Why Flow is the key to unlocking happiness

How cultivating flow states can lead to mastery and lifelong happiness

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Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

― Aristotle

It is probably the most obvious truth that whatever we do is geared towards achieving happiness. Whether waging wars on each other or creating works of art, humans are essentially on a quest for happiness and have a deep desire to remove all impediments to that goal. But even though the legitimacy of that goal is well-established, a definitive recipe for happiness continues to elude us. The problem is compounded by the fact that happiness is a moving target — as soon as we achieve some modicum of it, we create a new normal for ourselves which then must be surpassed. This way, the hamster wheel continues to spin on and on. Despite all our achievements as a species, why do we remain largely clueless about something that is so important? Is it even possible to have a timeless strategy for being happy?

This is the question that Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: Me-high Chick-sent-me-high; referred to as CM henceforth) investigated over decades of research and finally proposed a solution for in the bestselling book Flow. The conclusion the book drew was simple yet profound: happiness is possible only through control of inner experience. By regulating the contents of our consciousness, CM wrote, we can be freed from the dictates of external circumstances and create joy in whatever we do. More importantly, Flow identified the ideal state in which true bliss was achievable; the title of the book, in fact, comes from the name CM gave to such states. To get to the essence of flow, however, we first need to understand a basic, but powerful, feature of our minds: the ability to extract subjective meaning out of events.

Subjectivity of experience

Most events that happen to us are not inherently good or bad, it is our own interpretation that makes them so. This means that unlike animals, who react to external stimuli by instinct alone, we can use reason and memory to redefine the meaning of an event. It follows therefore, that we have the freedom to interpret negative experiences subjectively and put a positive spin on them if we want. Therein lies the key to happiness — that we have the power to control the quality of our experiences. Sadly, most of us go through life without utilizing this ability and remain besieged by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Most of the time we seek happiness in external goals that are defined either by biological imperatives or the norms of society. We choose professions that we are told lead to success; we acquire possessions that are supposed to make life more comfortable; we often even choose our life partners according to an ideal image in our head. However, things that are external to us can only affect us indirectly through the experiences they provide. Moreover, no person can exercise absolute control over everything that happens around them. This means that betting on favourable circumstances and external goals for happiness is a shaky strategy at best. What we need to focus on instead, is something within our control — our own minds. For as Marcus Aurelius said:

You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

Chaos and order in consciousness

Controlling the mind is an act that is easier said than done, because the default state of human consciousness is chaos. Left to its own devices, the mind can endlessly run through the myriad problems, tasks and plans that reside within it. Such a disordered mental state can only give rise to anxiety or apathy, even if our external goals are being met. In earlier times, people had external constructs such as religion, patriotism and cultural norms to order their consciousness and shield them from the cold indifference of nature. By following the dictates of these ‘collective myths’, as historian Yuval Noah Harari calls them, people could find an overarching purpose to their lives and act accordingly with a clean conscience. Today, however, no system has as much power or reach to give meaning to millions of people. Therefore, we all look to justify our existence by aiming for what society deems worthy goals. As CM writes:

A thoroughly socialized person is one who desires only the rewards that others around him have agreed he should long for.

The result of chasing external goals without any central purpose is that we cease to derive any enjoyment from our actions themselves. Rather, happiness comes to be linked with achievement of discrete goals only; what we get is vast stretches of frustration and anxiety interspersed with a few instances of short-lived pleasure.

The exact opposite of this chaotic state is what CM labels optimal experience — a situation where consciousness is highly ordered in the pursuit of a realistic and self-chosen goal, with our skills stretched to their limits. While engaged in such activities, we become free of the need to gun for ‘respectable’ goals and learn to find rewards in each moment. The first step towards achieving such an ordered state and improving the quality of everyday experience is to deploy the force of our attention on goals that matter to us. The benefits of using attention wisely cannot be overstated. For starters, by focusing intently we deprive distracting thoughts of mind space because it is impossible to entertain more than one thought at a time in our heads. Secondly, the quality of life is entirely dependent on things we pay attention to because thoughts, feelings and memories are all shaped by it. Put simply, we are what we pay attention to.

Linking the concept of attention with the inherent subjectivity of experience, we can now begin to understand how we can derive joy from each moment. By choosing to pay attention to those things that tie into our larger purpose, we can intentionally control the reality we experience and therefore find joy through from within.

Pleasure is not equal to enjoyment

It is important here to make a distinction between pleasure and enjoyment. What we often think of as happiness is actually the activation of our pleasure circuits. The feelings of contentment that arise when we are lazing on the couch, watching TV, eating a tasty snack, or buy a new car is the brain’s response to ingrained biological or social goals. The same emotions can be generated by electrically stimulating certain parts of the brain. Further, pleasure only brings momentary order to our consciousness by directing attention in a low-grade manner. Since no great effort is required to experience pleasure, there is no improvement in our existing skills.

Enjoyment, on the other hand, comes from a much deeper place and requires unusual levels of attention and effort. You experience true enjoyment when you are deeply immersed in a challenging task and your skills are stretched to the limit. You lose a sense of self and the hours seem to fly past. When you emerge from such a session, you feel something has changed for the better inside you. CM calls this phenomenon an ‘increase in complexity’. True happiness looks more like enjoyment rather than pleasure.

Description of flow

From the above core of enjoyment comes the concept of flow, a state where opportunities for action are closely matched with the skills one possesses. This fine balance is important because if the challenge is too overwhelming, it leads to anxiety but if on the other hand it is too easy, boredom ensues. In addition, a flow-inducing activity has clear goals and rules for action so that we know precisely what is to be done and how. The final ingredient of flow is the availability of feedback. Without feedback, any activity however engaging it might be, cannot take us to the higher levels of consciousness that characterize a flow state. Feedback matters because it is a signal that we are succeeding in our endeavor and therefore spurs us even further.

When all these elements are in order, we lose all consciousness of the self and become one with the activity. Out attention is so highly ordered that mundane concerns or random thoughts just don’t find a way in. When our involvement in a task is so intense, we become oblivious to the passing of time or any other physical sensations, such as hunger. At the conclusion of the activity, when we again become aware of our own self, we can feel a remarkable change within. Paradoxically, the self emerges more confident and with improved skills, even though we never consciously gave thought to it’s wellbeing while in flow.

Why flow works

Flow works because of two reasons. Firstly, by ordering our consciousness through intense focus on a challenging and self-chosen task we get rid of thought patterns such as doubts, worries, guilt, and regret that create disharmony in the mind. Secondly, it provides true enjoyment as opposed to passive pleasure, which only leaves us anxious and empty once the source of stimulation is no longer available. Thirdly, flow is important because it leads to self-improvement and a sense of mastery. In a flow state, we become one with the activity and start to subtly sense its rhythms and peculiarities. Through this intimate connection with the activity, our skills begin to improve. However, once we spend enough time at a particular level of skill, we start getting bored because that level of activity ceases to challenge our now enhanced skills. Thus, we seek even more difficult challenges against which we can test ourselves. This positive feedback loop keeps spurring us on to even higher levels of skill, and eventually mastery, if we keep at it long enough.

Finally, and counterintuitively, flow states are so enjoyable that doing them becomes its own reward, even if we began with some specific goal in mind. This is because when we do something with an eye to personal benefit, it is impossible to get completely immersed in the activity as we are constantly monitoring our own feelings for whether things are going as per plan. This self-consciousness, however, is completely at odds with the conditions required for flow. On the other hand, when experiences are intrinsically rewarding, we learn to enjoy every moment rather than thinking about the odds of success. Paradoxically, it is this lack of self-conscious behavior that leads to improvement of the self and sharpening of skills.

How to achieve flow

So how does one go about looking for flow? Some activities could be said to be inherently structured for flow e.g. playing music, surgery, software coding, and adventure sports because they make it easier to slip into states of optimal experience. But what about most other things that common people do day in and day out? Is it even possible to find flow in such activities? The simple answer is that even in the most mundane jobs, it is possible to find opportunities for action, however small, and use them to derive enjoyment. The book cites many such examples of people who work blue collar jobs doing mostly repetitive tasks but manage to transform their experience by setting little goals for themselves that test their skills to the limit. In nutshell, more than the type of activity, it is our own attitude towards the available challenges that determines the quality of experience.

Approaching work with this mindset is our best shot at extracting maximum enjoyment from each moment. Since such an evaluation is entirely subjective, it’s quite possible that a junior accountant finds more fulfillment in balancing his books than a surgeon does in even the most complicated surgeries. In other words, there is no objective flow activity, per se. Whatever the task may be, by focusing intently, setting challenging but achievable goals, and striving to hone our skills, it is possible to immerse ourselves completely in the activity and emerge stronger afterwards.

Life as a flow project

All said and done, a life with only scattered instances of flow is still an unfulfilling one because outside of moments of such optimal experience we would still be susceptible to mental chaos. To guard against this, what we need is a unifying theme to transform whole of existence into a flow project. This can be done by determining what our overarching purpose is — it could be gaining mastery in a field, raising your kids the best way possible or creating a vast body of artistic work. Such an all-encompassing goal is powerful because it informs every thing we do. At any given moment, doubts, fears and other negative emotions do not affect us because we are confident that our action of the moment is geared towards a larger, much more important goal.

As CM writes, life becomes full when there is harmony in consciousness. This harmony is achieved when all lesser goals flow from a big and important goal and no action is without purpose. Doing this ensures that all separate parts of life fit together and each activity is justified in the present. Most of us, unfortunately, never find fulfillment in our lives because we either don’t have an overarching purpose to direct our actions or we just shy away from the initial work required in developing the flow mindset. However, we would do well to heed the clichéd, but true, advice of finding happiness within because it is only then that we can begin to take the reins of our lives in our own hands.

I read like a man possessed | I write to understand the world | Twitter: @DhawalHelix

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