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Flow : A different perspective on happiness

There is no dearth of self-help books that tell people how to go about living their lives. Although I have never read one of those, I have often got the impression from popular media that they don’t do a very good job at changing one’s life. I feel that the following two reasons might be responsible for it:

When I chanced to look at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book titled Flow: The psychology of Optimal Experience, the following lines from the preface impressed me

(It) is not a popular book that gives insider tips on how to be happy. To do so would be impossible in any case, since a joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe. ……This book tries instead to present general principles, along with concrete examples of how some people have used these principles, to transform boring and meaningless lives into ones full of enjoyment.
- from the book (paraphrased)

I read the book and wasn’t disappointed by it. Csikszentmihalyi does a great job of reflecting a lot on whatever he is saying in the book and to make sure that anything he writes about is looked at from different viewpoints. The book is also attractive because it avoids these two extremes:

Instead, it is an honest expedition which seeks to look at people who would be considered extremely happy, and ask them what makes them happy. It often leads to them talking about their actions and how is it related to what makes them happy. Then the book tries to figure out patterns and reason about the cause of their happiness.

I’ll go over the main things from the book that influenced me. But first, for the TL;DR junta, here’s a table of contents

What is flow?

Roughly speaking, flow is a state of mind. Colloquially known as “being in the zone”. Perhaps the easiest way of identifying flow, is when the person is so engrossed in whatever she is doing that she has no time to think about anything else. When this happens, people often lose track of time. But there’s more to flow than this, and this small description doesn’t explain why it should be linked to happiness. If that were the case, then workaholics would be the happiest :D, as the previous description seems to fit them aptly.

Formally, Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as order in consciousness. The human consciousness has the capacity to focus on a maximum of seven things at a time. Okay, maybe a few more or less, but still, a small finite number. Ordinarily, not all slots are focussed on the task at hand. Of course the most common situation will be that some of the slots will be filled with distractions - I’d rather see the new trailer of Dr. Strange, or I’d rather checkout that new GTA mod. But even when these things are eliminated, the more dangerous things will still be slinking in there - fear and worry.

Achieving flow requires that you go beyond these. That is where the concept of autotelic experience comes up. If you have a hobby, you would relate to this. For example, a person who sketches as a hobby, does it because she loves to see a beautiful picture come out on the canvas. There is no “because” other than this. The entire process of sketching, as well as the feedback in the form of the look of the picture, is self-contained. There is no involvement of any other entity, or any other expected future event. Just the person, the canvas and the present moment. Contrast this with a singer who is singing at a reality contest. She will be driven by external rewards, as is the case with most endeavours these days, and so will be more susceptible to worries.

But then, rewards are also necessary at times. You do need a job, can’t survive only on hobbies :p. Even if you convert a hobby to a profession, you now have external rewards attached to it which might incite worries. To extend the serene experience felt while pursuing hobbies, to more parts of one’s life, one needs an attitude that can be applied to more parts of one’s life, which is

Losing the self

“Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers of our century, descrived how he achieved personal happiness: “Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.” There could be no better short description of how to build for oneself an autotelic personality.”
- from the book

Suppose you go to a party where you don’t know most people. You see two persons chatting. Now one of them casts a momentary glance at you, then continues to talk to her friend, now with some giggles. You might immediately become self-conscious, wondering if there is something funny about you, maybe your hair is weird. They might actually be giggling about something else. Now let’s suppose you like the sport of wall-climbing and are climbing a wall. Maybe people giggling at you when you are climbing would not induce such a self-conscious response. The reason is that the challenge at hand matches your potential so perfectly, that it engulfs your entire attention, and there is no space left for thoughts like insecurities about the self.

Mihaly says that worries and insecurities, as soon as given the opportunity, will pounce on the mind, like wolves waiting to pounce on a prey. However, if you focus entirely on the task, and ignore the self, you would have the benefit of performing much better. It is like being able to hit a six on the last ball of the match to win the game, instead of crumbling under pressure. If while facing the ball, the batsman is planning what to say in the post match presentation if he fails, he is already hurting his chances of success. However, the book goes further and takes a bold stance by saying that this experience is the “optimal experience”, ( or in more common words, happiness ), as mentioned in the title of the book. Indeed it sounds ironic at first, to associate happiness with lack of self-consciousness.

I feel that the quality of losing self-consciousness gets more achievable as people grow older. As people are forced to let go, let go of things, and more importantly let go of people, they can take different lessons from life. Either they’ll become fanatic about protecting the interests of the self, or they might learn to accept that getting hurt is an inevitable part of life in which so much is out of our hands. If a person chooses the second path, then she will gradually stop taking herself too seriously. This may melt away to some degree the constant worries and insecurities that lurk in the mind. Instead, she would invest her attention on the things which are in her hands and not in the hands of a seemingly random destiny. She might break her leg in an accident tomorrow, but today she can run, so she’ll train to finish that marathon she wants to complete. Because that much is in her hands. That piece if life, is hers. Knowing that, and being at peace with that is what I feel is the meaning of losing the self.
*Some of this paragraph’s rant is my doing, and not in the book

One question that I see unanswered here, is that what happens when a person is not focussed on the self, but on the happiness of another person, and the pain inflicted is on that person.

Making of meaning

It is very surprising to find a chapter with the above title in a text in psychology. I usually expect texts in psychology to be nihilistic and utterly depressing. But Mihaly is of a different kind. Perhaps his best line in the book is the following

“It is one thing to recognize that life is, by itself, meaningless. It is another thing entirely to accept this with resignation. The first fact does not entail the second any more than the fact that we lack wings prevents us from flying.”
- from the book

Mihaly recognizes that although achieving flow in parts of life is good, sooner or later, in the long run of life, people will feel lost and start seeing the pointlessness of individual activities. So he suggests that the ultimate flow would be when a person dedicates her entire life towards one big goal, which could be something grand as finding the cure for cancer, or something more common, like raising children well. He says that such a setup requires that a person orient various activities in his life so that they help in the achievement of that ultimate goal.

However, I feel that this is a bit of a stretch, since it can be so difficult to figure out a purpose worth dedicating a lifetime, and then have the unwavering commitment to that cause.

Final words

Honest is the first word that comes to mind about this book. Does not try to jump to conclusions but derives them through real world case studies. At many points, the claims and reasonings presented resonate very well with what I have experienced.


Written by Kundan Krishna on 31st October 2016

Disclaimer: The content of this article must not be seen as an exact representation of the content of the book. The reader should take into consideration that the interpretation of the book might be influenced to some degree by personal biases of the author. Also, this article should not be considered an exhaustive summary of the book. The book obviously contains much more.