For me the most helpful point in Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, is to take time to set structure to our lives, including tough goals that push us to the limit. He says true enjoyment is characterized by forward movement; the act of pushing ourselves beyond what we are programmed to do to achieve something unexpected.
There are likely a number of things you do already that reach or approach this ideal and get you to that state of flow. For me it includes:
• Playing a close game of tennis that stretches my ability
• Pushing myself to the max in stretching , yoga style
• Reading a book that reveals things in a new light
• Closing a tough real estate deal
• Having a conversation that leads to a discovery of gives me new ideas
• Spending time writing in my journal and setting more goals and plans with dates to push myself
• Working out very, very hard
• Climbing or cycling up a big tough mountain
I think we should all become aware of the flow experiences that push us towards the unexpected, giving us the experiences and forward movement that brings true happiness and contentment. Consider taking the time to figure out what those are for you. Then make them a priority and see if you don’t find your life quite a bit more satisfying.
If what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is true, the key to happiness is being involved in every detail of our lives and taking action with intention. It all comes down to our focus, both in being mindful of what we do as well as keeping our attention on the condition of our life. This is never easy. As mentioned last week, we have built-in desires and tendencies that disrupt our focus and distract us from our intended actions.
Personally I think a huge part of this is that we mistake pleasure for happiness. Things that are pleasurable, that fulfill our immediate desires, do not necessarily bring happiness as they are really two different things.
Consider what you think of as ‘pleasurable’–food, relaxation, physical contact with others, etc.–then think about the things that actually make you happy and feel fulfilled–recognition for your hard work, winning a competition, learning something new, etc. An action can feel pleasurable, enough to continue doing it, but you may not enjoy it in the end (heavy drugs or alcohol use quite often result in this seemingly contradictive state). Yet you can do things that are painful but give you great contentment, like pushing yourself to finish a marathon or living frugally because you put all your money into your new business. What makes you happy, and breeds contentment, are those things that challenge you and add complexity to your life, not the sensations of a momentary pleasure.
If you understand this and can recognize the difference, the battle over “self” that I talked about last week will be much easier. If you let your mind be constantly diverted from your plans and intentions by activities that are fleetingly pleasurable such as excessive eating, television, recreational drug use, drinking too much alcohol, etc. you will not enjoy your life. They just can’t provide you with the lasting contentment that comes from facing difficult challenges and accomplishing long term plans.
Pleasurable, healthy diversions do not have to be a disruption. If you plan for them they can become part of the order and progress that your happiness is built on. That is how you achieve focus and flow, with intentions fulfilled and distractions under control. The key here is recognizing what is a distraction and what will, in the end, provide you with the happiness and contentment you are after.
In the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihaly says the battle over self is the only battle that you must win for complete contentment, that all other battles will be relatively easy when battle over self is won.
It’s not an easy battle, I can tell you. But it helps if you understand what ‘self’ is and can recognize it.
Self is that part of you that is instinctual, the part that would prefer to rest, eat more, and spend more time in physical pleasures. This part of ourselves is rooted in our long ago past. Way back when every day was focused on just surviving, we had to rest whenever we could because every waking hour was spent hunting and gathering. It was also a time when food wasn’t always readily available so you would eat up when you could. And as lifespans were short, a strong sex drive was a matter of survival for our species. These desires for rest, food, and sex were a necessary part of our lives.
Our society and our way of life have evolved dramatically in a relatively short time but these impulses did not. We still battle the instinctual self every day, trying not to be distracted by it so we can accomplish the things we want and know we should be doing. When we are in ‘flow’, however, all of this inherent self falls away. Our world becomes the challenge we are engaged in and nothing more. We are no longer battling old instincts or even wrestling with modern pressures. There is no self to be concerned with, just the task at hand and that sense of contentment it brings.
It would be great if we instantly fall into this flow state whenever we needed it but it’s just not that easy to overcome the self. However, we can work towards it in many things we do, shutting out that voice that sidetracks us or complains about the work to be done. This is the old, unnecessary ‘self’ talking to you. Learn to recognize it for what it is and shut it out. We can’t do much about it being there, but we don’t have to listen to it either. That is another thing about modern man. We have a choice.
I recently sat down and re-read, for maybe the 6th or 7th time, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s fantastic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He has some very intriguing ideas and I wanted to share some them with you over the next few weeks.
First of all, the basic idea of the book and the theory he discusses is that we are happiest when we are in, what he calls, a state of ‘flow’. This is that moment when you become completely engrossed in what you are doing and everything else around you kind of disappears. Some people call it being in the zone or getting in a groove. But whatever it’s called, it is usually spoken of with fervor, excitement or longing and I think we’d all like to spend a lot more time there.
You can only be in flow, though if the task on hand is of particular interest to you and you have some level of skill to work with. Plus it needs to be challenging–nothing frustratingly hard, but challenging enough to motivate you to keep working at it. A natural interest combined with a testing of our skills gives us an intense sense of fulfillment, so much so that things like time, food, comfort, and even ego are lost. We get to a point where we do the task for the sake of the task and reach a state of productive harmony.
I’m thinking, though, you don’t have to get into the zone or a groove to make these ideas bring more happiness into your life on a regular basis. Whether it’s tasks you are accomplishing at your job, with your business, while working on a hobby or even fixing up the house you can develop your skills so that you do what you do well. Then challenge yourself and your skills. That same sense of fulfillment and happiness can be a part of your every day then, not just those super cool moments when you’re in the flow. But, of course, making it a goal to have more of those trance like flow moments would certainly make for a happier you as well.