Flow and the Optimal Experience of Life

Not long ago I was writing about La Joie de Vivre, the Joy of Living, and about the book Zorba the Greek. In a few words, Zorba’s philosophy of life can be described as: work hard, play hard but this would be too reductionist to describe  a complex character like Zorba. It’s worth reading the book in order to discover a way of living that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would define as “Flow”. In helping us to live an optimal life, Nikos Kazantzakis provided the literary character and Mihaly provided the scientific reasons that justify the behavior and actions of such a character.

One of the modern problems is the continual pushing of the “search for happiness, be happy” narrative. You see it everywhere, in movies, in the media, in the words of “gurus” and celebrities. So of course, given this availability effect, where it seems that everyone is looking to become happy, you start believing that you should also join this search. When you ask people what they want they usually respond that they want to be happy, yet when you ask them what exactly this happiness is they don’t have an answer.  It’s the modern day search of El Dorado. When you already have a high standard of life, you live longer, have better life conditions, you are healthier, you have access to better water and food, you are less likely to experience violence and have a violent death, have better tools and you can travel anywhere in the world in a relatively short period of time, when, in other words, your life is so much better than the life of many monarchs and people of the past, what’s stopping you to already be happy?

Modern culture puts emphasis on personality, appearances and success. You have to be successful and to look happy, that’s the ideal. Just look at all the celebrities, all smiles, looking at their best, and the people on Instagram and Facebook that are trying to emulate them and to keep up with the Joneses. They seem successful and happy isn’t it? They must be.

I shall argue that the primary reason it is so difficult to achieve happiness centers on the fact that, contrary to the myths mankind has developed to reassure itself, the universe was not created to answer our needs. Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

This chronic dissatisfaction is the second obstacle that stands in the way of contentment. Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

Nothing in the world can provide you with happiness and peace
Source: Flickr

Human nature is characterized by a  continual looking for meaning and purpose and a “chronic dissatisfaction”. “Happiness” is the way man tries to fight back against his own nature. It’s a losing battle. “Happiness” can only be momentary and not permanent. There must be pain and suffering first in order to achieve fleeting “happiness”, that’s how the brain works. The brain works on a effort/reward system, you do the effort, your brain rewards you with happiness, feel-good neurotransmitters. You run, you feel the pain of running and then you are rewarded with feel-good endorphins. You eat, the brain rewards you for your successful “hunt” with feel-good dopamines. Given the fact that we don’t have to hunt and to run after animals like in the past, and that high-caloric food is now readily available and close-by this “effort”/reward system is abused by those seeking immediate “happiness”. They go straight to the reward, get the dopamines, feel good about themselves for a little while and don’t think about the effort. Zorba would disagree with this kind of behavior.

Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. “Ask yourself whether you are happy,” said J. S. Mill, “and you cease to be so.” It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, summarized it beautifully in the preface to his book Man’s Search for Meaning:“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.” Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

Don’t make happiness your goal, pursue worthwhile goals instead, live in the present, even if it’s good or bad, if it’s bad it’s OK, pain, suffering, restlessness drives you to improve, to change things, to put effort and when you take action and make things happen you get rewarded. Don’t make outward validation your goal, seek feel-good neurotransmitters that come from your effort not from the effort of others in giving you validation and attention.

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *