In 1990, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago wrote Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The book provides a phenomenology of optimal experience and happiness based on research and interviews with individuals who had found great happiness and fulfillment, sometimes in spite of extraordinary challenges.
The book is a result of over 25 years of research and reflection by a leading psychologist (and he hasn’t stopped there!), and it’s based on a simple discovery:
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. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person.
The key insight of the book is that happiness is more than simply the passive experience of pleasurable sensations. The feeling of optimal experience, or flow, is derived from achieving mastery over our own experiences as we face increasingly complex challenges. There must be the proper balance of challenges and resources to meet those challenges. When our attention is focused by our intentions, and we move toward unique solutions to life’s problems, we grow. Overcoming these challenges leads to a feeling of confidence, a loss of self-consciousness, and a deep focus that makes us feel connected to ourselves, the world, and others.
If only there was a way for us to run a program, like in the movie, The Matrix, to create this sense of calm and focus!
The avoidance of pain and risk inhibits our growth. This is not to say that we actively seek out painful or high-risk situations. But as we maintain our focus on achieving self-mastery in the midst of life’s challenges, we develop habits of character (courage, patience, persistence, confidence, calm, creativity) that open us up to new experiences and create a deep sense of fulfillment.
Csikszentmihalyi notes that flow experiences are autotelic: that is to say, they are good in themselves and do not have some future goal or benefit in mind. That’s not to say that every flow experience is sought out initially. Sometimes, we discover flow in the midst of activities that we were forced to do.
As a child, my parents made me take piano lessons. I didn’t always enjoy the discipline of practicing for a half-hour each day, particularly when the passive activity of watching television seemed so much more enjoyable at the time. Nevertheless, as an adult, I find that playing music is one of my greatest delights.
We don’t get to choose the hand that life has dealt us. We do, however, get to choose the ways we will respond to the challenges and setbacks of life. We can, as the apostle Paul said, “find the secret of being content no matter the circumstances, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12-13). In fact, there is research that suggests that hormones that make us feel hungry also relieve stress.
We don’t need to fulfill every desire in order to be happy. It is true that optimal experience occurs when we have clear goals, a likelihood of completing the task, and a sense of control over our actions and decisions. But the joy of flow is not simply in the completion of the task. We experience flow in the midst of the struggle.
Happy people find enjoyment through facing and overcoming challenges. That simple attitude is the difference between happiness and misery.