Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Enjoying Solitude and Relationships with Others

Studies on flow have repeatedly proven that, more than anything else, quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work and how we experience relationships with others. The most detailed information about who we are as individuals comes from who we communicate with and from how we get things done. Our egos are largely determined by what happens in those two contexts, as Freud recognized in his assumption that "love and work" are the source of happiness. The last chapter looked at some of the potential of the work; In this chapter, we will explore relationships with family and friends, to determine how they can become a source of enjoyable experiences.

Whether or not we interact well with others will make a big difference to the quality of the experience. We are biologically programmed to seek out others as the most important objects in the world. Because they can make life very enjoyable and fulfilling or completely miserable, the way we manage relationships with them makes a tremendous difference to our own well-being. If we learn how to make our relationships with others more like experiencing flow, then our quality of life will be greatly improved.

On the other hand, we also value privacy and often want to be alone. However, if it happens regularly, we start to break down. It is characteristic of people who fall into this situation to feel lonely, feeling that there are no challenges, nothing to do. For some, solitude leads to disorienting symptoms of a sensory deficit of arousal in a more moderate form. However, unless one learns to endure and even enjoy being alone, it is difficult to complete any task that requires concentration. For this reason, it is essential to find ways to control consciousness even when we are left with ourselves.


Among the things that scare us, the fear of being left out of the flow of human interaction is undoubtedly one of the worst. There's no arguing that we're social animals; Only in relation to others do we feel full, fulfilled. In many pioneer cultures, solitude was thought to be so unbearable that people made every effort to never be alone; Only witches and wizards feel comfortable spending time alone. In many different human societies, — Aboriginal Australians, Amish farmers, West Point military academy — the harshest punishment a community can give is ostracism. The ostracized person gradually breaks down and soon begins to doubt his very existence. In some societies, the ultimate outcome of ostracization is death: the person left alone accepts the fact that he is dead, since no one pays attention to him anymore; Little by little, he stopped taking care of his body and eventually died. The Latin idiom for "living" is inter hominem esse, which literally means "among man"; Meanwhile, "dead" is Inter Hominem Esse Desinre, meaning "no longer among people". Besides the death penalty, exile from the city was the heaviest punishment for a Roman citizen; no matter how luxurious his estate, if expelled from the community of Rome, he would become an invisible person. The same bitter fate befalls contemporary New Yorkers whenever for some reason they have to leave their city.

The density of human contact that big cities can provide is like a kind of gentle comfort; People in such a large center love it even if the interaction it brings can be unpleasant and dangerous. The crowds gathered along Fifth Avenue may have included many smugglers and weirdos; Still, they find it enjoyable and reassuring. Everyone feels more alive when surrounded by others.

Social science surveys have unanimously concluded that people claim they are happiest when they are with friends and family, or in the company of others. When they were asked to list interesting activities that improved their mood throughout the day, the most commonly mentioned types of events were "being with happy people," "someone showed interest in what I had to say," and "being noticed as a sexually attractive person." One of the main symptoms of people living on the margins is that they rarely report such events happening to them. A supportive social network also helps alleviate stress: an illness or misfortune is less likely to bring a person down if he or she can rely on the emotional support of others.

There is no doubt that we are programmed to seek the company of our fellow human beings. It is possible that behavioral geneticists will sooner or later find in our chromosomes chemical instructions that make us feel very uncomfortable whenever we are alone. There are many reasons why in the course of evolution such instructions should be added to our genes. Animals that develop a competitive advantage with other species through cooperation, will live much better if they are constantly in sight of each other. For example, baboons, which need help from their fellow humans to protect themselves from leopards and hyenas roaming the savannah, have a rather slim chance of reaching adulthood if they leave their packs. Similar conditions must also be chosen by collectivity as an absolute survival trait among our ancestors. Of course, as human adaptations begin to depend more and more on culture, additional reasons to stick together become important. For example, the more people depend on life based on knowledge rather than instinct, the more they benefit from sharing learning from each other; a solitary individual under such conditions becomes an idiot, which originally meant in Greek a "closed person"—someone who cannot learn from others.

At the same time, paradoxically, there is a long-standing tradition that warns us that "the other is Hell." Hindu sages and Christian hermits seek peace from the frantic crowds. And when we looked at the most negative experiences in the lives of ordinary people, we noticed another striking aspect of communal behavior: the most painful events were also those related to relationships. Unfair employers and rude customers make us unhappy at work. At home, a heartless spouse, a shy child, and nosy siblings-in-law are the main source of sorrow. How can we reconcile the fact that human relationships produce both the best and worst of the best times?

This obvious contradiction is really not difficult to resolve. Like anything really important, relationships make us extremely happy when they're good and very depressing when they go wrong. People are the most flexible, volatile aspect of the environment we face. The same person can make your mornings great and come evenings miserable again. Because we rely so heavily on the affection and approval of others, we are extremely vulnerable to how others treat us.

Therefore, a person who learns to get along with others will make a tremendous positive change in the overall quality of life. This fact is known to writers and readers of books with titles such as How to Win Friends and Influence People. Business executives who want to communicate better so they can become more effective managers and who are new to an organization or group read books on etiquette to gain acceptance and admiration. Much of this concern reflects an externally motivating desire, which is to manipulate others. But people aren't considered important just because they can help make our goals a reality; When people are treated with respect for their own good things, they are the most complete source of happiness.

It is the flexibility of relationships that makes it possible to convert unpleasant interactions into acceptable or even enjoyable ones. How we define and interpret a social situation makes a big difference in how people treat each other and how they feel while doing it. For example, when our son Mark was twelve, during an afternoon walk home from school, he took a shortcut through a rather deserted park. In the middle of the park, he was suddenly blocked by three tall young men from the neighboring slums. "Don't move, or he'll shoot you," one of them said, throwing his head at the third young man, who had put his hand in his pocket. The three of them took everything Mark had — some money and a worn Timex watch. "Now let's move on. It is forbidden to run and not to turn around."

So, Mark started walking home and the three headed in the other direction. However, taking a few steps, Mark turned around and tried to catch up with them. "Listen," the boy called, "I want to talk to you." "Go," they shouted back. But he caught up with the trio and asked if they might consider giving him back the watch they had taken. He explained that the watch was cheap and of no value to anyone but him: "You know what, my parents gave it to me for my birthday." The three young men were furious, but eventually decided to vote on whether to return the watch. The vote took place by a two-vote margin in favor of returning, so Mark proudly walked home unchipped, with his old watch in his pocket. Of course, it took his parents longer to complete the experience after hearing about the experience.

From an adult standpoint, Mark was foolish to risk his life for an old watch, no matter how emotionally valuable it was. But this story illustrates an important generalization point: a social situation has the ability to be transformed by redefining its roles. By not assuming the role of "victims" of robbery, which has been imposed on him, and by not treating his attackers as "robbers," but by being rational people who can empathize with the son's emotional attachment to the family, Mark was able to change the encounter from a position of being robbed to a position of participating, at least to some extent, into a rational democratic decision. In this case, Mark's success largely depends on luck: the robbers may have been drunk, or lost their minds, and then he could have been seriously hurt. But the point remains firm: human relations can be malleable, and if a person has the right skills then their role can be transformed.

But before looking deeper at how relationships can be reshaped to provide optimal experiences, it's necessary to take a detour through the lands of solitude. Only after understanding a little better how being alone affects the mind can we better see why companionship is indispensable for human happiness. The average adult spends about a third of their activity time alone, but we know very little about this huge slice of our lives, except that we really don't like it.


Most people feel an almost unbearable sense of emptiness when they are alone, especially when there is nothing concrete to do. Teenagers, adults and the elderly all reported that their worst experiences had all taken place in solitude. Almost every activity becomes more enjoyable when other people are around and less enjoyable when we do it alone. People are happier, more alert and happier if others are present, compared to how alone they feel when they work on an assembly line or watch television. But the most boring condition is not working or watching television alone; The worst mood patterns are narrated when a person is alone and has nothing to be done. For the subjects in our study, who lived alone and did not attend church, Sunday morning was the most boring time of the week, because without the urge to focus, they could not decide what to do. The rest of the week, mental energy is directed by external rhythms of life: work, shopping, favorite TV shows, etc. But what to do on Sunday morning after finishing breakfast and flipping through some newspapers? For many, the lack of structure of this time period is devastating. Usually, around noon, a decision is made: I will mow the lawn, visit relatives, or watch football. From there, a sense of purpose returns and attention is focused on the next goal.

Why is solitude such a negative experience? The key answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimuli, external feedback to direct attention. And when there is a lack of external input, attention begins to wander and thoughts become chaotic, leading to a condition we call "mental entropy," in chapter two.

When left alone, a typical teenager begins to wonder, "What is my girlfriend doing right now? Am I getting pimples? Will I finish my math homework on time? Did the guys who fought with me yesterday come after me?" In other words, with nothing to do, the mind cannot stop negative thoughts from the chicken wings from entering the stage. And unless one learns to control consciousness, the same situation will arise with adults. Worries about our emotional lives, health, investments, family, and work are always hovering on the periphery of attention, waiting until there's nothing urgent that requires focus. As soon as the mind is ready to relax, come on! - Hidden problems await in the chicken wings immediately jump out to take control.

It is for this reason that television has proved to be a blessing to so many people. While watching television wasn't a positive experience — people generally reported feeling passive, weak, irritable, and sad while watching television — at least the flickering screen brought a certain order to consciousness. Predictable storylines, familiar characters, and even cumbersome commercials all provide a reassuring pattern of stimulation. The screen invites attention to it as a limited, manageable aspect of the environment. While interacting with television, the mind is protected from personal worries. Information transmitted through screens keeps depressing concerns out of mind. Of course, avoiding a breakdown in this way is quite wasteful, because one has to spend a lot of attention without getting anything from it.

More drastic ways to deal with the fear of loneliness include frequent substance use, or relying on obsessive behaviors, which can range from incessant housecleaning to compulsive sexual behavior. While under the influence of chemicals, the self is freed from the responsibility of navigating his mental energy; Then we can sit back and consider the thought patterns that stimulants provide — whatever happens gets out of our hands. And like television, stimulants keep the mind from facing depressing thoughts. While alcohol and drugs are capable of creating optimal experiences, they often operate at very low levels of complexity. Unless used in skillful ritual contexts as has been practiced in many traditional societies, what stimulants do is in fact reduce our perception of both what is achievable and what we, as individuals, potentially achievable, until those two things are in balance. This is a pleasant state of affairs, but it is just a misleading simulation of the enjoyment that comes from increasing opportunities for action and capacity for action.

Some would vehemently object to this description of how stimulants affect the mind. After all, over the past quarter century, we have been told, with growing confidence, that stimulants are "expanding consciousness" and their use enhances creativity. But evidence has shown that while chemicals alter the content and organization of consciousness, they do not expand or increase its ability to control itself. In order to accomplish anything creative, one must achieve such control. Thus, while stimulants impact the psyche, providing more mental experiences than what we might encounter in normal sensory conditions, they do so without adding to our ability to effectively establish order for them.

Many contemporary artists experiment with hallucinogenic drugs in hopes of creating magical haunting works such as the verses from Samuel Coleridge's Kubla Khan, which is said to have been composed under the influence of opium. However, sooner or later, they realize that the composition of any work of art requires a clear mind. The work done under the influence of stimulants will lack the complexity we expect from good-quality artwork, which aims for clarity and freedom. A chemically altered consciousness can bring out unusual images, thoughts, and emotions that later, when sanity returns, the artist can use. The danger is that when he becomes dependent on chemicals as a template for his mind, he risks losing his ability to control it himself.

Much of what is sexual is also just a way of imposing an external order on our thinking, a way of "killing time" without facing the dangers of solitude. Not surprisingly, watching television and having sex can become interchangeable activities. The practices of dehumanizing forms of pornography and sexuality are built on genetically programmed attraction to reproductive-related figures and activities. They instinctively focus attention and bring pleasure and in doing so they help eliminate unwanted content from the mind. What they fail to do is develop any habits of attention that might lead to higher-level complexity for consciousness.

The same argument holds true of what at first glance seems contrary to pleasure: sadistic behavior, risky activity, gambling. These ways, the way in which people seek vulnerability or fear, do not require much skill in themselves, but they help one achieve the feeling of a direct explicit experience. Pain is even better than the chaos that permeates an unfocused mind. Hurting ourselves, whether physically or emotionally, ensures that attention can be focused on something that, although painful, is at least something that can be controlled, because we are the ones causing it.

The maximum test for quality control of experience is exactly what people do in solitude, when there is no external requirement to give structure to attention. Getting involved in a job, enjoying a moment with friends or entertaining in the theater or at a concert is relatively easy. But what happens when we are left with ourselves? Alone, when the darkness of the soul suddenly descends, are we forced into frantic attempts to distract the mind from its appearance? Or can we engage in activities that are not only enjoyable but also help the ego grow?

Filling your free time with activities that require concentration, strengthen skills, or lead to ego development, is not the same as killing time by watching television or taking drugs. While both of these strategies can be thought of as different ways of dealing with the same threat of chaos as a defense against ontological anxiety, the former leads to growth, while the latter merely keeps the mind undisturbed. A person who is rarely bored, does not constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy moments, is to have passed the test to achieve a creative life.

Learning to use our time alone, rather than escaping it, is especially important in our early years. Adolescents, unable to tolerate solitude, often later dismiss themselves from performing adult tasks that require serious mental preparation. A typical scenario familiar to many parents is usually a teenager coming home from school, tossing books in the bedroom and, after grabbing snacks from the fridge, immediately grabbing his phone to contact friends. If there was nothing special, he would turn on upbeat music or watch television. If there was any possibility that he would open a book to read, that determination would not last long. Learning means focusing on difficult patterns of information, and sooner or later even the most disciplined mind drifts away from the harsh stereotypes on the page in pursuit of more pleasant thoughts. But it is difficult to summon pleasant thoughts at will. Instead, one's mind is often surrounded by frequent visitors: dim ghosts that enter the unstructured mind. The teenager began to worry about his appearance, fame and opportunities in life. To repel these incursions, he had to find something else to occupy his consciousness. Education will not do that, because studying is too difficult. Adolescent girls are willing to do almost anything to free their minds from this situation, provided that it does not take too much mental energy. The usual solution is to go back to the familiar rhythm of music, television or friends to pass the time.

With each passing decade, our culture becomes more dependent on information technology. To survive in such an environment, one must be familiar with abstract symbolic languages. A few generations ago, a person who could not read or write could still find a job that brought good income and moderate status. A farmer, a blacksmith, a small merchant can learn the skills necessary for his profession on a level ranging from as an apprentice to as adept professionals and can do well without mastering symbolic systems. Today, even the simplest jobs rely on written instructions, and more complex careers require specialized knowledge that one must learn strenuously — alone.

Teenagers who have never learned to control their consciousness will grow up to be adults who lack "discipline." They lack the complex skills that help them survive in a competitive, informed environment. And what's even more important, they never learn to enjoy life. They do not develop the habit of looking for challenges that reveal their growth potential.

But the teenage years are not the only decisive time to learn to exploit the opportunities of solitude. Unfortunately, too many adults feel that once they have reached their twenties or thirties or most certainly forty, they have the right to relax in whatever routine they have established. They have paid their debts, they have learned the tricks necessary to survive and from now on they can move forward on a controlled journey. Armed with almost minimal inner discipline, such people inevitably accumulated entropy with each passing year. Career frustration, declining physical health, mundane bumps and arrows of fate build up a mass of negative information that increasingly threatens their peace of mind. How do people get rid of these problems? If a person does not know how to control attention in solitude, he will inevitably turn to easier external solutions: stimulants, entertainment patterns, agitation – anything that clouds or distracts the mind.

But such reactions are regressive, they do not lead us forward. The way to grow while enjoying life is to create a higher form of order from entropy, which is an inevitable state of life. This means seeing each new challenge not as something to be suppressed or avoided but as an opportunity to learn and improve skills. For instance, when physical strength goes down with age, it means that the person will be willing to shift their energy from mastery of the external world to a deeper exploration of inner reality. That means one can finally read Proust, play chess, plant orchids, help neighbors, and reflect on God — if these are the things one decides are worth pursuing. But it will be difficult to accomplish any of those things unless the person has previously developed a habit of using solitude to his advantage. It's best to develop this habit early, but it's never too late to do so. In previous chapters, we've looked at some of the ways in which body and mind can cause flow states to occur. When someone is able to induce those activities at will, regardless of what is happening outside, then he or she has learned to shape the quality of life.


Every rule has its exceptions and although most people fear solitude, there are still some individuals who choose to live alone. "Whoever delights in solitude," the ancient saying Francis Bacon echoed, "is either a wild beast or a god." One does not have to be a god, but it is true that in order to enjoy being alone, an individual must develop his own mental habits, so that he can achieve the experience of flow without the support of civilized life – without the need for others, No need for a job, television, theater, restaurant or library — to help him navigate his attention. An interesting example of this type of person is a woman named Dorothy, who lives on a small island in a deserted area of the lake forest in northern Minnesota, along the Canadian border. Originally a nurse in a big city, Dorothy moved to this wilderness after her husband died and their children were grown. During the three summer months, fishermen boating across her lake would stop at the island for a little chat, but during the long winter, she was completely lonely for months. Dorothy had to hang heavy thick curtains over the windows of her cabin because she was tired of waking up every morning to see wolves, as they kept sticking their noses against the windows, looking at her with hungry eyes.

Like other people who live alone in the wilderness, Dorothy has tried to personalize her surroundings to an extraordinary degree. There are flower beds, dwarves keep the garden, old tools lie everywhere. Most of the trees have boards hanging on them, filled with rhymes, old jokes, or funny paintings pointing to tents or outbuildings. For an urban traveler, the island is the epitome of cheesy art. But thanks to Dorothy's expansiveness of taste, these "ruins" created a familiar environment where her mind could relax. Amidst unspoiled nature, she laid out her own unique style, a civilization of her own. Inside, Dorothy's favorite items recall her goals. She stamped her preference above the chaos.

More important than the spatial structure is probably the temporal structure. Dorothy had strict routines every day throughout the year: waking up at five in the morning, checking the chickens for eggs, milking goats, splitting some firewood, making breakfast, doing laundry, sewing, fishing, etc. Like the English colonists who shaved and dressed well every night in their lonely outposts, Dorothy also learned that in order to stay in control in an unfamiliar environment, one had to impose one's own order on the wilderness. Long evenings are spent reading and writing. Books on every subject imaginable were lined up along the walls of her two small bungalows. Back then, she would occasionally take trips to replenish her bookcase, and in the summer, fishermen stopped by to introduce her to some more. Dorothy seems to like people, but she enjoys being the master of her own world even more.

One can overcome solitude, but only if one finds a way to put an order on attention to prevent the entropy state from destroying the mind. Susan Butcher, the dog breeder and trainer who rode in the Arctic for eleven days without a break while fleeing elk and wolf attacks, moved years ago from Massachusetts to live in a cabin about the nearest village in Manley, Alaska to twenty-five miles (with a population of sixty-two). Before her marriage, she lived alone, with hundreds of huskies. She didn't have time to feel lonely, hunting for food and caring for her dogs — creatures that required her attention sixteen hours a day, seven days a week — prevented it. She knew the names of each dog and also the names of their parents and grandparents. She knows their temperaments, preferences, eating habits, and current health. Susan claimed she would rather live this way than do anything else. The routines she built required that her consciousness be focused on manageable tasks at all times — and thus turn life into a constant flow experience.

A friend who likes to cross the ocean alone on a sailboat once told an anecdote illustrating how long lone cruisers sometimes have to travel in order to keep their minds focused. Approaching the Azores Islands at an eastern junction of the Atlantic Ocean, about eight hundred miles off the Portuguese coast, and after days without seeing a sail, he saw a small boat sailing in the opposite direction. It was an interesting opportunity to greet a fellow seafarer, so the two boats were set out to meet in the middle of the sea, one next to the other. The man in the other boat was scrubbing his deck, part of the deck covered in a foul-smelling yellow substance. "How did you get the boat dirty?" "Well, you see," he shrugged, "just a bunch of rotten eggs." My friend admits that he doesn't know how many rotten eggs it takes to stain a boat in the middle of the ocean. "Well," the other man said, "the fridge is broken, so the eggs are spoiled. It hadn't been windy for days and I was starting to get bored. So I thought instead of throwing the eggs away, I'd smash them on the deck so I could clean them up. I let them dry a bit to make cleaning harder, but I didn't expect them to smell so bad." Under normal conditions, solo sailors have a lot to do with their minds. Their survival depends on staying alert to conditions on boats and at sea. It's the constant focus on an achievable goal that makes sailing so enjoyable. But when the calm begins, they may have to do anything to find any challenge.

Is dealing with loneliness by letting unnecessary but compulsory rituals shape the mind any different from using drugs or watching TV constantly? It could be argued that Dorothy and other hermits are effectively escaping from "reality" in the same way as addicts. In both cases, mental entropy is avoided by taking the mind away from unpleasant thoughts and feelings. However, how someone deals with loneliness makes all the difference. If being alone is seen as an opportunity to accomplish unattainable goals in friendship with others, then instead of feeling lonely, people will enjoy solitude and may learn new skills in the process. Conversely, if solitude is seen as a condition to be avoided at all costs rather than a challenge, the person will panic and will resort to distractions that cannot lead to higher levels of complexity. Raising dogs and driving sleds through the cold forests may seem like a rather primitive endeavor compared to the fascinating pleasures of playboys or cocaine addicts. However, in terms of mental organization, the former is much more complex than the latter. Lifestyles built on joy exist only in symbiosis with complex cultures based on hard work and enjoyment. But when culture is no longer able or unwilling to support hedonists, people who are addicted to pleasure, lack skills, discipline and so cannot fend for themselves, will find themselves lost and helpless.

This is not to say that the only way to achieve control over consciousness is to move to live in Alaska and hunt elk. One can master flow operations in most environments. A few will need to live in the wilderness, or spend long periods alone at sea. Most people will like to be surrounded by the hustle and bustle of human interaction. However, solitude is a problem to face whether one lives in South Manhattan or Northern Alaska. Unless one learns to indulge in solitude, much of life will pass desperately avoiding its bad influences.


Some of the most intense and meaningful experiences in people's lives come from family relationships. Many successful people will endorse Lee Iacocca's statement: "I had a great and successful career. But next to my family, it doesn't really matter."

Throughout history, people have been born and have spent their entire lives in kinship groups. Families vary in size and composition, but everywhere, individuals feel a special intimacy with relatives, with whom they interact more often than those outside the family. Sociologists suggest that this kinship loyalty is directly proportional to the number of genes that any two people have in common: for example, a sibling will have half of their genome the same, while two cousins will have only a quarter. In this scenario, siblings would on average help each other twice as much as cousins. Therefore, the special feelings we have for our loved ones are simply a mechanism designed to ensure that our family's genes are preserved and replicated.

There are certain strong biological reasons for us having a special attachment to our loved ones. No mammal with a slow maturation process can survive without built-in mechanisms that make most adults feel responsible for their young and young feel dependent on their adults; For that reason, babies' bond with their caregivers, and vice versa, is particularly strong. But the actual types of relationships that families support are surprisingly diverse with different cultures, at different times.

For example, whether marriage is polygamous or monogamous, patriarchal or matrilineal, there is a pretty strong influence on the everyday experiences of husbands, wives, and children with each other. Therefore, there are few obvious features of family structure, such as types of inheritance patterns. In many of the small estates of a divided Germany until about a century ago, each duchy had a law of inheritance based on eldest sonhood, where the eldest son enjoyed all the family property, or on an equal division of property among all the children. Which of these methods of transferring property rights may seem completely random, but the choice is still closely related to economic factors. (The eldest son regime led to the concentration of capital in the territories using this method, which in turn led to industrialization; while equal sharing led to fragmentation of property and underdeveloped industry.) More directly related to what we are talking about, sibling relationships in a culture that adopts patriarchy must be intrinsically different from one in which equal economic benefits are accrued to all children in the household. Sibling affection for each other, what they expect from each other, their reciprocal rights and responsibilities, are associated to a considerable extent with the peculiar establishment of the family system. As this example demonstrates, while genetic programming can make us bond with family members, cultural context determines a lot about the strength and direction of that attachment.

Because the family is our first and foremost social environment, the quality of life depends greatly on how successful each person is in making interactions with their loved ones enjoyable. Because no matter how strong biological and cultural ties between family members, we know full well that there is a multiplicity in how people feel about their loved ones. Some families are warm and supportive, some are challenging and demanding, others threaten the egos of family members all the time, and there are also families that are unbearably boring. The frequency of murder is much higher among family members than among unrelated people. Incestuous child abuse and sexual harassment, once thought to be a rare deviation, seem to be happening much more often than anyone might have expected. In the words of John Fletcher, "the people who have the greatest power to hurt us are those we love." It is clear that family can make people extremely happy, which can also be an unbearable burden. Which one will depend greatly on how much mental energy family members invest in mutual relationships, as well as in each other's goals.

Every relationship requires reorientation of attention, repositioning of goals. When two people start going back and forth with each other, they have to accept certain constraints that when they alone do not have: schedules must be reconciled, plans must be adjusted. Even something as simple as a dinner date shoulders a compromise on time, place, type of food, etc. To some extent, the couple will have to react with emotions similar to the stimuli they experience — the relationship probably won't last long if the guy loves a movie the girl hates and vice versa. When two people choose to focus their attention on each other, both will have to change their habits; As a result, their patterns of consciousness will also have to change. Marriage requires a radical and permanent reorientation of the habits of attention. When a child is added to the couple's life, both parents must adjust again to meet the child's needs: their sleep time must change, they will go out less, the wife may quit her job, They may have to start saving money for the child's future education.

All of this can be very difficult and can also be frustrating. If one is not willing to adjust one's personal goals at the beginning of a relationship, then a lot of what happens in that relationship will subsequently create confusion in one's consciousness, because new types of interactions will contradict old types of expectations. An unmarried guy may have on his priority list driving a sleek sports car and spending several weeks each winter in the Caribbean. Then he decided to get married and have children. However, when he worked on the following goals, he discovered they were incompatible with the previous ones. He couldn't afford a Maserati anymore and the Bahamas was out of reach. Unless he reconsiders old goals, he will be disappointed, creating a sense of inner conflict known as mental entropy. And if you change your goals, your ego will change as a corollary—because your ego is the whole and the organization of your goals. In this fashion, entering any relationship requires a transformation of the ego.

Until a few decades ago, families tended to live together because parents and children were forced to continue the relationship for external reasons. If divorce was rare in the past, it's not because husbands and wives loved each other more than in the old days, but because husbands need someone to cook and look after the house, wives need someone to bring food, and children need parents, etc. to eat, sleep and start his life. The "family values" that adults try to inculcate in young people are a reflection of this simple need, even when it is cloaked by religious and moral excuses. Of course, once family values were taught as an important thing, then people learned to value them and they saved families from falling apart. Very often, however, moral codes are perceived as an external imposition, an external constraint under which husbands, wives and children get upset. In such cases, the family may have remained outwardly intact, but inside it was fractured by conflicts and hatred. The current "breakdown" of the family is the result of the slow disappearance of external reasons for maintaining the marital state. The rise in divorce rates has probably been influenced more by changes in the labor market, which have increased women's employment opportunities, and by the proliferation of labor-saving home appliances, than by a decline in love or moral nature.

But external reasons are not the only things that keep people married and living together as a family. There are great opportunities for joy and self-growth that can only be experienced in family life and these intrinsic rewards are no less now than they were in the past; In fact, these rewards are much easier to obtain today than in any previous era. If the tendency of traditional families — to stay together primarily for convenience — is weakened, the number of families that are sustainable because members like others will increase. Of course, because external forces are still much stronger than internal, the overall effect could be a deeper fragmentation of family life in the not-too-distant future. But stable families are better positioned to help their members develop better egos than families that stay together against their members' will.

There have been endless debates about whether humans are by nature promiscuous, polygamous, or inclined towards monogamy; and whether in terms of cultural evolution monogamy is the highest form of family organization. Recognizing that these questions relate only to the external conditions that shape marital relationships is important. And accordingly, the important point seems to be that marriages take on the role of the most effective form of ensuring survival. Even members of the same animal will change their relationship patterns to best adapt in a given environment. For example, empty swamp wrens (Cistothorus palustris) are polygamous species that live in Washington, where the swamps vary in quality, and females are attracted to a few males with rich territories, causing the less fortunate to suffer a single life. Wrens have a "monogamous" life in Georgia, not because the state is part of the Biblical Belt, but largely because the swamps here have similar amounts of food and shelter and so each male is the same. can attract a female to build a comfortable home.

The form that the human family takes is a response to the same kinds of environmental pressures. In terms of external reasons, we choose monogamy because in technological societies based on a money economy, time has proven to be a more streamlined arrangement. But the problem we face as individuals is not whether people are automatically monogamous, but whether we want to follow a monogamous lifestyle. And in answering that question, we need to weigh all the consequences of our choices.

People often see marriage as the end of freedom, and some even see their spouses as a "shackle." The concept of family life often implies constraints, responsibilities that interfere with one's goals and freedom of action. While this is true, especially with marriages of interest, what we tend to forget is that these rules and obligations are not different in principle from the rules that bind behavior in a game. Like all rules, they exclude a series of possibilities so that we can focus exclusively on a selected group of options.

Cicero once wrote that in order to be completely free, one must become a slave to a code of laws. In other words, accepting restrictions is a liberation. For example, by deciding to invest mental energy in a monogamous marriage, despite any problems, obstacles, or more attractive options that may come later, one will be free from the constant pressure of trying to maximize emotional reward. By committing to the demands of an old-fashioned marriage and committing voluntarily instead of being forced by tradition, one will no longer need to worry about whether one has made the right choice, or whether there is a better one. As a result, a lot of energy is free to invest in life instead of wondering how to live.

If someone decides to adopt the traditional family form, feeling complete with a monogamous marriage and with an intimate attachment to children, relatives and community, it is important to consider in advance how family life can turn into a flow activity. Because if this is not the case, boredom and frustration will inevitably ensue and then the relationship will probably fall apart, unless there are external factors strong enough to support it.

To provide a flow experience, the family must have a goal for its existence. External reasons are not enough: "everyone else is married," "it's natural to have children," or "it's more economical to live two than one." These attitudes may encourage a person to start a family and may even be strong enough to sustain that family, but they cannot make family life enjoyable. Clear goals are necessary for focusing the mental energy of parents and children on common tasks.

Some of these goals can be very general and long-term, such as planning a particular lifestyle—building an ideal home, providing the best possible education for your children, or practicing a lifestyle in modern secular society. For such goals to lead to interactions that will increase the complexity of members, families must be both differentiated and integrated. Differentiation means that each person is encouraged to develop his or her own distinctive characteristics, maximize personal skills, set his own goals. On the contrary, integration ensures that what happens to one person will affect all others. If a child is proud of his achievements at school, the rest of the family will notice and will also be proud of him. If the mother is tired and depressed, the family will try to help and cheer her up. In an integrated family, each person's goals are important to all others.

In addition to long-term goals, there is necessarily a constant supply of short-term goals. These can include simple tasks like buying a new sofa, having a picnic, planning a vacation, or playing a game of Scrabble together on Sunday afternoon. Unless there are goals that the whole family is willing to share, it is nearly impossible for family members to be together, let alone participate in a fun joint activity. Again, differentiation and integration are important: common goals should reflect each member's goals as much as possible. If Rick wants to go see a bike race and Erica wants to go to the aquarium, then everyone should watch the race one weekend and then go tour the aquarium the following weekend. The beauty of this kind of arrangement is that Erica is likely to enjoy certain aspects of cycling and Rick can really understand the value of watching fish, even though neither of them may discover much with their preconceptions.

As with any other flow activity, household activities should also provide clear feedback. In this case, it is simply a matter of keeping the communication channels smooth. If a husband does not know what is bothering his wife and vice versa, there is no opportunity to reduce the inevitable stress that arises. In this context, it is necessary to emphasize that, just as for individual experience, entropy is the fundamental state of collective life. Unless the partners in the relationship invest spiritual energy in the relationship, conflict is inevitable, simply because each individual has goals that disagree to a certain degree with other family members. Without a good connection, the differences will be amplified, until the relationship breaks down.

Feedback is also important to determine whether family goals are being achieved. My wife and I used to think that taking our kids to the zoo every Sunday every few months was a great educational activity and one we could all enjoy. But when our oldest turned ten, we stopped that activity, as my son became extremely distressed at the thought of animals being confined in confined spaces. It is a fact of life that sooner or later the children in the house will express the opinion that the joint activities of the family are "stupid". At this point, forcing them to do things together tends to backfire. So most parents just give up and leave their children to the peer culture. The greater the difficulty, the strategy is to find a new set of activities that can continually keep family members engaged.

Balancing challenges and skills is another essential element for enjoying social relationships in general and family life in particular, just as it is for any other flow activity. When a man and a woman are first attracted to each other, the opportunity for action is often clear enough. Since the dawn of humanity, the most basic challenge for boys has been "can I take her?" and for young women "can I get hold of him?" Often and depending on a partner's skill level, a more complex set of challenges are also noticed: finding out what kind of person the other person really is, what movies she likes, what he thinks of South Africa, and whether the encounter is likely to develop into a meaningful relationship. Then there will be fun things to do together, places to visit, parties to attend together and then chat about them, and so on.

Over time, people get to know each other better and the challenges are clearly exhausted. All the usual paving steps were tried; The opponent's reaction has become predictable. The game of sexual instinct has lost its original interest. At this point, the relationship risks becoming a boring routine that can be sustained solely by mutual interests, without the possibility of bringing additional enjoyment, or creating new growth to complexity. The only way to restore the flow experience to a relationship is to find new challenges in it.

This can include simple steps such as changing your eating, sleeping or shopping habits. They may involve trying to discuss new topics for conversation, visiting new places, making new friends. More than anything else, they involve paying attention to his partner's complexities, getting to know her on a deeper level than required in the early days of a relationship, backing him with sympathy and compassion as he goes through the inevitable changes that the years bring. A complicated relationship sooner or later faces the big question: whether the two partners are ready to make a lifetime commitment. At that point, a new set of challenges will manifest themselves: building a family together, getting involved in broader community issues as the children grow up, working together. Of course, these cannot happen without an abundant investment of energy and time; But the gain in the form of quality of the experience is often extremely worthwhile.

The same need for continually increasing challenges and skills applies to relationships with children. During infancy and childhood, most parents enjoy the gradual blooming process of their child's development: the first smile, the first word he speaks, the first few steps, the first scribbles. Every smallest jump in a child's skills becomes a new fun challenge, which parents will respond to by enriching the opportunities for the child to take action. From the cradle to the crib wall, then to the playground, to the kindergarten, parents are constantly adjusting the balance of challenges and skills between the child and their environment. But by early adolescence, many young people are entangled in a multitude of problems to handle. What most parents do at the time is politely ignore their children's lives, pretend that everything is fine, vain hope that everything will work out.

Adolescents are physiologically mature organisms that are mature enough for sexual reproduction; In most societies (and in ours too, about a century ago) they were considered ready for adult responsibilities and appropriate recognition. However, because our current social organization does not adequately provide challenges to the skills that adolescents have, they must explore opportunities for action that are beyond the scope of adults. Very often, the way out they find is in vandalism of cultural buildings, delinquency, substance use and recreational sex. Under current conditions, it is difficult for parents to compensate for the poverty of opportunities available in the culture at large. In this respect, families in the wealthiest suburbs are hardly any better off than families living in slums. What can a healthy, intelligent, energetic fifteen-year-old do in our typical suburb? If you consider that question, you will probably come to the conclusion that what is available is either too fake, or too simple, or not interesting enough to capture the imagination of a teenager. It is not surprising that sports are so important at suburban schools; Because compared to other alternatives, they provide some of the most specific opportunities to practice and demonstrate one's skills.

But there are some steps families can take to alleviate some of the poverty of these opportunities. In the old days, young men left home for a time as apprentices and traveled to distant towns to be exposed to new challenges. Today a similar thing exists in America for teenagers: leaving home for college. The problem persists with puberty, around the five years between twelve and seventeen: What meaningful challenges can be found for young people of that age? The situation will be more favorable if the parents themselves engage in complex and understandable activities at home. If parents enjoy playing music, cooking, reading, gardening, carpentry, or repairing engines, it's more likely that their children will find similar activities challenging and invest enough attention in those activities to start enjoying doing something that will help them grow. If parents talk more about their ideals and dreams, even if those things become disillusioned, children can also develop the ambition needed to break out of their complacency in the present. If there is nothing else to do, then discussing work or thoughts and events of the day and treating the children like adults, as friends, will also help them in the process of socialization, becoming mature thinking adults. But if the father spends all his free time at home living a tasteless life in front of the television with a glass of wine in hand, the children will obviously assume that adults are boring people who do not know what to do to have fun and they will look to peer groups in search of pleasure.

In poor communities, youth gangs provide real challenges for teenage boys. Fights, acts of courage and ceremonial performances such as gang parades on motorcycles are what match teenagers' skills with specific opportunities. In affluent suburbs, even these action arenas are unavailable to teenagers. Most activities, including school, leisure and employment, are under adult control and leave little room for their initiative. Without any meaningful output to their skills and creativity, teens may turn to excess partying, speed racing, malicious gossip, or taking drugs and narcissistic introspection to prove to themselves that they are still alive. Both consciously and unconsciously, many young girls feel that pregnancy is the only truly mature thing they can do, despite the risks and consequences of doing so. How to restructure such an environment — to make it challenging enough — is undoubtedly one of the most pressing tasks facing parents of teenagers. Simply telling these teenage children to improve themselves and do something useful is almost worthless. What helps them are clear examples and opportunities. If these are not available, one cannot blame young people for looking for solutions on their own.

Some of the stresses of adolescent life can be eased if the family provides a sense of acceptance, control, and confidence. A multidimensional relationship like this is one in which people trust each other and feel completely accepted. One doesn't have to constantly worry about being liked, becoming famous, or living up to other people's expectations. As the popular saying goes, "Love means never having to say 'I'm sorry,'" "Family is where you're always welcome." Being assured of value in the eyes of a loved one gives one the power to take chances; Excessive conformity is often caused by fear of denial. It will be much easier for someone trying to develop their potential if that person knows that no matter what happens, they have an emotionally secure base in the family.

Unconditional acceptance is especially important for children. If parents threaten to regain their love for a child if it is not good enough, then the child's playful instinct will slowly be replaced by chronic anxiety. Conversely, if the child feels that his parents are unconditionally committed to his well-being, then he can relax and explore the world without fear; Otherwise, it must allocate mental energy to protect itself and thus degrade the energy it can freely use. Early emotional security may be one of the conditions that helps develop self-purposeful personality in children. Without this, it's hard to let go of the ego long enough to experience flow.

Of course, love without strings attached doesn't mean that relationships shouldn't have standards, or that there should be no punishment for breaking the rules. When there is no risk that comes with breaking rules, then rules become meaningless, and when there are no meaningful rules, an activity cannot be enjoyable. Children must know that parents expect certain things from them and that there will be specific consequences if they do not obey. But kids also need to realize that no matter what happens, their parents' concern for them is unquestionable.

When a family has a common purpose and smooth channels of communication, when it provides a gradual expansion of opportunities for action in an environment of trust, then family life becomes an enjoyable flow activity. Members of the family will naturally focus their attention on group relationships and, to a certain extent, they forget about their individual egos, their divergent goals, to experience the joy of belonging to a more complex system, A system that connects individual consciousnesses to a unified goal.

One of the most basic illusions of our time is that family life can develop on its own naturally and the best strategy to deal with it is to relax and let it run on its own. Men especially like to console themselves with this notion. They know how hard it is to succeed at work and how much effort they have to put into their career. So at home they just want to relax and they feel that any serious demands from their families are inadequate. They often have an almost superstitious belief in the integrity of the family. Only when it is too late — when the wife becomes the borrower of the wine of grief, when the children become distant and cold — do many awaken to the fact that the family, like any other general institution, requires a constant investment of spiritual energy to ensure its survival.

To play the trompet well, the musician cannot let more than a few days pass without practice. An athlete who does not run regularly will soon lose shape and will no longer enjoy running. Any manager knows that his company will begin to collapse if his attention wanders. In each case, without concentration, a complex operation will collapse, falling into chaos. Why is family a different case? Unconditional acceptance, the absolute trust that family members have in each other, only makes sense when it is accompanied by a generous investment of attention. Otherwise, it's just a meaningless gesture, a kind of hypocrisy that doesn't deviate from neglect.


"The worst loneliness," Francis Bacon wrote, "is the lack of sincere friendship." Compared to family relationships, friendships are a lot easier to enjoy. We can choose our friends—and we often do—on the basis of our common interests and complementary goals. We don't need to change ourselves to be with our friends; They reinforce our sense of ego, rather than trying to transform it. While at home there are many boring tasks that we have to accept, like taking out the trash and sweeping leaves, with friends we can focus on the fun things.

It's not surprising that in our studies on the quality of everyday experiences, it's been proven time and time again that people report the most positive moods overall when they're with friends. This isn't just true for teenagers, adults are also happier around friends than with anyone else, including their spouses. Even retirees are happier around friends than when they are with their partner or family.

Because a friendship often includes common goals and common activities, it is "natural" to enjoy. But like any other activity, this relationship can take many different forms, from destructive to highly complex. When a friendship is a primary way to validate one's sense of insecurity, it brings joy, but it won't be indulgent — in promoting growth. For example, "drinking friends" organizations, which are common in small communities around the world, are a pleasant way for adult men to befriend people they have known since childhood. In the natural atmosphere of a pub, snack bar, beer bar, or tea room, they blow up the day by playing cards, throwing darts, while arguing and teasing each other. In the meantime, everyone feels that their existence is validated by the reciprocal attention that everyone places on each other's own ideas and styles. This type of interaction prevents the disorganization that solitude has brought to the passive mind, but does not stimulate much growth. It is like a form of collective television viewing and although it is more complex in that it requires participation, the actions and words in this activity tend to be rigidly scripted and very predictable.

This kind of socialization mimics friendship relationships, but it provides little practical benefit. People sometimes get pleasure from going through routine conversation time, but many become overly reliant on the day-to-day "fixation" of superficial relationships. This is especially true for individuals who cannot tolerate solitude and who have little emotional support at home.

Adolescents without strong family ties may become so dependent on their peer group, that they will do anything to be accepted by the group. About twenty years ago, at a high school in Tucson, Arizona, every student in a senior class learned that a first, dropout — who had "friendship" relationships with younger students — had killed his classmates and buried their bodies in the desert. They knew about it for months, but none of them reported the crime to the authorities, who discovered it by accident. These students, all the nice middle-class suburban kids, testified that they could not disclose the murders for fear of being ostracized by their friends. If Tucson's teens have bonds with a warm family, or strong bonds with other adults in the community, peer ostracism won't be intolerable. But it seems that only the peer group stands between them and solitude. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual story; Similar stories still appear in the media from time to time.

Anyway, if young people feel accepted and cared for in the family, then their dependence on peer groups is reduced and they can learn to control their relationships with peers. Fifteen-year-old Christopher is a quiet, relatively shy boy who wears glasses and has few friends, feeling close enough to his parents to confide that he is fed up with being sidelined in all the fun at school and has decided to become more famous. To do so, Chris outlines a carefully planned strategy: he buys contact lenses, wears only trendy clothes, learns about the latest music and trending hobbies of adolescence, and even dyes his hair blonde. "I wanted to see if I could change my personality," he said, spending days in front of the mirror practicing a relaxed attitude and an innocent smile.

This methodical approach, supported by parental cooperation, has worked. By the end of the year, he was invited to participate in the most prominent groups at school and the following year, he won the role of Conrad Birdie in the school musical. Because he excelled as the rock star, he became an idol among high school girls who glued his photos to lockers. The senior yearbook shows that he took all sorts of risks to succeed, such as winning a prize in the "Charming Legs" contest. He actually succeeded in changing his external personality and gained control over how his friends perceive him. At the same time, the inner organization of his ego remained the same: he was still a sensitive, generous young man, someone who didn't take his friends lightly just because he had learned to control public opinion on their part, or he didn't push himself too hard for succeeding in it.

One of the reasons Chris was able to become famous while many others were not, was because he approached his goal with the same independent discipline that an athlete would use on a football team, or a scientist would apply to an experiment. He wasn't overwhelmed by the task, he chose practical challenges that he could master on his own. In other words, he had turned the vague, terrifying monster of fame into a viable flow activity that he could enjoy while giving him a sense of pride and pride. The company of peers, like every other activity, can be experienced on various levels: at the lowest level of complexity it is a pleasant way to temporarily repel chaos; At its highest level, it provides a strong sense of enjoyment and development.

However, in the context of close friendships, the most intense experiences will occur. These are the relationships that Aristotle wrote: "Without friends, no one will choose to live on, even if he has everything else." To enjoy such a one-on-one relationship, requires the presence of the same conditions as in other flow activities. Not only is it necessary to have common goals and provide reciprocal feedback, which interactions in pubs or at cocktail parties provide, but also to find new challenges in companionship together. It can ultimately be as simple as learning more and more about your friend, discovering new aspects of the person's unique personality, and revealing more about your own personality in the process. Few things can be as enjoyable as sharing your secret feelings and thoughts with others. While this may sound normal, in reality it requires focused attention, openness, and sensitivity. In fact, this level of mental energy investment in a friendship is, unfortunately, rare. Very few people are willing to commit energy or time to it.

Friendship allows us to express parts of ourselves that we rarely get the chance to show anywhere else. One way to describe the skills each person has is to divide them into two categories: instrumental and expressive. Instrumental skills are things we learn to be able to deal effectively with the environment. They are basic survival tools, like hunter ingenuity or craftsman craftsmanship, or intellectual tools, like reading, writing, and expert expertise in our technological society. People who don't learn to find flow in most of the tasks they undertake will generally experience instrumental tasks as an external influence—because they don't reflect their own choices and require an external imposition. On the other hand, expressive skill refers to actions that attempt to express our subjective experiences outwardly. Singing a song that reflects how we feel, translating our mood into a dance, painting a picture of an expression of emotion or telling a joke we like and bowling, if that is what makes us feel good, are forms of expression in this direction. When we engage in an expressive activity, we feel connected to our authentic selves. A person who lives only by instrumental actions without experiencing a state of spontaneous flow of expressiveness ends up becoming not very different from a robot programmed by aliens to mimic human behavior.

In ordinary life, there are few opportunities to experience the sense of fulfillment that expressiveness brings. At work, one must behave according to the expectations of one's role, be a skilled mechanic, an enlightened judge, a courteous service worker. At home, we may have to be a caring mother or a polite son. And in between those two environments, on a bus or subway, one has to put on an expressionless face to the world. Only when they are around friends do most people feel they can relax and be themselves. Because we choose friends who share our basic goals, these are people with whom we can sing, dance, share jokes, or bowl together. It is in the company of our friends that we can most clearly experience the freedom of our self and know who we really are. The ideal of a modern marriage is to have a partner who is like a friend. In earlier times, when marriages were arranged for the sake of reciprocity between families, this was considered impossible. But now that there is less external pressure to get married, many people confirm that their best friend is their partner.

Friendship is not indulgent unless we accept its expressive challenges. If someone surrounds himself with "friends" who simply reaffirm his public personality, who never ask about his dreams and aspirations, never encourage him to try a different way of life, he misses out on the opportunities that friendship offers. A true friend is someone we can sometimes get mad at, someone who doesn't expect us to always be the same. It is the person who shares our goal of self-development and is therefore willing to share the risks that any increase in complexity brings.

While family primarily provides emotional protection, friendships often involve mysterious novelties. When asked about their warmest memories, people often come to remember the holidays and vacations spent with relatives. Friends are mentioned more often in the context of excitement, exploration and adventure.

Unfortunately, few people today are able to maintain friendships into adulthood. We are too mobile, too specialized, and narrow in our professional interests to nurture long-term relationships. If we can keep our families whole, we're already lucky, let alone preserve a circle of friends. We are constantly amazed when we hear successful people, especially men — managers of big companies, great lawyers and doctors — talk about how lonely and lonely their lives have become. In their grief, they remembered the close friends they had in high school, high school, sometimes even college. All those friends have been left behind and even now that they see each other again, there is probably little in common between them, except for a few bittersweet memories.

Just like with family, it is believed that friendships happen naturally and if friendships break down, there is nothing one can do but feel sorry. In adolescence, when there are so many interests shared with others and one has a lot of free time to invest in a relationship, making friends may seem like a spontaneous process. But then friendships rarely take place by chance: one has to cultivate them in a hard way similar to raising a job or a family.


Each person is part of a family or a friendship insofar as he invests mental energy in common goals with others. With that same mechanism, one can belong to larger interpersonal systems by aligning oneself with the aspirations of a community, an ethnic group, a political party, or a nation. Some individuals, like Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa, invest all their spiritual energy in what they see as the goals of all humanity.

In the language of the ancient Greeks, "politics" referred to anything that involved people in matters beyond personal and family welfare. In this broad sense, politics can be one of the most exciting and complex activities for individuals, because the greater the social sphere one engages in, the more challenging it reveals. A person can cope with very complex problems of solitude, of family and friends can focus a lot of attention. But trying to optimize the goals of unrelated individuals will include the complexities of a higher-intensity order.

Unfortunately, many who venture into the community sphere fail to act at a high level of complexity. Politicians tend to seek power, well-known philanthropists and saints often seek to prove how moral they are. These goals are not so difficult to achieve, as long as one invests enough energy in them. The bigger challenge is not only benefiting yourself but also helping others in the process. There will be more difficulties, but also more achievements, if politicians genuinely improve social conditions, if philanthropists help those in need, and if practitioners provide a firmer model of life for others.

If we only care about material outcomes, we can view selfish politicians as wise, as they strive to gain wealth and power for themselves. But if we accept the fact that optimal experience is what brings real value to life, then we must conclude that politicians who struggle to enforce the common good are actually smarter, because they are taking on higher challenges and therefore have a better chance of experiencing rewards awake indeed.

Any participation in the community field can be indulgent, as long as one structures it according to the parameters of flow experience. It doesn't matter whether you start working with Boy Scout groups or join a group that studies great books, or trying to protect the environment or support your local union. It's important to set goals, focus your mental energy, pay attention to feedback, and make sure the challenge matches your skills. Sooner or later the interaction will begin to hum and the flow experience will follow.

Of course, given the fact that mental energy is limited, one cannot hope that everyone can participate in the common goals of the community. Some people have to devote all their attention just to survive in a hostile environment. Others are so attached to a certain sequence of challenges — with art or math, for example — that they can't bear to shift any attention away from it. But life will be really harsh if some people do not like to invest mental energy in common interests, thereby creating synergy in the social system.

The concept of flow is useful not only in helping individuals improve their quality of life, but also in showing how community action should be directed. Perhaps the most powerful effect that flow theory can have in the public sector is to provide a blueprint for how organizations can be reformed so that they more easily lead to optimal experiences. Over the past few centuries, economic rationality has been so successful that we have come to take it upon ourselves to assume that the essence of any human endeavor is measured in money. But approaching life from an economic perspective alone is extremely absurd; The real bottom line lies in the quality and complexity of the experience.

A community should not be judged well because of technological advances, or steeped in material wealth, a community is considered good if it gives people the opportunity to enjoy as many aspects of their lives as possible while allowing them to develop their potential in the pursuit of great challenges More. Similarly, the value of a school does not depend on its prestige, or its ability to train students capable of coping with the essential demands of life; rather, the value lies in the level of enjoyment of lifelong learning that the school can transmit. A successful factory is not necessarily the one that makes the most money, but rather the one that is most responsible for improving the quality of life for its workers and customers. And the real function of politics is not to make people richer, safer, or more powerful, but to let as many people as possible enjoy a life of increasing complexity.

But no social change will occur unless the consciousness of individuals is first changed. When a young man asked Carlyle how he should reform the world, Carlyle replied, "reform yourself. That way, there will be one less evil person in the world." The advice remains in effect. People who try to make life better for everyone without learning to take control of their own lives first will often make things worse.

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