The Secret to Happiness?
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago
This is not your ordinary self-help book. Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist, gave beepers to four thousand people across the globe. Whenever the beepers went off, the people were instructed to fill out a special worksheet asking questions about their level of happiness at that very moment. What the author found was that happiness is determined not so much by who you are or what you have, but by the activities that you do everyday. Specifically, Csikszentmihalyi determined that people are happiest when they enter a scientifically identifiable psychological state he calls “flow”—something akin to the “runner’s high” that marathoners often talk about.
The most important revelation in the book is the idea that we can all achieve flow, and personal happiness, by doing activities that meet certain concrete requirements. Flow activities are activities that are not too difficult, but not too easy. They are activities with a lot of feedback, and the more the better (according to the author, surgery is the most flow-creating profession because surgeons can physically see from moment to moment whether they are doing a good job). They are activities that are meaningful to the subject—activities that act as their own reward and are done for the sheer enjoyment of doing them rather than for extrinsic reasons, such as money, respect or attention. They tend to be activities that give us a sense of “upgrading ourselves,” activities that make us stronger, faster, smarter, more sophisticated, more skilled, etc.
Examples of potential flow activities are reading, music, art, exercise, sports, meditation, video games, gambling, sex, and many others. In fact, almost anything can be turned into a flow activity if it can be modified to fit Csikszentmihalyi’s criteria. The author includes a chapter discussing many common flow activities and giving tips on how they can be adjusted to increase flow.
Interestingly, work is the most common flow-creating activity in America (a little over 50% of Americans get flow feelings from work). This is not to say that work is the best flow activity; it just reflects the fact that outside of work most of us have discovered very few sources of flow. We come home and plop in front of the TV, the ultimate flow-killer (TV is almost completely incapable of producing flow because it is passive, non-challenging, has no feedback mechanism, and generally doesn’t have the potential to give the individual the feeling that he is upgrading himself in any way). That is, even in this day and age, we are still too damn ignorant to figure out how to transform our free time into happiness. Perhaps that is why we undervalue our free time and retreat ever deeper into workaholism.
The implications of the author’s thesis are almost without bound. Although he only hints at it, Csikszentmihalyi obviously thinks that society should be structured so as to maximize flow in as many individuals as possible. The problem is that current thinking tends to emphasize the maximization of wealth irrespective of the consequences for flow. This is funny, because for years empirical studies have shown that, with the exception of the abjectly poor, there is no correlation between material well-being and personal happiness. Yet still the churning meathead mob led by demagogues like Dick Posner continues to rattle on about “the greatest good for the greatest number” without ever bothering to inquire into what that phrase really means—flow, not wealth!