected. Easy to say, but hard to achieve. Instead pursuing what the author calls discovered (rather than expected) life themes is what’s needed, but it can be much harder. People may well think you’re crazy wanting dogs instead of kids. Or they may devalue the things you do because you love doing them but don’t get paid for them. But if your goals sustain you and give meaning to your life and enable you to live it in a state of flow, well that’s really all that matters.