Night of the Living Dead

One day, way back in my college years, I noticed I’d been working for a few hours on a whimsical essay and thought it was only a few minutes. As opposed to the schoolwork I was required to do, the writing was something I did because I loved it. It was a fascinating puzzle, and the more I focused, the faster the time flew by. I suspected back then that writing could be something I might do for a “living.” I think my instincts were guiding me towards something that might be of use. (I’ll leave that up to you.)

I’ve had many similar experiences before and since then, and a few years ago, I found a clear explanation for what I often experience in writing, gardening, playing music, or hiking. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that name three times backwards) calls it “flow.” He describes this phenomenon as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

“Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that the process of an activity can be far more important than the end product, and when we are fully in the process, fully focused on a task, we feel alive. The activity becomes its own reward. After a flow experience, we are not only refreshed, but we’ve increased our skills, sensitivity, and self-confidence. We are more “complex,” to use Csikszentmihalyi’s term. (It seems we are hard-wired to improve ourselves!) He’s been researching “optimal experience” at the University of Chicago since the 1970s, and has compiled a large data set involving people from all walks of life. Basically his technique, the “experience sampling method,” (ESM) catches people in the middle of their daily activities and asks them to record what they are doing and how much they enjoy it. When they are signaled at random a certain number of times during the day, participants record in a workbook if they are in a condition of flow, or something far less.

To be genuinely happy, observes Csikszentmihalyi, we need to actively create our experiences and our lives, rather than passively letting media and marketers create it for us. The pathway to greatest happiness goes beyond mindless consuming to the heightened, enlightened realm of mindful challenge, where we are engaged, connected, and alive. Csikszentmihalyi’s distinction between pleasure and enjoyment suggests that many of us are settling for Grade B happiness – a package of mind dulling pleasures – rather than reaching for more intrinsic flow experiences. His ESM research indicates that when we challenge ourselves to experience or produce something new; to see things in a different light; and in general, to become actively engaged in what we’re doing, true enjoyment transforms moments of our lives from the routine to the extraordinary. The great news is that anyone can do it, with activities that are self-determined.

Conditions that Encourage and Define Flow*

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernable).
  2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time – our subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is not too easy or too difficult).
  7. A sense of control and mastery over the situation or activity, as when a golfer’s concentration results in a great shot.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

*Adapted from “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman also prefers a deeper, more resonant definition of the word “happy.” The author of Authentic Happiness divides the happiness continuum into pleasure (gratification, social compliance), engagement (depth of involvement with people, work, and hobbies) and meaning (such as using personal strengths for the good of society). Says Seligman, “Many Americans build their lives around pursuing pleasure, but it turns out that engagement and meaning are much more important.” While most psychological theories focus on an “end product,” such as the alleviation of anxiety, Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman come from a more positive perspective, asking, “What makes us feel glad to be alive?”

Optimal experiences make our doubts and hesitations disappear. We aren’t absorbed in ourselves and directed by our egos, but rather by spontaneity, a sense of challenge, and connection with others. Despite the greatest ad campaign in the history of the universe, many of us still have original thoughts, and memories of peak experiences in which consumption played no role: skating on a late afternoon in January, learning to skate backwards on a large pond at the edge of the neighborhood, hardly noticing that it’s almost pitch dark. Standing at an overlook of a trail in total silence except the occasional chirp of a wren; gazing out over a valley covered with vineyards. Standing small and amazed beneath a starry sky lit up with shooting stars. Slurping a sweet, blushing organic peach seconds after it was picked. Making love in a huge, cozy hammock in the heart of a rainforest. Many have realized that humans cherish moments when we are active participants in life. We’re becoming saturated by images that offer fantasies for sale, and we are realizing, at last, that we are such obedient consumers partly because we’re afraid to follow our instincts.

For the philosophers like Aristotle, happiness was a function of rational development – a reward for leading a virtuous, balanced life. He believed that happiness must be evaluated over a long period of time (not just in the lick of an ice cream cone, as in our world of instant gratification). Happiness, he wrote, consists of a blend of moderation, gentleness, modesty, friendliness, and self-expression. Happiness is harmony and balance in which desire is tempered through rational restraint. His words sound very much like something an enlightened Zen master might say; and like directions to the sunnier shores that may lie ahead, if we choose moderation and balance.