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)

La Joie de Vivre with Zorba the Greek

What is Joie de vivre?

Joie de vivre is a French phrase often used in English to express a cheerful enjoyment of life; an exultation of spirit.

Almost three years ago I was finishing reading Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I started reading quite a lot during that period, reading non-fiction especially and trying to better understand the world around me.  Three years later it’s still an influential book for me because it’s important to read, learn each day and expand your horizon but it’s also important to get out there and explore, discover, see with your own eyes and apply what you have learned in the real world.

“How could I, who loved life so intensely, have let myself be entangled for so long in that balderdash of books and paper blackened with ink!”

Is empiricism better than being an arm chair intellectual? The philosophical debate between empiricism and rationalism has been going for a while now, some believe that knowledge comes from universal, innate ideas and reason, others believe that knowledge comes from your senses, that that idea formulated by the rationalists it’s not true/nonexistent until they can test it/see it with their own eyes.

“That’s what liberty is, I thought. To have a passion, to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one’s passion and throw the treasure to the four winds. Free yourself from one passion to be dominated by another and nobler one. But is not that, too, a form of slavery? To sacrifice oneself to an idea, to a race, to God?”

I won’t take a side in this philosophical debate because I think that you can discover and better understand the world through both ways. Reading a business book written by someone with a lot of experience and who went through a lot of challenges in order to prepare myself and know how to solve similar problems is a very wise thing to do. You can assimilate someone’s decades long experience by reading/listening a few hundred pages or you can decide that the only way to find out is to do it and go through a trial and error process.

Obviously, the best solution here is the middle ground, you can read and rationalize as much as you want but if you don’t take action you won’t make things happen or you can go roll up your sleeves and go through a lengthy trial and error process that most probably someone else has already gone through it.

“I was a long time getting to sleep. My life is wasted, I thought. If only I could take a cloth and wipe out all I have learnt, all I have seen and heard, and go to Zorba’s school and start the great, the real alphabet! What a different road I would choose. I should keep my five senses perfectly trained, and my whole body, too, so that it would enjoy and understand. I should learn to run, to wrestle, to swim, to ride horses, to row, to drive a car, to fire a rifle. I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul. In fact, I should reconcile at last within me the two eternal antagonists.”

Reading the quotes you have probably guessed by now that the main character is an intellectual with a suitcase full of books that meets a very worldly and interesting man named Zorba. Zorba is a hard worker by day and an entertainer and a joie de vivre student by night.

“For in his mind our profits underwent marvellous transformations: they became travels, women and new adventures. He was waiting impatiently for the day when he would earn a fortune, when his wings would be sufficiently big – ‘wings’ was the name he gave to money – for him to fly away.”

In Zorba the Greek, the balance is obviously skewed towards empiricism because the main character is mesmerized by Zorba’s life story and by his lifestyle and character.

“I read slowly and at random. I closed the book, opened it again, and finally threw it down. For the first time in my life it all seemed bloodless, odourless, void of any human substance. Pale-blue, hollow words in a vacuum. Perfectly clear distilled water without any bacteria, but also without any nutritive substances.”

“I didn’t answer. I was envious of the man. He had lived with his flesh and blood – fighting, killing, kissing – all that I had tried to learn through pen and ink alone. All the problems I was trying to solve point by point in my solitude and glued to my chair, this man had solved up in the pure air of the mountains with his sword.”

The author realizes that when you have nothing more to lose is when freedom starts, that everything is an illusion, that we don’t have control over the exterior and nothing to lose, that everything is a challenge, that it’s the road that counts and not the destination.

“This time I had lost everything – my money, my men, the line, the trucks; we had constructed a small port and now we had nothing to export. It was all lost. Well, it was precisely at that moment that I felt an unexpected sense of deliverance. As if in the hard, sombre labyrinth of necessity I had discovered liberty herself playing happily in a corner. And I played with her. When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all-powerful enemy – some call him God, others the Devil, seems to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed. Each time that within ourselves we are the conquerors, although externally utterly defeated, we human beings feel an indescribable pride and joy. Outward calamity is transformed into a supreme and unshakable felicity.”