This week, Life Training Online is reviewing Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the sixteenth of fifty-two books in the 52 Personal Development Books in 52 Weeks series.

Happiness Revisited

Happiness is not found by searching for it — the more you aim at it Mihaly says, the more you are going to miss it. It must ensue, becoming part of the side-effect of one’s own dedication to a cause greater than oneself.

In this chapter, Mihaly discusses what he’s discovered to be the source of happiness. According to him, it’s not something that simply happens, nor is it the result of some good fortune or random chance. It’s also not something that money can buy. In other words, happiness is not dependent upon outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret those events.

Despite many of us believing that these external forces determine our happiness, there are those rare times when, instead of being controlled by anonymous forces, we feel in complete control of our actions. In moments like these, we feel a sense of exhilaration and a deep sense of enjoyment that becomes imprinted in our memory for years to come. This is what Mihaly refers to as “optimal experience” or “flow”, which contrary to common belief, does not come during the calm, passive, relaxing times, but, rather when “our mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult.”

The Anatomy of Consciousness

In cultures past, it was considered the norm to temper one’s thoughts and feelings. This is not the case in our day in age — where we are told to accept our thoughts as who we are and let our feelings play out how they will. Nowadays, those who attempt to control their thoughts and feelings are considered “uptight” or not quite “with it.” But according to Mihaly, those who take the trouble to gain mastery over their consciousness, live a happier life.

This chapter deals with understanding the workings of consciousness, without which, we would never be able to gain such mastery.

Mihaly explains that at some point in evolution, we humans developed consciousness — the ability to override our instinctual instructions and set our own independent course of action. Unlike other animals, we have developed a “gap” between stimulus and response. It is this gap that allows us to weigh what our senses are telling us and respond accordingly, as well as daydream, tell lies, write poetry, and come up with scientific theories. Most importantly, a person can make himself happy, or miserable, despite what might be happening on the “outside,” just by changing their consciousness.

In an average human’s lifetime, we process about 185 million bits of information — such as sound, visual stimuli, or nuances of emotion or thought. Therefore, the information we allow to enter our consciousness is what ultimately determines the quality and content of our lives. So how does information come into our minds? It’s through the medium of “psychic energy,” or more simply put, the focusing of our attention on that information. The mark of a person who has control over their consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will — oblivious to outside distraction — and concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and no longer.

Enjoyment and the Quality of Life

In our culture, wealth, power, and status have become powerful symbols of happiness. When we see those who are rich, famous, or good looking, we automatically assume that they are experiencing a rewarding life. However, as the news headlines often report, wealth, power, or good looks are not always synonyms with happiness. Far too many of these seemingly endowed people are miserable. And why? Because to improve ones life one must improve — not just the quality of their environment — but more importantly the quality of experience.

This is obviously not saying that money, fame, and physical fitness are irrelevant. They are definite blessings, but should not be taken as the answer to our unhappy lives. It’s better to find out how everyday life can be made more satisfying instead of simply dedicated to the pursuit of symbolic goals which in and of itself will not bring true happiness. According to Mihaly, it’s the search for enjoyment, not pleasure, that spawns happiness.

In his research, Mihaly was able to find the common elements that make up any enjoyable activity:

First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.

The key to take out of this, however, is that flow experiences are generally not natural; they demand that you invest an initial effort that at first you may be reluctant to make. But afterwards, as you become engrossed in the activity, and you’re receiving regular feedback from it, the activity will take on a life of its own, becoming rewarding in itself.

Flow is the sixteenth of fifty-two books in Life Training – Online’s series 52 Personal Development Books in 52 Weeks.

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