Summary of “Flow – The Psychology of Happiness”: The author examines the notion of happiness in a practical way. His proposition? Happiness is open to all people, it’s how to embrace it with the help of all our psychological skills and abilities: once we are able to achieve the most out of life as we deal with the world around us, we can then work to achieve our full potential in a “life project”, a notion developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi based on German and French existentialist theories.
By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – 2006 – 377 pages
Note: This guest column was written by Christophe from the blog Les Derniers Hommes
Chronicle and summary of the book “Flow – The Psychology of Happiness”
To be able to attain a state of happiness, what other motivation is needed?
Unconsciously or consciously, since time immemorial, we all think we act in our best interests.
And yet, it is almost certain that 95% of people (which includes those who practice personal development) will never achieve the happiness they seek.
There are many reasons for this, these are the most frequent:
- A misconception of what happiness really is
- A type of social conditioning that holds us back from the use of the basic essentials in order to achieve happiness
- Confusion between happiness and pleasure
Before we continue, let us clearly identify our mistakes in the quest for happiness.
A misconception of happiness
If we asked ten people on the street to define happiness, we would probably get these kinds of answers:
- Happiness is to be young, handsome and rich.
- Happiness is to be trouble-free.
- And happiness is to be able to do whatever you want when you want.
Collective imagination is very powerful. Collective thought generally involves shortfalls and errors… But this is nobody’s fault: these 3 definitions of happiness are totally wrong.
The reason is simple: in our collective imagination, we believe that happiness is a state of total fulfilment and internal satisfaction. This is what the author of the book calls “perfect happiness“. Those who have already read some of my articles will understand that the word “perfect” conveys a state that human beings can never achieve.
The path to happiness is not to wait for a “genie” who offers wealth, charm and a good life. Even with all this, your unhappiness could return at any time.
Underneath the term “perfect happiness” hides a much more simplistic term that could be:
Static happiness or more accurately, we should tell ourselves the state of unconditional happiness does not exist unless it is present.
This raises a question:
Where did this misguided definition of happiness come from?
A social conditioning that holds us back from the use of the basic essentials in order to achieve happiness
From early childhood, we have all been conditioned to view life as a fairy tale. We see the pursuit of happiness as a long journey full of challenges with the ultimate goal to be “perfect happiness“. Does that remind you of something? The well-known line “And they were happy and had many children.”
This thought, that our life is a fairy tale, creates a belief that has consequences:
“I must suffer for a while, and then I will have earned the right to deserved happiness”.
Does this remind you of anything?
Walt Disney, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars,…
All these films convey to us that after the battle, all those who deserve it, will find happiness.
Walt Disney’s Lion King is a perfect example. This cartoon conveys a hidden message:
“Any person who loses what was rightfully theirs will get it back by the power of destiny”.
This “truth” by which all those who suffer are destined to be happy someday has its origins in religion. Don’t worry, the author’s intention is not to condemn religion. This “truth” existed for a reason, it was indispensable in certain periods of history.
Let’s go back 1,500 years. Imagine a society where the distribution of wealth was much more unequal than it is today. Slavery was rife and poverty meant a life of hardship and deprivation.
Religion had enormous control over people’s behaviour. Certain dogmas (the last ones will be the first, the one who suffers on earth will be welcomed into the kingdom of God) provided comfort, inner peace and some reason for the pain of the most deprived people. While the richest, through fear, learnt to share their wealth.
These dogmas have led to genuine social progress. They diminished the turmoil in an unexpected way. Without rules or plans on how to approach future prosperity, no society could survive for long: it would quickly turn into anarchy and chaos. Each society has a different model of life and success. To be part of a society therefore means the need to conform to its lifestyle and its ways. The more people who comply with it, the more likely that it will be sustainable in the future.
Let’s use the example of society from 1,500 years ago.
The meaningfulness of their sufferings and a long-term vision of their goal (Paradise), enabled the poor to feel hope, resilience and even, perhaps for the strongest, joy whilst they suffered. Quite simply, the quality of their life improved (Note: Quality of life needs to be interpreted as a sense of personal experience and not in the material sense). This ideology has enabled this ancient approach to life in society to survive for a long time.
The more a society has a way of life and success that improves the quality of life of those within it (which reduces disruption), the more likely it is to thrive and survive. The concept of the “American dream” has created significant migration to the United States. And even though the reality of society disappointed many immigrants, the concept of the “American dream”, in relation to the number of those who succeeded, remains a very valid argument for those who were dissatisfied with society within their native country.
What is dynamic happiness?
Happiness on a personal scale is similar to a society’s perception of success. To improve their quality of life, human beings will have to maintain order in the chaos of their own minds. The more that their daily lifestyle improves their own quality of life, the closer they get to happiness.
If we are conscious that it is not possible to attain happiness simply through money, beauty and intelligence, it’s a good basis from which to start. It’s not possible for humans to experience permanent happiness, but it is quite possible for them to experience “moments of happiness” if they meet certain criteria (these descriptions will come later). The objective, for each individual, would be to increase such moments day by day. To do so, it is simply a question to develop a pattern of life (or lifestyle) that gives you an increased chance of the likelihood to find happiness.
In a nutshell, this is the dynamic happiness equation:
Dynamic happiness = to reach one’s full potential + to achieve one’s own goals
In any given situation, if you are able to achieve a position by which you fulfil your full potential, which in turn means you have reached the goal you set yourself, you will sense dynamic happiness.
Admittedly, some people will find it easier to achieve dynamic happiness than others.
Let’s take a professional sportsperson as an example. They reach their full potential through hours of repetitive daily practice (with their goal to be the “champion”), so it’s far more obvious to them when they have achieved dynamic happiness than someone who is employed in a job that they perceive to be tedious. But will the sportsperson experience dynamic happiness in their relationship with others? In relation to themself? No doubt about it. Picasso, for example, described the experience of a picture that he painted that aligns with the author’s concept of happiness, but once he had put his brush down, in the words of his family and friends, he became irritable and disgruntled.
Many people are mistaken in their belief that happiness is the same as pleasure. This isn’t the case. Pleasure, in general, is instantaneous. It doesn’t need you to be aware of it. When you watch a series that you like, you just enjoy it. The feeling of happiness in which you get a sensation that totally overcomes you, is different. However, what distinguishes a moment of pleasure from a moment of happiness does not depend on what happens, but on how we view it. For a young student to bake a chocolate cake would be an opportunity to have some fun.
While for a chef, the creation of a chocolate cake could be an opportunity to show off a style that is their own:
- Maybe it could be a perfectly proportioned mixture of ingredients to give great flavour and texture
- Or it could be the preparation time that could make the difference
- Or it could be the way the cake is made and the skill with which they can teach this to other people.
Each of us has the ability to fulfil our potential in our own way. For any given sector of business, there are many varied and diverse ways to achieve it. The only thing that matters is how to reach your full potential. Let’s consider the two components of the happiness equation.
I/Achieve your personal goal
What underlies the concept to “fulfil your dreams” is quite simply to “fulfil yourself“.
What exactly does “to be fulfilled” mean?
Those who follow Maslow’s pyramid will respond immediately and say:
Collective thinking: I know myself! To be fulfilled is the ultimate need on the scale of human needs. It is found at the top of Maslow’s pyramid.
Thank you for the collective thoughts, you learned your lesson well. And so, given your situation, what are the criteria for self-fulfilment?
Collective thinking: Uh…. No idea. Fine, self-fulfilment is merely an additional meaning to our life other than “exist, survive and reproduce“. The scope for self-fulfilment is endless and it is down to each individual to determine the outcome. In general, we achieve fulfilment in a given activity when the fulfilment of our dream involves two criteria:
- If we are accepted within a select group of experts
- If you stand out as an individual character in this group.
This skill-set doesn’t mean that you will be acknowledged as an expert by the general public, but it is vital that you are acknowledged as an authority on the subject by other experts.
Consider a sound and light engineer who is responsible for light and sound operations on special occasions such as the Oscars. The majority of the audience definitely wouldn’t appreciate the talent of the engineer, as they would be focused on the Oscars presentation. However, this light and sound display will be noticed and appreciated by specialists in this field. If, a few days later, the engineer receives the praise of other specialists within this sector of the business, he will be delighted and be inspired to improve on it the next time around.
This scenario should make you aware of something: It is not productive to try to impress everyone with your knowledge and skill in order to achieve your goals.
People, in general, can only appreciate the tip of the iceberg, which seems logical and fair.
- Can a 14-year-old video game enthusiast be expected to acknowledge the skill and time required to create a video game that is popular worldwide?
- Can someone who has read a Harlequin novel be expected to acknowledge the skill and time required to write such a complex book?
It is here that we differentiate between a need for respect and a need for self-fulfilment. The person with a need for respect will want to be acknowledged in a quantitative way rather than qualitative way. To achieve self-fulfilment, an individual must adopt an approach in which they would like to be acknowledged by other experts in this field, as public popularity isn’t of any great interest to them.
Let me ask you a question: What is your vision?
Total silence in the audience…
Well, it’s not easy to find your own vision, especially in a society where we are told that self-fulfilment depends mostly on material possessions, such as the size of car you drive (yes, it’s self-fulfilment). In theory, everyone can become fulfilled in any domain… Yes, but for you and me, our time on this planet is limited. If you have enough ambition, it would take you a few years to become an expert in the field you choose.
Without doubt a tennis player with no ambition would soon fulfil their dream. If their dream is just to be able to hit the ball back to someone, they will soon achieve their goal. But if their dream is to compete against the world’s best professionals, they will have to devote years of hard work and practice to fulfil their goal.
You need to understand that to fulfil a dream takes a lot of time and effort. The more ambitious you are, the more important the required level of skill in your chosen area will be. It would be a shame to waste a year or more on a dream that you ultimately can’t fulfil.
- Do you think it would have been helpful for Albert Einstein to learn to dance when he had no talent for it, rather than to study physics?
- Would you suggest that a 45-year-old man, without a sense of humour or any creativity, should pursue a career as a comedian?
To agree would be to:
- Show limited intelligence
- Not have a long-term vision of our time on this planet
- Ignore the skills you’ve already acquired.
If you will allow me, I will digress for a moment. The writer gives no more information on “how to fulfil our dream“. Take the paragraph below as an added bonus that will enhance this book review.
Fulfil your dream
Step 1: What are your strengths?
Have you read Tom Rath’s Strengths Finder 2.0? This book proposes a unique approach: Fulfil your dreams with the help of your strengths and abilities. And that is precisely the function of this book, to find your strengths so that you can use them to make your dreams come true. To date, for me, this is the best book to discover your strengths. The test provided doesn’t let you fake it (the main problem with tests is that we tend to subconsciously answer with what we would like to be rather than what we really are).
There’s no need to buy this book to discover your strengths. Here is an approach that will allow you to identify your strengths free of charge.
Choose 5 people that you know well and ask them these questions: What are my strengths/skills? What are my weaknesses/deficiencies? In general, you will discover that people who use this approach are surprised by the responses. This will show you what you contribute to society.
Now that you have a realistic idea of what you contribute to society, proceed to this exercise (from Jean Luc Monsenpès, NLP Coach) :
Draw three circles, and in the first, write down all the skills you see in yourself or that others see in you. In the second, write down the things that give you the most drive and motivation. In the third, write down what your combined skills and motivations can bring to your life environment. You have the basic elements of a mission or vocation, which can be equally valid in professional, personal, social, humanitarian or, for some, religious circles. I hope that you enjoy the time to reflect on yourself.
Step 2: Choose which part of life to improve.
For a dream to be fulfilled, the collective imagination is still very strong: We associate the quest for happiness with success in a professional career. Once again, it is a mistake to think like this. It’s possibly this concept of happiness that pushes some men to devote their lives solely to their professional careers… Until they discover that their partner keeps a bottle of whisky in the laundry basket and that their children consider them as a stranger (naturally, women are also prone to this work mentality).
The main aim of happiness is to improve your quality of life. To be seen to be useful gives everyone the desire to do well in professional life, but it’s only one part of your life. Don’t expect a happy life just because you do well at work.
To improve your quality of life means you have to improve every aspect of your day to day life. The author cites four aspects of each individual’s daily life: work relationships, social relationships, relationships with other people and the relationship with ourselves (independence). Let’s do a little exercise, on the aspects of life listed below, rate from 1 to 10 (personally) how happy you are with each of them, with 0 the worst and 10 perfect.
- Your relationships at work:
- Your relationship with yourself:
- And your relationships with others:
- Your recreational relationships:
Take your time…
Finished? Very well. Before I give you the prognosis, I have a question for you. Are your scores between 6 and 8?
Steve Pavlina, author of his eponymous blog, gives his theory: the theory of 7. When asked to rate their satisfaction on the different aspects of their life, the majority give themselves a 7. A 7 is quite good, but it proves to be a point of stagnation that is unlikely to evolve over time. When people give themselves a 7/10, the way they think could be summed up as:
“It’s not the ultimate happiness, but my career gives me enough to get by on. Also, I occasionally get the chance of a promotion . What’s to complain about.. Come on, 7/10 is pretty good!”
The 7/10 is the point that people get stuck, and is the cause of why they don’t get to 10/10. Unless, of course, you can alter how you live life. We’ll see about that later.
The purpose of this exercise is to help you find a basis with which you could best improve your quality of life. If you succeed in this aspect, your quality of life will be much improved. Once you have done this, you can move on to the second aspect that is of greatest importance to you, and so on…
Step 3: What is your dream?
In our society, the globalisation of information has its advantages and disadvantages. Everyday praise is heaped upon celebrities who have no particular talent but have still become famous within the world of social media. Result? People end up with the belief that they can achieve any far fetched fantasy and dream up scenarios that they think are unique though they have the same dreams held by 90% of people:
- Become a celebrity
- Carry out humanitarian work
But now you know your strengths and you know where to improve your quality of life. All you have to do is work out your dream scenario, which isn’t straightforward. Many people will list “succeed in my professional career”, “have an enjoyable social life”, “have a good circle of friends”,… But it won’t do much for them.
No one can do it for you. You will need to find your own angle to suit this scenario. Not the same one as the other 6.8 billion people on Earth. The choice of a worthwhile objective and a determined state of mind is not easy. You will need to dramatically change your approach to life. If you would like to investigate the notion of life dynamics in more depth, I recommend my free e-book “the adventurer’s metaphor”.
II/Unleash your full potential
You now have an objective and you know your strengths. So, all you have to do now is to unleash your full potential.
Collective thought: uh…How do I do that ?
If you can unleash your full potential it will give you the chance to experience dynamic happiness in that particular environment. The definition of full potential is characterised as a state in which we are fully concentrated upon the activity with the direct objective to be immersed in it. So someone who wants to experience dynamic happiness in an activity must let themselves be totally immersed in what they do in order for their objective to be reached. Of course, whilst they do it, the person forgets their long-term goal (otherwise, they cannot fully concentrate on the task).
To reach your full potential, you have to make changes in the way you do things, which can be done in two ways:
- Tackle the environment around you in order to align it with your objectives.
- Change your inner perceptions, which requires you to change the way you interpret what goes on around you.
To show the difference between these two approaches, the author cites the example of a sense of security. If you feel secure in your life it improves your quality of life. Let’s use Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, who share the same objective, as an example:
- Smith would like to feel safer, so he installs an alarm, a double lock on his door and gets a gun.
- Jones would like to feel more secure, but he accepts that total security doesn’t exist and endeavours to change his perspective on risk and how it affects him.
As our desire is based upon personal development, our preference would be for the second approach in these circumstances. But in many other situations, it would be better to deal with the external conditions (imagine in winter with a smashed bedroom window, it would be much smarter to replace the window rather than concentrate on the thought to try to ignore the cold).
To understand dynamic happiness, you need to make the required changes both internally and externally.
This is how the mountaineer manages to cope with fatigue, pain and injury whilst on their trip. The timing of their climbs and their breaks are perfectly in sync with how their body performs as they understand how it functions. Faced with random weather conditions (external conditions), they are conscious that they either need to adapt or face failure.
This was how some of those who were detained in concentration camps managed psychologically to survive the horrendous treatment they were subjected to. Some of them recalled that they survived with the contemplation of things that may seem meaningless to us (a crack in a wall, an insect,…). Others even recalled moments of happiness and togetherness when they shared a piece of bread… They could have acted like wild animals, which would have been totally understandable in light of their circumstances… But they controlled their consciences, and brought order to the horrific situation.
To achieve dynamic happiness, we must keep our minds in order in a given situation. This requires you to grasp the fact that you need a thorough analysis of yourself and the actions to be undertaken.
Fortunately, the author does not limit himself to this single concept.
He also notes that it is difficult to suggest a way to achieve the optimum experience (dynamic happiness) in a given situation. There are too many unknowns to be able to offer a genuine method, unless it’s a guess.
His approach is as follows: he gives descriptions of the characteristics of people who have experienced these situations. After that, it’s up to us to work out how we can get the most out of each situation in day to day life. The author states that these traits are not reliant on any specific situation. These traits were defined from a poll of people from all over the world, all in very different spheres of activity (cooking, chess, sports, literature and people in relationships,…).
Here are the requirements needed to fulfill our full potential:
1. Challenge and Skill:
It is important to recognise that any activity involves a range of options that can be used or a challenge that requires particular skills. We can’t apply the term “activity” if there are no rules to govern our action. An activity as simple as “walking” already implies a rule: “The one of walking”. If we don’t possess the skills needed for an activity, it is not a challenge for us (imagine two people that play chess but don’t know the rules). To acquire the optimal experience, a modicum of effort and knowledge of the activity is a prerequisite. Then, with more than a basic grasp needed, the transition to action must be driven by a desire to fulfil your goals within the scope of the proposed activity.
” To win“, ” to win the battle “, ” to be superior ” are not motivated by a desire for self-fulfilment but by a wish to satisfy our pride. For anyone who feels the ultimate experience, defeat is not so important in itself. Quite the contrary. Edmund Burke, an Irish philosopher, stated that “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.” If you can adopt this mindset it will allow you to evaluate the activity itself and not for what it results in.
However, bear in mind that just because you grasp the activity and wish to be successful, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can evaluate it properly. The challenge presented by the activity needs to match your level of expertise. If not, you will need to modify your internal approach so that the activity suits your requirements.
A quick comparison with chess. Imagine that you love chess and play it well.
Situation n°1: you play against a complete beginner
The challenge will not test your abilities. To make sure it does, you can decide to not use your queen and both castles, so that you have to concentrate on the other pieces and strategies. When you do this, you change the external conditions (remove the queen and the 2 castles) so that it presents you with a fair challenge. Now, imagine that the beginner is your child, you can transform the level of difficulty presented to you within the activity. Rather than show off your skills and knowledge to win, show your ability to teach them the game and have fun whilst you do it. In the first example, you deal with the external conditions presented by the activity. In the second, you modify your internal approach to how you perform the activity.
Situation n°2: you play someone at the same level (or slightly higher)
If you play against someone who is at your level or higher, it’s at this point that you will be able to experience the ultimate reward. To do so, simply get stuck in wholeheartedly.
Situation n°3: you play an opponent who is a much higher level than you.
Now imagine that Kasparov (the chess champion) honours you with a game. In this instance, without a doubt, the challenge far outweighs your abilities. Again, you can modify the challenge of the activity. Rather than have an attack strategy (which would be too difficult and therefore too stressful), you can concentrate on defence so that you can hold out as long as possible against him.
In our everyday lives, we can improve the enjoyment of any activity if we adjust the challenge that it offers. This concept doesn’t just apply to recreational and sports activities. Our creativity is a talent that is vastly under-used in everyday life. This under-utilised skill leads most people to consider their daily life routine as something that depresses them.
Now let’s choose the activity that bores us the most: to wait.
What annoys us more than to have to wait nervously in a room or in a queue?
As someone who likes mental exercises, every second that I wait, in my head, I like to recite the alphabet normally and then backwards. Next, I add a rule: skip every other letter. Then I jump to two letters and so on. If logic is not your thing, an alternative is to try to remember a song that you like, as accurately as possible. With little concentration and if you let go of your thoughts, soon you will be able to hear it in the back of your mind. Difficult? Maybe, but if the challenge matches your level, why not?
A challenge that meets the level of your abilities is the first requirement for you to achieve your full potential. Let’s move to the next criteria.
All those who have experienced this ultimate sensation say that they are “committed body and soul to the task.” There is no room for irrelevant thoughts or emotions. When the challenge of a task requires lots of skill, your attention cannot be distracted. If someone reads a science fiction novel and is not focused on it, they will not be able to fully appreciate the delights of their efforts. Just to read a book may seem innocuous, but this task requires you to use a lot of resources so that you can fully appreciate it: Read the words, transform them into images, feel the emotions described,…
You cannot experience the ultimate sensation unless you are fully focused on the task. A mother recalled that she had the ultimate enjoyment when she listened to her daughter read her first books.
She said that she was fully taken in by the moment:
“I then focused on how she pronounced the words, took note of the punctuation and her initial effort to use intonation… By the end of the exercise, I was aware of the incremental daily progress that she had made: a moment of real joy.”
3. A clear objective and feedback.
The criteria needed to evaluate a task are a clear objective and instant feedback. It’s not just a case of “winning” or “succeeding”, an activity must be performed in isolation. For a Shoot’em up fan (small 2D game in which you have to shoot the enemy that pops up on the screen), their objective is to survive to the end of the level. Each time they avoid the enemy’s attack, the player knows they have progressed… This is an example of instant feedback.
With some tasks, it’s not easy to define a clear objective and instant feedback. When this is the case, it’s up to us to define it.
Let’s use a child’s education as an example. The aim to bring a child up well may well seem a long way down the line and not something from which you could get instant feedback.
However, if you decide to take your young family to an amusement park, your goal may be to get through the day, with some anxiety, but may also include the chance to have some unforgettable moments with them. Your goal becomes a sub-goal of your main goal (to raise your children well). In the course of the day, when required, you can devote your attention to what your children do. If you notice that one of them looks a bit bored, you can then take them to a really fun ride.
I won’t give you an education lesson, I’m in no position to do so. The reason for this example is so that you understand that the development of short-term goals and feedback improves the quality of a real life experience. Any long-term targets need to be put into place with a medium-term sub-target and a short-term micro-target. In relation to these short-term targets, work out what instant feedback is needed and this will ensure that you will meet the targets required to fulfil your potential.
In my opinion, these are the 3 main criteria to enable you to fulfil your potential and, through this, achieve dynamic happiness in any task. If you can accomplish these first 3 criteria, you will fulfil your full potential. The author’s last 4 criteria are a consequence of the first 3. Here they are:
4. Enjoy the experience with no distractions.
As we have seen with the example that related to the concentration camps, it is essential to live the moment for itself, when it happens. Do not even think about it in the foreseeable future (unless the task requires you to do so, such as a game of chess). Imagine a footballer who, rather than concentrate on how he controls the ball, thinks about how he will score a goal, he won’t be able to enjoy the ultimate moment because by definition, this moment is lived in the present.
5. The lack of self-awareness.
It is said that anyone who has experienced the ultimate sensation lost consciousness of the “self”. Full concentration on a task makes us forget our problems and our ego.
I can remember a man in his forties, who I met whilst on an internship, he was “strange” to say the least. I attended one of his seminars on IT tools. You should have heard him, the way he spoke was exceptional. He expressed himself with an infectious passion on a topic that usually annoyed me. In a break, I wanted to take the chance to have a few words with him and I was taken aback when I heard him stutter. This man, when he conducted a seminar, lost his self-awareness and shyness, to the point where he had the opportunity to resonate with his audience because of his passion.
When we experience dynamic happiness it gives us the ability to tap into resources that may not normally be within us, such as:
- Leadership skills
When you decide to do something, if you can put your ego to one side it will work miracles. Forget what you have done and your problems and give 100% to the task.
Note: For those who have the book ” le pouvoir du moment présent “, it is an excellent guide to help with your concentration and not worry about your ego.
6. The altered perception of time.
This is not really a requirement but rather an observation. When we have the ultimate sensation, once the task is completed, time seems to pass very quickly. And yet, whilst they complete the task, some people sense that time slows down. Why? Probably because of the number of small actions needed to complete a section, an action or a decision.
When a tennis player hits a ball, for him, he does not just hit the ball: he consciously breaks down his stroke in order to return it with the maximum speed and accuracy. In the author’s opinion, it is difficult to say whether this altered perception of time is a cause or a consequence of the ultimate sensation. However, in my opinion, it seems strange, when I start something, I think it would be counter-productive to try to slow down or accelerate my perception of time. I therefore believe that it’s as a result of the ultimate sensation and not a necessary requirement. What’s your point of view?
7. Control of the operation.
Now you know the 7 criteria needed for the ultimate sensation.
Is that it?
Far from it. In the rest of his book, the author proposes to analyse each of the 4 areas of life ( Work relationships, social relationships, relationships with other people and with yourself). This is in order to show us the best approach so that our everyday life is a succession of enjoyable experiences.
III/ Happiness and the work environment
In the book, the author presents the results of some of his research:
They have selected 3 generations of people:
- The elderly
- Young people
Surprisingly, the older people are, the more likely they are to enjoy their work environment… But far less likely to do so in their leisure activities.
What does this mean?
- Firstly, the further we look back in time (from decade to decade) the number of leisure pursuits available was fewer and fewer. 50 years ago the population worked much more than today. 50 years ago, to experience excitement and joy, you had to somehow try to achieve these things in your work. This was how you achieved the ultimate feeling in your field of work.
- The older we become, the more we understand ourselves (our body, our habits,…). Remember one thing: the feeling of happiness is a victory over the chaos of our consciousness. Increased self-awareness is the key element to transform our daily activities into the ultimate experience. However, if a person who is older seems to have a better understanding of themselves there are many other situations to deal with that can destabilise self-awareness, such as :
- Frequent health problems
- More responsibility if they have a family to support
- Because of technological progress, today’s teenagers are disadvantaged compared to those of a few generations ago. The availability of passive leisure activities (such as television) is now widespread and appeals to many. Also, unlike before, teenagers can’t earn a good wage unless they know how to read and write properly. Finally, school lessons don’t provide teenagers with the best mental preparation to start work life with a positive attitude. Let’s take the classic example of a discussion between parents, or guardians, and teenagers, where they tell them how lucky they are to still be at school and to enjoy it for all they can. Why would a teenager want to start work when they are only ever told that it’s a lot less fun in an adult’s world compared to a kid’s?
Therefore, nowadays, it’s difficult to gauge the degree of happiness at work, as it is perceived as a necessary evil that gives you the opportunity for “material happiness”.
The more people value material goods, the greater the desire needs to be, to get them. In turn, the greater the ambition, the more difficult it is to achieve it. To be able to achieve happiness at work then becomes a difficult challenge if the act of work has no other purpose other than to satisfy a material need. Remember, the ultimate feeling means that the thought of self-benefit needs to be superseded by the activity itself.
The first step to enable you to be happy at work is based on your awareness of the illusion of material happiness. With this in place, we can view professional life as a gateway to self-fulfilment. And this awareness can cure us of many worries.
In spite of all this, many people still claim that they are happy in their jobs.
Surprisingly, the professions of these individuals are considered by most to be dull, repetitive and strenuous.
How is that possible?
Quite simply, subconsciously they apply the prerequisites for happiness in a given task. The author illustrates this with the testimony of Joe, a welder who has a job that most consider to be repetitive and dull.
- Turn the work into something that presents a challenge and motivates people. Joe is a welder, he has worked for 30 years in the same company without a change of job (in spite of several offers of promotion). Everyone in the company knows Joe. The director states that if there were 5 more like him, his company would be the best in its sector. What most surprises his colleagues is the enjoyment and enthusiasm that Joe has whilst he carries out the repairs on the machinery. What is his secret? Joe’s reply is: “I always liked to see how things worked. When my mother’s toaster was broken, I used to ask myself, “If I was that toaster, what would I want done to me? “. And that’s when he would take the appliance apart and fix it.
Do you understand how Joe operates? His knowledge of how things can be repaired and his inquisitiveness mean that by nature he is a superb technician. Joe has simply chosen a job that allows him to show his skills and abilities. You can change any scenario into a motivational challenge as long as it is within your range of abilities. If you set a challenge that suits your ability it means that you have to know a bit about it before you start.
If certain tasks at work bore you or cause you stress, make sure that you are aware how the activity operates.
Rise above the challenge, form a clear view of your role within the company structure. Sometimes, all that’s necessary is to put a little more effort into a given activity so that you can appreciate it.
- Desire to be in control and develop expertise in the planned projects. If you take the initiative it will give you the chance to improve your skills so that you become more knowledgeable. Let’s use me as an example, 3 years ago, I was very bad at writing. At school, I was very nervous about every essay I needed to write because my writing skills were very poor. Eventually I came across something that interested me: personal development. I was eager to share my personal background and my life experiences, so I decided to write some articles. Each one I wrote provided me with an opportunity to improve my skills in how to relate my stories to others. I’m now able to do this whenever I want, whereas before it was difficult for me to write something clear and intelligible. Nowadays, with incremental success, I have the pleasure to be able to write beautifully-crafted pieces that are enjoyable to read.
- The development of a stronger self. This condition is the direct consequence of the first two. But a job that permits you to develop a stronger self will definitely give you more motivation. The best means so as not to get this wrong is to formulate a target you want to reach within work and to identify the most appropriate approach on how to attain this.
Knowledge of the 3 criteria for happiness in work, makes it possible to improve the quality of life at work.
Yes, but only if you eliminate the 3 most common scenarios that hold you back from progress at work. Namely:
- Not enough variety in tasks. The key here is to change jobs or change your attitude to the task and introduce new rules.
- Interpersonal disputes. As with relational conflicts, it’s paramount to improve communication with everyone. Some people have managed to use these communication skills to provide themselves with the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Why not you?
- Exhaustion from the demands of the task. This requires you to get to know your body. Apply some rules to the task so that you don’t tire yourself out after a few hours.
IV/ Happiness and the connection to leisure
Most people think that you can only be happy when you’re not at work. However, these same people make very little use of their free time when they get it (watch television, drink alcohol,…). To prove the point, a psychoanalyst pointed out that it was mostly on Sundays that his patients experienced depression. This was subsequently supported by a study:
Statistically, people are more likely to be ill at weekends. Have you noticed that it’s more likely it’s during your holidays that you become ill?
When we are not overloaded and time is of no consequence, we have no clear objectives. Our consciousness, which out of habit seeks to put things in order (internally or externally), will be filled with a void. Complete emptiness is the worst thing for our self-esteem. This is how our consciousness will create problems that didn’t exist whilst we were busy. Have you ever noticed that it’s when you are down that you reflect on the most recent painful events of your life?
With too much free time, minor disputes can turn into our main focus of attention, until, on occasion, they become a total obsession.
Voltaire said: Work moves away from 3 great evils: vice, boredom and need.
If this happens to you, it may mean that you don’t manage your free time very well.
The author identifies two different leisure activities:
- Active leisure pursuits. Active leisure is a pursuit from which we gain fulfilment, which requires us to invest a lot of time and effort to be able to enjoy it. And, active leisure can incorporate many different activities but sport unifies people… Sport is a great example of active leisure.
- Passive leisure activities. Passive leisure is, as its name suggests, a pastime that requires no physical or intellectual effort. An example of this would be if you watch TV or sunbathe,…
We use most of our free time for passive leisure pursuits (to watch TV, to drink, have a siesta, lie in the sun…). However, these passive leisure pursuits cannot be properly enjoyed after a long day at work or after an active leisure pursuit.
The convenience factor: the desire to only participate in active leisure pursuits
Quite simply, active leisure is a pursuit in which we are fulfilled and must dedicate time to practice it. The author stresses the need to balance the time spent on active and passive leisure pursuits. Most peoples’ response will be to only take part in active leisure pursuits. This isn’t necessarily the most advisable approach as the desire to only take part in productive activities can sometimes be down to a convenience factor.
The point of interest with personal development is that if we practice it, we get a sense of what is useful for us and what isn’t. This is how we can get a grasp of people who would like to be productive 24 hours a day. At first, this may seem like a good approach. But the author insists that just because you are productive at all times, it’s not necessarily a good thing. If that were the case, productivity would become the standard or even an obsession. And that’s a recipe for people to become depressed, ill or unproductive.
To sum up, sometimes it’s beneficial to be involved in passive and unproductive pursuits. Passive pursuits are a good way to treat yourself after a busy day and give yourself a break.
The desire to only take part in passive leisure activities
Obviously, if you decide to spend all of your free time with passive pursuits, it’s even worse. The outcome of solely passive pursuits is detrimental to our psychological health. As a result of passive activities, the senses within our mind will slowly turn into guilt, and guilt will turn into a sense of worthlessness.
Most teenagers are the first to be affected by excessive use of passive leisure pursuits. Interestingly, they are well aware that active pursuits are much more beneficial for them. So why do they spend most of their time in front of the TV? Surveys reveal that the practice time needed and the level of concentration required at the outset, in the minds of the youngsters, make active pursuits less attractive to get involved in. Without doubt a sport, such as fighting, requires mobility, warm-ups and concentration. All these little things added together take too much time, especially after a hard day at work. However, the effort is worth it and those who manage to overcome this mental challenge will achieve a great sense of satisfaction.
Recreational pursuits allow us to achieve a personal goal that is meaningful to us, which is what active pursuits provide. There is one exception: Video games, even though video games are an active leisure activity, most players do not fulfil their potential (unless they take part in competitions or are well known and rated in the world of video games).
V/ Happiness and relationship with others
Our relationships with other people can be both a good or bad experience… It depends on how we deal with things. Generally, we are happier when we have friends and family around us. Undoubtedly there are many who prefer to be alone, but we will look at this in the next chapter.
Out of the many social situations, there are 3 that improve your mood even in the worst of times:
- Surround yourself with happy people.
- Be with people who have an interest in what you have to discuss
- When you meet someone who finds you sexually attractive.
It’s these 3 scenarios that satisfy our need for security. Subconsciously, we have a tribal perspective from our ancestry in the Cro-Magnon era. Surrounded by people who appreciate us makes us feel that we aren’t alone if something should happen. This is why people enjoy a social drink with a group of friends, or people who have similar interests and ideas. This sense of support and companionship is a key factor in the reduction of daily stress…
- What could be of more comfort than when a friend tells you “I’m with you” even in our worst moments?
- Some prisoners claim to only have managed to deal with a number of years in prison because their girlfriends sent them letters of love and support.
If you have a solid social group or network it satisfies two key human needs :
- Security in different social circles like the workplace, the school playground,… People will be happier if they are valued in all the social circles they frequent.
- The need for knowledge. In any group, there is a large amount of knowledge that can be shared such as culture, interests and different views on life.
We could just believe that happiness belongs “to others“. However, take care, “the others” can be a double-edged sword. Some people can be part of what makes us unhappy: a tyrant of a boss, an impatient husband or wife, a friend with whom we have fallen out. Likewise, human behaviour is a volatile thing: A very good friend can make us happy one day and upset the next… That’s why good communication is so essential. The author says that the best way to improve communication is to take a positive approach to all matters, even if it is negative or goes against your thoughts.
We are left vulnerable by the social conditions that we grow up with, as they create a need for approval and affection. We have a terrible need to be approved of and loved by others. The skill to minimise this need for love and approval is essential if we don’t wish to see other people merely as our enemy. Furthermore, meaningful relationships cannot be built if you have no respect for someone else’s values.
The family and the path to happiness
Mammals would never have survived to date if there was no genetic connection. Genetic similarities create loyalty to the family. Generally it’s more straightforward to build a relationship between brothers rather than cousins. But it may also be dependent on the family culture.
To start a family, i.e. live with a spouse and have children, may feel restrictive nowadays. The public imagination perceives that the moral values of the family are gone. That is completely wrong. In the past, families remained together mainly out of necessity:
- The man’s salary was important for the woman.
- The husband needed his wife to look after the home.
- And the child needed a roof over their head.
This has been influenced by morals which resulted in so-called “family values“. These days, women can work and earn money, men can stay home and look after the house and children grow up and gain independence sooner.
In the past our lives were shaped by two very different sets of rules:
- How they were raised and the moral obligation to start a family
- The change in society after 1968
Can we blame our parents because they got divorced? At a time when there was still an expectation to “have to” start a family when society itself had started to accept the notion of sexual freedom? That’s for you to decide.
However, the idea to make a happy home has never gone away, though it has to be something that both partners are committed to. But it must be a scenario that both wish to do rather than be an obligation to “do as before”. It has to suit our current day situation.
What’s needed to create a happy family life?
First, both partners must share a common goal. There’s a quote “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction“. Unfortunately, for couples who don’t share the same future ambitions, it will be impossible to create a happy home… Unless there is some sort of compromise that satisfies both partners. So it’s best not to sacrifice your future vision for both of you purely down to your love for the other person. That will mark the end of the love between you and the future years won’t provide a happy home environment.
To start a family solely because it’s what people think that you should do or because you have the money to do so, won’t be a good enough reason for either of you. A long-term objective is needed in order to:
- Convey and modify its structure and values so that children can be raised in the best possible environment.
- Another long-term goal may be to develop a distinctive family lifestyle. Would you prefer a “comfy” lifestyle or a “disciplined and active” lifestyle? The possibilities are endless but the one you select must be chosen and agreed upon by both partners.
One more thing: A long-term goal isn’t enough in itself. You also need short-term objectives that correspond to the long-term objective such as:
- Arrange trips that all agree on
- Organise a lovely holiday
- Make contingency plans for days when it rains.
Take on board that even our own children will like and enjoy different things from us. This has to be accepted and encouraged. Encouragement simply because a child does what you expect them to do won’t be beneficial (either for them or their siblings). Of course, the family group will share certain common values, and that is why it is essential to both accept and challenge certain things.
Let’s take another look at one of the 3 components that create a sense of happiness:
Feedback and clear objective. Here, more than ever, the essential thing is communication. There will be lots of family arguments, marital, parent-child or between siblings. If one of the family is annoyed, the best thing to calm the situation down is clear and honest communication. After a family activity, it is important to consider the feedback from each family member. If you aren’t clear, don’t hesitate to ask them to elaborate. Statistics indicate one of the trickiest times is when the children become teenagers. Some parents will make them take part in something that they don’t want to do, others will choose to let them hang out with their friends. The best and most difficult option, is to always come up with a range of things to do that pleases everyone. Difficult, you say? Don’t forget that difficulty can bring happiness to the activity.
In a couple’s relationship:
When we start a relationship, we always think that we could spend the rest of our life with that person and nothing would end that love. The bad news is that there will be lots of things that happen that may cause the two of you to split up: life becomes a routine, there’s nothing new to discover about each other, the patterns of your behaviours,…
However, there is good news: whoever it happens to be, people are complex and have enough interest to provide a lifetime of fascination for most people. But, it requires effort and energy to be put in,… In other words, to have a bit of give and take in the relationship.
The most important thing to give is time.
Not just when you are with somebody, but also how much you take them into consideration when not there. Over time, in order to maintain the love between you, it will take more effort. Why don’t you get to know your partner even better? As I have already mentioned, humans are complex enough to provide a lifetime of interest.
The second thing is to create a lifestyle that always gives you the opportunity to find out new and surprising things about people. For example, find new groups of friends, change routines weekly. There are lots of possibilities but they all require a bit of effort. Routines should be treated as the devil. It’s straightforward and easier, but once it’s set you will become aware of the misery it causes around you: the kids who regard you as a stranger, your spouse who secretly starts to drink,…
And the third thing: never take your partner for granted. There’s a temptation to believe we can get away with almost everything with our partner and that they can’t live without us. You want to get your way. But when you have attained the “he/she is at my feet” status, your relationship will become shallow, repetitive and dull. This will become like your work routine without the realisation of the stress it causes. And before you know it, you’ll be divorced.
(Personal note: My advice, if you’re still controlled by your ego, don’t bother with a relationship. Have sex with a few blonde girls (or blond men) and you can consider a family home at a later date. Society today no longer has a negative outlook on sexual freedom. Enjoy it. It’s better to have one happy person rather than a family that is miserable).
At the start it all seems pretty simple, it’s really just a matter of time for our kids to learn about life. But as the school years progress, it’s more of a challenge to stop kids to be involved with illegal activities, drugs and sexual promiscuity. In these instances, if there are shared family interests that involve the kids, such as sports or music, it makes things a bit more manageable. Teenagers look elsewhere for things they don’t find in their life at home: trust, acceptance and a chance to be themselves.
Friends and the path to happiness
Most of the evidence shows that it is when they are with friends that people feel best. There are several reasons for this:
- When surrounded by family, we feel a need to adopt a specific approach to life. There are household chores and family responsibilities to take care of and sometimes limitations on how you behave (If you are a father or mother there are certain things you can’t say at the family table)
- In the workplace, you have to meet the expectations required of you.
But when we are with people who are our genuine friends we have the freedom to be who we really are. We can be “completely crazy” or even “out of sorts”. This liberty to express ourselves and behave as we wish shows that true social friendships are the relationships from which we receive the most pleasure. Occasionally, just a short time with one or more friends, is all that is required to keep us happy.
Yes, but there is one essential requirement: With how we act in society, we all possess, whether we know it or not, a social demeanour. When with strangers or recently met acquaintances, we use a behavioural style known as the “Social Chameleon“.
To make the most of a friendship, dispensing of this behaviour is essential.
If you have behaved in this way with some of your friends, here are some suggestions that might interest you:
- Share your dreams, fantasies and wild ideas with them as this is what gives you the chance to experience ultimate joy in their company.
- Friendships can endure for life as long as we are constantly able to find new ideas and different things as we go along,…We can form friendships that use the same principles and approach as a personal relationship (obviously without the sex and intimate kisses;-)).
- Focus your energy at the right time. At times friends can fall out for a while, after an argument or a certain incident. The general consensus is that time will heal things. Naturally a pause will sometimes be beneficial, but somewhere along the line either one of you, or both, need to put some time and effort in to get things back to how they were before.
We’re almost there. Solitude needs to be addressed and you then you’ll have the chance to experience happiness every day for the rest of your life.
VI/ Be on your own and be happy
We have a need to be alone, however, as highlighted by the work relationship; it is when we are alone that depression is most likely to develop… This entails the need to manage our self-awareness when we are alone.
When we are alone we are most likely to create internal chaos… Which leads to stress and depression.
- In comparison to what we find around us; man has already achieved many successes over what Mother Nature throws at us. Man has turned fire into heat and light and transformed lightning into a means of energy.
- In terms of what has been achieved from within; man has been able to turn civil unrest into genuine progress within that community.
It’s within our nature to turn chaos into a chance for progress. So, all you need to do is control the feeling of loneliness and every aspect of your life will be one that makes you happy. As in the same approach that we have with leisure, we can use our spare time in two different ways:
- Use our free time for (drugs, TV, to gamble,…) which equates to passive leisure pursuits.
- Self-fulfilment activity which equates to active leisure pursuits.
The procedure to be used is as follows
The first thing to do is to get rid of the need and fascination to be loved. This will allow you to build independence and self-respect. Then, you need to acquaint yourself with the real you and build a lifestyle that will allow you to enjoy yourself; irrespective of others. When the blues strike, you need to create yourself scenarios that give you the chance to lift yourself back up and away from the internal turmoil in your mind.
As an example, often people become depressed because they continually postpone their desire to fulfil their lifetime ambition. This deferral can cause a sense of chaos. The only person who can make sense of this confusion is you. If you are able to make progress in relation to your ambition you can give yourself a reward. This means that you need to control the amount of time you spend with leisure and outdoor activities.
Conclusions about the book “Flow – The Psychology of Happiness”
It will already be clear to you; but in my opinion this book is a valuable source for how to achieve happiness in life. It is relatively straightforward given the subject it covers. And, it is part of my “must read list”, which, rather than an easy read, necessitates some genuine self-reflection. If you can do this with enough discipline, you can open the door to a world of dynamic happiness. So, why deprive yourself of it?
- An entry-level theory on practice that begins with observation
- Fairly straightforward as long as can endure the initial chapters
- Some worthwhile concepts that can quickly enhance the quality of life
- Requires a lot of reflection after the fact
- A book that needs to be read a few times as it can be hard work at times
My rating :
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