“The task is to learn how to enjoy everyday life without diminishing other people’s chances to enjoy theirs.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Very few people achieve enduring happiness. Which is surprising given that we seek it more than anything else. And the downside is that our failure to achieve it leaves us feeling anxious and dissatisfied with our lives no matter how loved, successful or well off we are.
Neither does our natural envy of the privileged few who find it help us come to terms with the gap it leaves in our lives. And the occasional fleeting moments of happiness that occasionally come our way serve to remind us of what we are missing.
Fortunately we now have a solution to this dilemma thanks to the research of the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His work makes it possible for the first time ever for each of us to learn how to systematically access enduring happiness and transform our lives in the process.
Home truths about happiness
In “FLOW” his classic work on how to achieve happiness Csikszentmihalyi tells us that: “Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather on how we interpret them.”
He found in the course of his research that it is only when we fully involve ourselves in every detail of our lives both good and bad and learn to accept them that we are likely to find happiness. Seeking it directly just doesn’t work. We need to take a more indirect path beginning by achieving control over our conscious thoughts. For it is our perceptions about our lives that determine whether we feel good or bad.
Of course ordering our perceptions is far from easy because most of the issues that influence them are given and unalterable. Our genes for example determine our looks, temperament, constitution and how we see events, how we feel about them and what we can do about them. Consequently many people believing that their fate is determined for them opt out of attempting to do anything about it.
In choosing to opt out they overlook the fact that we are capable on occasions of controlling our own actions and being masters of our own destiny. The sense of exhilaration we experience on the rare occasions when we do so is awesome and we cherish the memory of them. Csikszentmihalyi argues that these occasions are an indication of the essence of true happiness.
We all have optimal experiences in our lives. Even if they may not readily come to mind you can take it from me that they are there for sure. These best moments of our lives are things that we make happen rather than things that happen to us. They are optimal experiences of doing something better than we ever did before, of mastering something new, associated with the thousands of opportunities and challenges we use to expand ourselves.
To achieve true happiness Csikszentmihalyi argues that we need to learn to master four areas of competence as follows:” 1. Controlling of our consciousness. 2. Making our experiences enjoyable. 3. Achieving complexity. 4. Creating meaning in our lives.
He compares mastery of these competencies to attempting to lose weight; everyone knows what it takes, everyone wants to do it, yet very many fail to achieve it. The stakes here are even higher, he argues for it’s not just about losing a few pounds but of losing the chance to have a life worth living.
Controlling our consciousness
Each thing we experience whether it be joy or pain, interest or boredom is represented in our minds as information. Learning how our consciousness works and how it is controlled will enable us to begin to understand how our states of mind are shaped and how we can master the art of controlling them. By controlling this process we acquire the ability to decide what our lives will be like.
Making our experiences enjoyable
When there is order in our consciousness we enjoy an optimal state of inner experience. This enjoyment occurs when we invest our attention in realistic goals and when our skills match the opportunities for action. In the pursuit of goals we bring order to our awareness because having to concentrate attention on the task in hand we momentarily forget everything else.
The essence of achieving complexity is to become independent of the social environment so that we no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve this state of independence we must learn to provide rewards for ourselves and develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of our external circumstances. While we all have the ability to achieve this independence the difficulty is that it requires a higher level of discipline and perseverance than we normally use. It also calls for a drastic change in our attitude to what is important in our lives and what is not.
Create meaning in our lives
People who have meaning in their lives invariably have a goal that is challenging enough to take up all their energies. Having a meaningful goal gives significance to our lives from the time we express it as an intention. But it is not enough to have a purposeful goal, we must also carry through and meet its challenges. Resolute pursuit of the goal is all important and what really counts is the effort you expend on achieving the goal and in keeping your enthusiasm from becoming defused or getting diverted from pursuing of it. It is the harmony you achieve between your goals and the activities you engage in to achieve them that gives meaning to your life.
In next week’s post we continue this theme with an in-depth analysis into “How to Control your Consciousness”.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991) Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience. New York: Harper.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1992) Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow, Psychology Today.