How to be happy
If happiness is the ultimate purpose of human existence — or that’s what Aristotle would say — then are we over-complicating life? Shouldn’t everyone be happy by default?
We all know that there are some constrains that challenge the release of dopamine in our brains. In the era of bio and nanotechnology, does this mean that happiness is simple chemistry and thus we can hack it? Flow showed me that the answer is no.
Flow is not a personal development book at all. It’s rather the compilation of several studies made on optimal experience, from many different angles. It helped me gain a deep understanding on happiness, and got really motivated to apply these learnings to my day-to-day life from now on.
My intention for this article is to internalize these ideas more by sharing my perspective of Flow with the world.
The need for flow
We know that hormones like dopamine, serotonin or oxytocin contribute to us feeling “happy”. Still, what does that mean? We experience a different kind of happiness when being with a friend than when accomplishing a goal.
Talking about goals, I now question Aristotle’s believes. He mentions too, that true happiness can only be reached until the end of our lives. Does that mean that we will be unhappy in the meanwhile?
Where I agree with him, is that romantically speaking, if someone asked me what my purpose in life is, I would answer “to be happy”. If someone asked me the typical question “do you think money can make you happy?”, I would answer yes. Always keeping in mind that it can be a means. In our interior though, we know that existence is perfectly imperfect, and that suffering is one of the most common feature among humans.
This brings me to the next point: if we zoom out to see the big picture… the cosmos and all that… we could come to the conclusion that the universe doesn’t care about us. It isn’t optimized for happiness nor is it made against it. In our more daily lives, this means that shit will happen, and happiness isn’t permanent.
I don’t think that overall happiness in life can be achieved by craving those hormone hits or waiting until the very moment before your death. I relate this to Maslow’s theory of motivation. He suggests that once having fulfilled our basic needs and even reached non-essential possessions, having more of them won’t make us feel better. Then happiness may not be the ultimate purpose of our existence.
“The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly. It is simply indifferent” — J.H Holmes.
What flow as a concept suggests instead, is the total involvement in every life experience. It’s THAT feeling, if you know what I mean; that feeling of being totally engaged in what you’re doing, without thinking about anything else. You lose track of time but you are in complete control of your actions, and nothing seems too easy nor too complicated.
From my understanding, flow is about the trend. It’s not about feeling super happy one time, but about enjoying every moment in the present by being deeply involved in what you experience.
The contemporary world
As a teenager, it’s scary to think that some people go through life and then get to a point in which they ask “is this all there is?”. Then they tell you of how great their high school years were and how much they miss their friends.
Having made the distinction between flow and happiness, we can refute the idea that we can only be happy during high school, or that this should be the “best period of our lives”. Instead, we should ask ourselves if these people are creating flow in their everyday adult lives.
Mihaly tells us that to overcome the struggles of contemporary life, we must become independent of the social environment and find rewards or punishments in the ongoing stream of experience instead.
What is real and what is not
Although not explicitly mentioned in the book, I always find it fascinating to think about the fundamental nature of reality, or least, my reality. For if nothing in front of my eyes is real, would flow still make sense? I think it would actually raise the importance of my subjective experiences.
Going back to the book, flow is based on the idea that we only experience a portion of reality. Even though the universe is an unimaginable amount of information, only part of it makes it to our consciousness.
What determines what gets in and what is rejected, is attention. What I learned in Flow is as simple or complex as you internalize it: you have the power to focus your attention on the information that you need and want.
Since everything is information, that includes our minds. So why don’t we transfer the idea “you are what you eat” to “you are what you think”? After all, that’s the truth.
Consciousness has always been an interesting concept. At the moment of writing this article scientists haven’t agreed on a specific definition. However, Flow suggests that its function is to “take inputs from inside and outside the body in such a way that we can act upon it”. Thus, we can say that consciousness is ordered information, and since not everything enters our it, that’s when we say we experience a subjective reality: our lives in a nutshell.
That person who can focus their attention on whatever they want and can ignore the rest only for the time they need to accomplish their goal, is in control of their consciousness and enjoys their everyday life.
Such an essential tool to leverage if we want to make our lives flow. As an interesting fact, Mihaly mentions that the names we use to describe personality traits (extrovert, paranoid, high achiever…) are really describing our patterns of attention.
That said, I’d like to highlight again that we are what we think. Our self is constituted of all the experiences we’ve had in our lives that we’ve let pass on to our conscious mind. Hence the importance of attention. If we master that ability enough (which can be extremely hard), we can reject the bad and enjoy the good stuff that this uncaring universe has to offer.
Worth mentioning, the outside information doesn’t necessarily have a positive or negative connotation. It’s us that interpret it and label it according to our interests and goals.
Still, when we let the bad stuff make it to our conscious mind, there’s something called psychic entropy: a disorganization of the self. Prolonged events like this, affect the self in such a way that it’s no longer able to focus its attention on its goals and loses interest in pursuing them.
When we are conscious about the good stuff, the opposite happens: optimal experience is getting inputs that align with our goals, so psychic energy flows effortlessly.
Last but not least as a concept, is complexity. It is the result of two psychological processes called integration and differentiation. Differentiation is about paying attention to the self, while integration is about uniting the self to something beyond it.
Being too differentiated is the same as being egocentric, while being too integrated is the same as being dependent. A complex self is one that balances these two opposing tendencies.
How to flow
The last section wasn’t meant to discredit happiness or Aristotle. Regardless of what you think, flow is an experience and a state that we all love. So just for the sake of feeling good, it’s worth learning more about it.
Quality of experience
According to Flow, to improve life, one must improve quality of experience. And there are two ways of doing this: by trying external conditions to match our internal goals, our by using our consciousness to make conditions match our goals. I think both are possible and none is better.
Before anything else, let’s differentiate pleasure from flow. Pleasure is quite temporary and easier to achieve. It only creates balance, but not psychic growth, so it doesn’t add complexity to the self. We can pretty much get it by stimulating the right nerves with drugs. In contrast, flow is characterized by novelty and it’s a little harder to achieve at first because it requires attention.
Now it’s time. The anatomy of flow is the following:
- The goal: I’d suggest that it is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). Specially make sure that it’s not too easy nor too hard, and preferably intrinsic (do it for yourself, not for others).
- Focus: bring your attention to the moment. I don’t think there’s a hack for this. If it helps, remember you can either tune the environment or use your consciousness
- Feedback: the tasks to achieve your goal should provide immediate feedback
- Bonus: the purpose of flow is not reaching a peak, but rather, to continue flowing
How does it feel? How do you know you’re doing it right?
- Your attention is deep but your concentration is effortless
- You forget about everyday life worries
- You feel in control of your actions
- Your sense of time is altered. You lose track of time
Some enjoy company more than others. Some are more dependent on it than others. The truth is that to get real enjoyment out of it, we need to be focused on the moment. Since people are some of the most changing entities in the planet, we require both attention from others and to pay attention to others.
This is why I think that multitasking doesn’t make sense all the time. We may be able to do more than two things at once. The question is: are we enjoying each of these things?
An interesting way of flowing with people is through competition. To enjoy that experience, we must understand that this is not about beating the opponent, but performing as well as possible. It can a means, not an end.
“He who wrestles with us, strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper” — Edmund Burke
As mentioned before, we need to have a balance: enjoy company as much as we enjoy solitude, and have time for both. Not getting bored means not being dependent on the external environment. At the same time, many say that some of the most enriching experiences in their lives are the result of relationships.
Flow has shown me that being an introvert isn’t always always bad. It’s having that time with your own thoughts, knowing how to bring order to your mind, focusing on the moment, and perhaps creating something.
It is in the company of friends that we can most clearly experience the freedom of the self and learn who we really are. The ideal modern marriage is to have one’s partner as a friend
Going back to the idea of dataism, let’s think about this for a moment: isn’t it incredible that our body allows us to capture information from the outside, to filter it, and process it? From this perspective, there wouldn’t be mind without a body.
An excellent example of flowing with the body is yoga. The meaning in Sanskrit is uniting the various parts of the body to work consciously together as part of an ordered system. If you notice, flow is also all about bringing order to the self.
Music is organized auditory information. I find it fascinating how we can leverage it to change our mood. If music expresses emotions, then by listening to it, or creating it, we can put our energy in motion. The Latin derivative for the word emotion, ‘emotere’, literally means energy in motion!
If you play an instrument, Mihaly suggests that you don’t focus on how you perform, but rather on how you feel. I play the piano, and I can tell how satisfying it is to experience that kind of flow.
It can become additive, and in that case, Flow tells us that nothing is absolutely good or bad. Water can satiate your thirst or drown you. You need to learn how to swim.
This applies to other disciplines too. How mind-blowing is it that we have turned eating — a basic need — into a sensory experience? Gastronomy thus, is another way of flowing through your body and the senses it provides you with.
We’ve already absorbed information from the environment. However, the natural state of the mind is chaos. Flowing with the mind is about giving a purposeful order to those thoughts.
The clearest example of this, is remembering. Doesn’t it happen to you that you a word, and remember it an extremely pleasant sensation. Well, remembering is enjoyable because it brings order to our thoughts.
Wonder, which is the seed of knowledge, is the reflection of the purest form of pleasure — Francis Bacon
Nowadays, memorizing things is considered obsolete. I used to think this way too. Like, what’s the purpose of memorizing all these historical events to just throw them on an exam? Well, I think that the education system’s mistake is making students memorize the wrong information.
Kids like me still like memorizing stuff. What about the lyrics of a song, or facts that are important to us? That’s the point. If you have the information you want, when you need it, it’s like having a super power, and memorizing can be pleasant experience in that case. In Mihaly’s words, it gives us control of our inner environment.
What about language? What would our thoughts be like without it? It facilitates the process of storing information, and ordering it. Philosophy and science arose because thinking is pleasurable, and I think language makes it so.
Apart from giving inner order, language also allows for communication. Speaking, writing, reading, and listening have always been incredibly useful skills, to not only transmit information, but to create it.
I think that’s even more groundbreaking, and hard. Right now, I’m trying to internalize all these learnings, but is it being useful? If you could simply read the book, then my writing isn’t being purposeful.
Ideas come to people who so enjoy playing with ideas that eventually they stray beyond the limits of what is known, and find themselves exploring an uncharted territory.
When shit happens
The external environment will most of the time be different to our goals. Flow suggests that we believe that our destiny is in our hands. I found that confusing at first, but I think that what what the author means is making use of our consciousness or psychic energy and pay attention to what matters.
So what matters? In a challenging situation, we need to identify an obstacle, think how to move them if possible, or look for other alternative goals in order to have alternative solutions.
I would encourage you to ask yourself how you can be part of the solution to the problem. That’s what my grandfather once told me. In other words, follow this proberb:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference — Reinhold Niebuhr
I also like Sam Harris’ approach. He says that worrying doesn’t make any sense. If you can solve the problem, then you should solve it. If you can’t solve it, then there’s nothing you can’t do and worrying will only make things worse.
So what? What is this all about in the end? Do we go back to being happy? Perhaps the last chapter of the book is the most interesting one. It talks about integrating all kinds of flow into a single life.
It’s ironic that even if we have lots of different enjoyable experiences, our life won’t necessarily flow. We can feel lost if all of these pieces aren’t well integrated and coherent with each other.
That’s happened to me lots of times recently. I’m working on this project, and learning this new thing, or trying a new routine. Then I stop and think for a while: “what the heck am I doing with my life?”.
Everything I do can be extremely enjoyable, and I can find myself being successful in what I commit to, but it still doesn’t bring meaning.
The most interesting question in this article, and in the book is: what does meaning mean? Csikszentmihalyi’s definition is quite logical, in my opinion: assuming that phenomena are not random, but fall into recognizable patterns directed to a final purpose.
Thus, the meaning of your life can be different to mine, because we have different final purposes. If we remember that flow is not a destination, but a way of experiencing existence, then I understand that our purpose can be to flow through different ways. My purpose can be flowing by creating solutions to problems. Your purpose can be flowing by creating ordered sounds (music), and so on.
Ultimately, the way we integrate our different sates of flow is by knowing that big goal which is our purpose, then setting logical goals according to it, and invest energy and attention in skills to reach that goal.
Once we find ourselves following these steps, everything in life will acquire meaning. In my case, I’ve been investing my energy into learning about biotechnology so I can build a solution to a problem and put it in the hands of those who need it. Everything that happens to me — whether it puts me closer to my goal or not — is meaningful because I know how I want to flow; I know my purpose.