'Why is it so difficult to be happy?' 'What is the meaning of life?' Whether in idleness or frustration, we all mull over these big questions. Not many dare to provide answers, and fewer again are equipped to try. But in devoting his life to answering the first, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced 'Me-hi Chicksent-me-hiee') found that it could not be divorced from the second. The linking of the two is the essence of his theory of 'flow'.
At a general level, the author's answer to the first question is surprisingly obvious: it is difficult to be happy because the universe was simply not built for our happiness. While religions and mythologies have been created to provide some security against this fact, first-hand knowledge cruelly reveals its truth again and again. He says it is best to think about the universe in terms of order and chaos (entropy). That healthy human beings find order pleasing is a clue to its intrinsic value, and to its role in the creation of happiness.
The bringing of order to consciousness, 'control of the mind', is therefore the key to happiness. But what gives us this control?
Happiness and flow
Czikszentmihalyi's research began not by looking at the nature of happiness per se, but by asking the question, 'When are people most happy?' That is, what exactly are we doing when we feel enjoyment or fulfillment?
Finding this out included buzzing people on a pager at random points through a week. They were required to write down exactly what they were doing and the feelings the activity produced. The discovery was that the best moments did not happen by chance, according to the whim of external event, but could reasonably be predicted to occur when a specific activity was undertaken. The activities described as being of highest value, which when undertaken banished worry or thoughts of other things, were dubbed 'optimal experiences', or simply 'flow'.
People in a state of 'flow' are those who feel feel they are engaged in a creative unfolding of something larger; athletes call it 'being in the zone', mystics have described as 'ecstasy', and artists 'rapture'. You and I may recognize our flow experiences as simply those activities (work, a hobby, some kind of service) which seem to make time stand still. The book's best definition of flow comes from the ancient Taoist scholar Chuang Tzu. In a parable, Ting, the esteemed court butcher of Lord Wen-hui, describes his way of working: 'Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.' You stop 'thinking' and just do.
One of the key distinctions the author makes is between enjoyment and pleasure. While challenging tasks that require all our attention are enjoyed, mere pleasure does not have to engage us - it is passive. TV, drugs and sleep can all be pleasurable, but involve little conscious will and therefore do not really assist our growth. The lesson of optional experience is that we are genuinely happy when we are in control. Optimal experience is that which is directed by us and gives us a sense of mastery. This is why goals are so enjoyable to pursue: they bring 'order in awareness', irrespective of the feeling one may get in seeing a goal actually achieved. An ordered mind itself is a source of happiness.
Flow: complexity and meaning
To avoid meaninglessness, we can either devote our lives to pleasure, which usually ends in ruin or mental entropy, or sit back on autopilot and try not to think about all our possible choices in life. This last possibility amounts to a surrender to whatever happen to be the societal values of the day, letting ourselves be defined more as a consumer than a person.
Csikszentmihalyi finds Freud to be particularly relevant here. Freud's 'id' was a representation of the instinctual drives of the body, while his 'superego' represented the external world to which our sense of self may be shaped. Freud's third element in consciousness, the ego, is that part of ourselves which has managed to gain an autonomous sense of self in spite of our bodily urges or environment. It is here, leaving behind the animal and the robotic, where humanity is to be found. A person living within this consciousness is doing so by will, and since the universe never makes things easy for us, this person must become increasingly complex (not in terms of confusion but higher order).
Csikszentmihalyi's research established a fascinating point about the flow experience: after each instance, a person is more than the person they were before. Each piece of knowledge absorbed, each new refinement of a skill, enlarges the self and makes it more highly ordered, forming, in his words, 'an increasingly extraordinary individual'. This is why opportunities to create flow can be addictive - life without them feels static, boring and meaningless.
Happiness and a sense of meaning can therefore be increased, the author says, simply by doing more of what we love doing. The question of 'the meaning of life' may not be answered in its most esoteric sense (that is, why does anything exist), but can be answered at a subjective, personal level: the meaning of life is whatever is meaningful to me. The experience of flow does not need explanation for those who enjoy it; we are simply aware that it gives us the two things vital to happiness: a sense of purpose, and self-knowledge.
A flow-centered culture?
Flow makes you feel more alive, certainly, but it has another perhaps surprising effect: the growth in complexity entails both awareness of your uniqueness simultaneous with renewed understanding of how you fit into your world and your relationships with other people. Flow reconnects you to the world as well as making you more unique.
This double effect has tremendous implications for the rejuvenation of communities and nations. The author suggests that the most successful nations and societies of the 21st century will be those that make sure people have the maximum opportunities to be involved in flow-inducing activity. He refers to the inclusion of 'the pursuit of happiness' in the American Declaration of Independence, a far-sighted aspiration that unfortunately metamorphosed into an expectation that it is government's role to provide happiness.
Whereas goal-seeking (or living for the future) is a major part of contemporary Western culture, a flow-centered culture would restore the present-centeredness that was the hallmark of hunter-gatherer societies, freeing us from the clock's tyranny. With increasing prosperity, if more of the population is engaged in doing what they love, the whole attitude to time would change. Time would cease to be framed by the work patterns of an industrial culture, with its sharp divisions between 'work' and 'leisure'. Instead, time would be determined by individuals' subjective attitude to the activity they are engaged in, that is, whether the activity is flow-inducing or not.
It is said that contemporary Western culture, particularly American culture, is youth-obsessed, a consequence being the terrible fear of ageing. Yet the pressure of passing time is relieved if you are truly living and enjoying yourself in the moment, in other words, in a state of flow. As the German philosopher Nietzsche put it, maturity is 'the rediscovery of the seriousness we had as a child - at play'.
The flow theory has had such an impact since it surfaced in academic journals 30 years ago because it is a meta-theory, applicable to pretty well any type of human activity. The author himself relates it to sex, work, friendship, loneliness and lifelong learning. Yet flow experiences cannot be forced upon people. As ever, it will be those individuals who can generate their own flow experiences who will tend to be happier.
Nietzsche believed that a 'will to power' was the root of human action, but the implication of the flow theory is that a will to order is what feeds this and other motivations. Any activity which creates an ordered sense of self provides us with both a sense of meaning and a degree of happiness.
The formula is simple, but not obvious, and in drawing attention to it Flow is a justifiably celebrated work.
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Professor Cziksentmihalyi is now at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in California, having been chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has had articles published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wired, Fast Company and Newsweek. Bill Clinton named him as a favourite author.
Other books include: Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness (scholarly essays that are the forerunner to Flow) co-edited with his wife Isabella (1988); The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium (1993), and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1996). With Howard Gardner and William Damon he is the author of Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (2002).