There are two main strategies that we can adopt to improve our quality of life. First, try to change the external conditions so that they are compatible with our goals. Second, change the way we experience external conditions, to make them better compatible with our goals. For example, feeling secure is an important component of happiness. It can be improved by carrying a weapon of self-defense, installing sturdy locks on the front door, moving to safer neighborhoods, putting political pressure on the city council to get more stringent police protection, or help the community become more aware of the importance of civil order. All of these different responses are aimed at making environmental conditions more compatible with our goals. Another way we can feel safer is by adjusting how we understand safety. If we don't expect perfect security, if we recognize that risks exist for granted, and if we are capable of enjoying a less predictable world, then the threat of insecurity has no chance of destroying happiness.
Neither of these strategies is effective if applied separately. Changing external conditions may seem effective at first, but if a person is not able to control his or her consciousness, old fears or desires will soon return, reviving previous anxieties. One will not be able to build a complete sense of inner security even if one buys one's own island and arranges around it many armed guards and ferocious dogs.
The myth of King Midas illustrates very well the view that controlling external conditions does not necessarily improve our quality of life. Like most people, King Midas assumed that if he became extremely wealthy then his happiness would be assured. Therefore, after much negotiation, he came to an agreement with the gods, he made a wish that everything he touched would turn into gold. King Midas thought he had reached the ultimate contract. Now, nothing will stop him from becoming the richest man in the world, i.e. the happiest person in the world. But we all know the end of the story: Midas soon regretted his pact, because now all the food or wine that came into his mouth turned to gold before he could swallow it, so he starved to death between the plates and the golden cup.
This old legend continues to pass through the centuries. Psychiatrists' waiting rooms are filled with wealthy and successful patients who in their forties and fifties suddenly wake up to the fact that a luxurious suburban house, expensive cars, and even a classy Ivy League education are not enough to bring peace of mind. Yet people continue to hope that changing external conditions in their lives will bring about a solution. They believe that if they can make more money, look better, or have a more understanding partner, they will be truly happy. Even though we recognize that material success may not bring happiness, we still engage in a never-ending struggle to achieve our external goals, expecting them to improve our lives.
In our culture, wealth, status, and power have all become powerful symbols of happiness. When we see someone rich, famous, or good-looking, we tend to assume that their life is worth living, even when all the evidence points to their life being miserable. And we assume that as long as we can get some of these symbols, we'll feel much happier.
If we truly succeed in becoming richer or more powerful, then at least for a certain period of time, we also believe that, overall, our lives have improved. But symbols can be deceptive: they tend to stray from the reality they are supposed to represent. And the reality is that the quality of life does not directly depend on what others think of us or of what we own. Instead, the bottom line is how we feel about ourselves and about what happens to us. To improve the quality of life, one needs to improve the quality of the experience.
This is not to say that money, fitness or fame have nothing to do with happiness. They can be real blessings, but only if they help us feel happier. Otherwise, they are neutral, even at worst, preventing us from having a dignified life. Research on happiness and life satisfaction shows that, overall, there is a moderate correlation between wealth and happiness. People in economically prosperous countries (including the United States) tend to rate themselves as happier than citizens in less affluent countries. Ed Diener, a researcher from the University of Illinois, found that ultra-wealthy individuals reported that, on average, they felt happy 77% of their lives, while the average wealthy said they were happy only 62% of the time. In a statistical sense, this difference is not very large, especially when the "extremely wealthy" group is recruited from a list of the four hundred richest people in America. It's also interesting to note that in Diener's study, not a single respondent believed that money itself guarantees happiness. Most agree with the statement: "Money can increase or decrease happiness, depending on how we spend it." In an earlier study, Norman Bradburn found that the highest-income group reported 25% more frequent feelings of happiness than the lowest-income group. Again, there are differences, but not very big. In a comprehensive survey entitled Quality of Life in the U.S. published a decade ago, survey takers reported that financial situation is one of the least important factors affecting a person's overall life satisfaction.
With these observations, instead of worrying about how to make a million dollars or how to win people's hearts, perhaps it would be more helpful to explore how everyday life can become more harmonious and satisfying and, therefore, by a direct path, Achieve the untouchable in pursuit of symbolic goals.
PLEASURE AND ENJOYMENT
When considering the kinds of experiences that make life better, most people immediately think of the kind of happiness that includes pleasurable experiences: good food, a good sex life, and every convenience that money can buy. We imagine the satisfaction of traveling to exotic places or being surrounded by interesting friends and expensive gadgets. If we can't afford the goals that the glossy, brightly colored advertisements keep telling us to pursue, then we'd be happy to arrange a quiet evening in front of the television, with a few glasses of good wine.
Pleasure is a feeling of contentment that a person acquires whenever information in consciousness tells that expectations set by biological programs or social conditions have been met. The taste of food when we are hungry is delicious because it reduces physiological imbalances. The evening being reclined while passively absorbing information from the media with a little alcohol soothes the mind that is overwhelmed by the demands of work is a pleasant relaxation. Traveling to Acapulco is a pleasant pleasure because of the stimulating novelty that revives the palate that has become blander by repetitive routines in our daily lives and because we know that this is also how "beautiful people" spend their time.
Pleasure is an important component of quality of life, but by itself does not lead to happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative endogenous equilibrium experiences, which return consciousness to order after the body's needs stir and cause mental entropy. But they do not create psychological maturity. They don't add the complexity needed to the ego. Pleasure helps maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.
When people reflect more on what makes their lives worthwhile, they tend to move beyond pleasant memories and begin to remember other events, other experiences that overlap pleasures, but have been categorized into a worthy category. with a distinct name: enjoyment. The feeling of enjoyment takes place when an individual not only gets to meet some priority expectations or is satisfied with a need, a desire, but also goes beyond what he or she is programmed to do and achieves something beyond expectations, maybe something that wasn't even imagined before.
Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. Playing a tough game of tennis, to the best of the player's ability, is enjoyable, just as reading a book reveals something in a fresh light, like having a conversation that leads us to reveal ideas we didn't know we had. Closing a business that is being snatched, or any piece of work done well, is enjoyable. None of these experiences can be particularly pleasurable at the time they take place but then we reflect on them and say, "they're really exciting" and wish that they would happen again. After an enjoyment event, we know that we have transformed, that our ego has evolved: in some ways, we have become more subtle and complex because of the experience of enjoyment.
Experiences that bring pleasure can also bring enjoyment, but the two feelings are quite different. For example, people are happy to eat. But to enjoy the food is harder. A foodie enjoys eating, and so does anyone who pays enough attention to a meal to distinguish the different sensations offered by that meal. As this example shows, we can experience pleasure without any investment of mental energy, whereas enjoyment only occurs as a consequence of investing different attention than usual. A person can feel pleasure without effort, if the proper centers in his brain are stimulated by electrical currents or chemical stimuli from drugs. But, it's impossible to enjoy a game of tennis, a book, or a conversation unless your attention is focused entirely on the activity.
It is for this reason that pleasure is easy to fade and the ego will not develop as a result of hedonic experiences. Complexity requires investing mental energy in new, relatively challenging goals. It's easy to see this process in children: In the first few years of life, every child is a little "learning machine," experimenting with new movement patterns, saying new words every day. The excited focus on a child's face as he learns each new skill is a good indicator of what enjoyment is. And each time you learn, enjoyment adds complexity to the development of the ego in the child.
Unfortunately, this natural connection between growing up and enjoyment tends to disappear over time. Perhaps because when children start school, "learning" gradually becomes an external imposition, the excitement of mastering new skills gradually wears off. Inside the narrow boundaries of adolescent ego development, things get too easy to get in order. But if people get too complacent, feeling that mental energy invested in new aspects is wasted unless there is a good opportunity to reap external rewards from it, then people may no longer enjoy life and pleasure becomes the only source of positive experience they have.
At the other extreme, many individuals continue to do their best to maintain enjoyment in whatever they do. I once knew an old man who lived in one of Naples' squalid suburbs, who made a precarious living thanks to a ramshackle antique shop that his family owned for generations. One morning, an elegant-looking American woman walked into the store and, after some searching, asked for the price of a pair of wooden angel statues in Baroque art, these chubby little angels were familiar to the Neapolitan craftsmen of several centuries ago and to the imitators of the time. Signor Orsini, the salon owner, offered an exorbitant price. The woman pulled out a stack of her traveler's checks, willing to pay for the artifact of unknown origin. I held my breath, glad that the unexpectedly cool breeze was blowing on my friend. But I didn't know Signor Orsini well enough. He purple-faced and with almost no hesitation, he sent the female customer out of the store, "No, no, I'm sorry, but I can't sell these angels to you." He kept repeating to the embarrassed woman, "I can't sell it to you. Do you understand?" After the tourist finally left, he calmed down and explained, "If I was starving, I would have taken her money. But, since I don't right now, why should I make a sale that isn't interesting at all? I savored the clash of wits in the bargaining game, as two people tried to win each other with their cunning and eloquence. She didn't even hesitate at the price. She did nothing more. She didn't give me the respect of assuming I would try to profit from her. If I sold these items to this woman at that ridiculous price, I would feel cheated." A few people, in Southern Italy or elsewhere, have this strange attitude towards business dealings. But I still suspect that they don't enjoy their work as much as Signor Orsini does.
Without enjoyment, life can still be bearable and it can even be full of pleasure. But it can be just precarious life, depending on luck and the cooperation of the outside environment. After all, to achieve control over the quality of personal experience, one needs to learn to build enjoyment in what happens to them every day.
The rest of this chapter provides an overview of what makes for an enjoyable, enjoyable experience. This description is based on lengthy interviews, questionnaires and other data collected over ten years from thousands of respondents. Initially we only interviewed people who put a lot of time and effort into difficult activities but did not promise obvious rewards such as money or fame: climbers, composers, chess players, amateur athletes. Our later studies included additional interviews with ordinary people, living normal lives; We asked them to describe how they felt when their lives reached their peak, when what they did was most enjoyable. These include urban Americans — surgeons, professors, clerical and line workers, young mothers, retirees and teenagers. They also included respondents from Korea, Japan, Thailand, Australia and various European cultures and from a region reserved for the Navajo people. On the basis of these interviews, we can now describe what makes an experience enjoyable and thereby provide examples that we can all use to enhance our quality of life.
ELEMENTS OF ENJOYMENT
The first surprise we came across in our research was how very different activities were described as similar when they went exceptionally well. It is clear that the way a long-distance swimmer feels when crossing the English Channel is almost identical to what a chess player feels during a tournament or a climber feels while conquering a craggy rocky mountain. All of these emotions are the same in many subjects, from musicians composing a quartet to teenagers from the slums participating in a basketball championship game.
The second surprise was that regardless of culture, stage of modernization, social class, age or gender, respondents described their enjoyment in the same way. What they did to experience the feeling of enjoyment varied — elderly Koreans liked to meditate, Japanese teenagers liked to gather in motorcycle racing groups — but how they described how they felt when enjoying these activities was almost identical. What's more, the reasons why the activity brings a sense of enjoyment are shared by them with more similarities than differences. In short, the optimal experience and the psychological conditions that make it possible, seem to be the same all over the world.
As our studies have suggested, the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight main components. When people reflect on how they felt at the time when their experience was most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following factors. One, that experience often occurs when we are confronted with tasks that we are capable of accomplishing. Two, we must be able to focus on what we are doing. Three and four, concentration is often possible because the task being done has clear goals and provides instant feedback. Fifth, people act with deep involvement but with little effort, helping to eliminate awareness of the anxieties and frustrations of daily life. Six, pleasurable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seven, the preoccupation with the ego disappears, but the paradox is that the feeling of the self will emerge stronger after the flow experience ends. And finally, the sense of the passage of time is transformed; Hours go by like a few minutes and minutes can seem like hours. The combination of all these elements creates a deep sense of enjoyment, making one feel worthy of expending a tremendous amount of energy simply to feel it.
We'll take a close look at each of these factors so we can better understand what makes enjoyable activities so enjoyable. With this knowledge, gaining conscious control and turning even the dullest moments of everyday life into events that help the ego mature will be possible.
A CHALLENGING ACTIVITY THAT REQUIRES SKILLS
Sometimes someone reports that they have an experience of extreme joy, a feeling of ecstasy even if there is no clear good reason: a bar with a favorite song that can trigger it, or a beautiful scenery, or even simpler than that—just a spontaneous feeling of happiness. But until now, an overwhelming proportion of optimal experiences have been reported to occur only in a series of activities that are goal-oriented and bound by rules — activities that require an investment of mental energy and cannot be accomplished without the right skills. The reason why the optimal experience takes place will become clear as we delve deeper; At this point it is enough to note that the fact that the experience unfolded like this seems universal.
It is important to clarify from the outset that an "activity" does not have to be operated in a physical sense and that the "skill" required to engage it is not necessarily a skill that is physical in nature. For example, one of the most commonly mentioned fun activities in the world is reading. Reading is an activity because it requires the ability to focus attention and have a goal, and to read one must know the laws of written language. Skills related to reading include not only literacy, but also the ability to translate words into ideas, empathize with fictional characters, recognize historical and cultural contexts, anticipate plot twists, critique and evaluate the writing style of the author, et cetera. In that broader sense, any ability to process symbolic information is a "skill," like the mathematician's skill in shaping quantitative relationships in his head, or the musician's skill in combining musical notes.
Another popular enjoyable activity is the company of others. Social interaction may at first glance seem like an exception to the statement one needs to use skills to enjoy an activity, as it seems that gossiping or joking with others requires no special skills. But of course it requires skill; As a lot of shy people know, if a person feels inferior, he or she will be afraid to establish informal contacts and avoid peer interactions whenever possible.
Any activity contains a series of opportunities for action, or "challenges" that require appropriate skills to recognize. For those without the right skills, the activity is not challenging; It's simply meaningless to them. Displaying a game of chess will stimulate inspiration for a chess player, but will make anyone who does not know the rules feel bored and boring. For most people, the stunning El Capitan cliffs in Yosemite Valley are just an ordinary giant rock formation. But for the mountaineer, it's an arena that offers an endless complex symphony of mental and physical challenges.
A simple way to look for challenges is to step into a competitive situation. Therefore, the great appeal of all games and sports lies in pitting one person or one team against another person or team. In many ways, competition is a quick way to develop complexity: "Those who fought against us," Edmund Burke wrote, "strengthened our nerves and honed our skills. Our opponents are also our helpers." The challenges from the competition can be very stimulating and exciting. But when beating an opponent takes precedence over doing the best activity possible, enjoyment tends to disappear. Competition is only enjoyable when it is a means to perfect one's skills; When it becomes something that exists for no greater purpose, it ceases to be fun.
But challenges aren't meant to be limited to competition or physical activity. They also provide a sense of enjoyment even in situations that one would not expect them to bring. As an example, here's a quote from one of our studies on an art expert's statement describing the enjoyment he gets from looking at a painting, what most people would consider an instantaneous, visual process: "A lot of the paintings that you come across are very simple and you don't find anything interesting in them, but you know, there are other paintings that contain some kind of challenge. Those are the paintings that stick in your mind, those are the most interesting." In other words, even the passive enjoyment one gets when looking at a painting or a sculpture depends on the challenges that the artwork contains.
Activities that provide enjoyment are often those designed for this very purpose. Games, sports and art and literary forms have been developed over the centuries with the aim of expressing the richness of life with enjoyable experiences. But it would be a mistake to assume that only art and entertainment can provide an optimal experience. In a healthy culture, productive work and the essential activities of daily life are also satisfying. In fact, one purpose of this book is to explore the ways in which even everyday details can be transformed into personally meaningful games that deliver optimal experiences. Mowing the lawn or waiting in the dental office can become enjoyable as one restructures the activity by providing it with goals, rules, and other components of enjoyment that will be considered below.
Heinz Maier–Leibnitz, the famous German experimental physicist and descendant of an eighteenth-century philosopher and mathematician, gives a fascinating example of how one can take control of a boring situation and turn it into a relatively interesting one. Professor Maier–Leibnitz endured a career obstacle common to academics: lengthy, often boring, conferences. To alleviate this burden, he invented a private activity that provided enough challenge so that he was not completely bored in a tedious lecture, but that the activity was automated to the point where it left enough attention in a free state so that when something interesting was said during the sermon, That will be credited to his perception.
What he did was this: Whenever the speaker started to get tedious, he started tapping his thumb on his right hand once, then the middle finger, then the index finger, then the ring finger, then the middle finger again, then the little finger. He then switched to his left hand and tapped his little finger, middle finger, ring finger, index and middle finger again and ended with his thumb. Then the right hand reverses the sequence of the fingers, and then reverses the sequence of the left hand. As it turned out, by moving at such regular distances, there are 888 combinations with which one can move the fingers without repeating the same pattern. By alternating pauses between loops at regular intervals, this pattern almost resembles a harmony and, in fact, it is easily presented on a musical frame.
After inventing this innocuous game, Professor Maier–Leibnitz found an interesting use for it: as a way to measure the length of thought trains. The model of 888 knocks, repeated three times, provides a sequence of 2,664 knocks that, once familiar, take nearly twelve minutes to execute. From the very beginning of typing, by turning attention to his fingers, Professor Maier–Leibnitz was able to tell exactly when he was in the typing sequence. So, suppose that a thought related to one of his physics experiments appears in consciousness while he is tapping his finger in the middle of a boring lecture. He immediately turned his attention to his fingers and noted the fact that he was on the 300th knock of the second percussion series; Then in the same second, he returned to his train of thought about the experiment. At a certain point, the thought was completed and he figured out the problem. How long did it take you to solve the problem? By turning his attention back to his fingers, he noticed that he was nearing the completion of the second series of percussions, so he knew the thought process took approximately two minutes and fifteen seconds.
Few people bother to invent such ingenious and complex entertainments to improve the quality of their experience. But we all have versions like that on a more modest level. Everyone develops routines to fill in the boring gaps of the day or to bring the experience back into equilibrium when anxiety begins to threaten. Some people tend to doodle, others chew objects or smoke, stroke their hair, hum, or engage in more private rituals that have the same purpose: To create order in consciousness through performing stereotypical action. These are "microflow" activities that help us get through the gloom of the day. But how enjoyable an activity is largely depends on its complexity. Small-scale automated games woven into the fabric of everyday life reduce boredom, but add little positive quality to the experience. So, one needs to face more demanding challenges and use higher-level skills.
Of all the activities that the people in our study reported engaging in, the enjoyment came in a very specific way: Whenever the opportunity to act that the individual perceived was similar to their ability. For example, a game of tennis will not be interesting if two opponents are not equal to each other. Players with less skills will feel anxious and better players will get bored. The same is true of every other activity: Music that is too simple for one's listening skills will be boring, while music that is too complex will be frustrating. Enjoyment appears on the line between boredom and anxiety, when challenges are balanced with the person's ability to act.
The golden ratio between challenges and skills isn't just true for human activities. Whenever I take our hunting dog, Hussar, for a walk across the open fields, he enjoys playing a simple game, which is the prototype of the most popular children's game, the chase. It would run around me at full speed, with its tongue sticking out and its eyes warily following my every move, provoking me to chase it. Sometimes I'll come suddenly and if I'm lucky, I'll touch it. The fun part here is that whenever I'm tired and moving sluggishly, the Hussar will run in a much tighter closed circle, making it easier for me to catch it; Conversely, if I am in good shape and willing to stretch my legs, it will expand the diameter of my circle. In this way, the difficulty of the game is kept constant. With an uncanny sense of a good balance between challenges and skills, it ensures that the game will offer maximum enjoyment for both of us.
MERGE ACTION AND PERCEPTION
When it is necessary to mobilize all relevant skills to deal with the challenges of the situation, human attention will be completely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess mental energy to process any information beyond what the activity provides. All attention is focused on the relevant stimuli.
As a result, one of the most common and distinctive features of optimal experiences takes place: People are so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; They stop perceiving themselves as a separation from the actions they are taking.
One dancer described the feeling when the performance went well: "Your focus is completely complete. Your mind doesn't wander, you think of nothing else; You're completely caught up in what you're doing. Your energy is flowing very smoothly. You feel relaxed, relaxed and energetic."
One climber explained how he feels when climbing a mountain: "You immerse yourself in what you're doing [without thinking of yourself separately from the activity at hand... You don't see yourself separate from what you're doing."
A mother who enjoys spending time with her young daughter also said: "Reading is something she really loves and we read together. She read to me and I read to her and that's when I lost touch with the rest of the world, I was completely absorbed in what I was doing."
One chess player said of playing in a tournament: "... Concentration is like breathing, you never think about breathing at all. The roof can fall down and, if it doesn't hit you, you won't know anything about it."
It is for this reason that we call the optimal experience "flow". Short and simple words describing the feeling of movement seem easy, effortless. The following words of a poet and rock climber are also compatible with thousands of interviews collected by us, and by others, over the years: "The secret of climbing is climbing; You climb to the top of a rock with joy but genuinely wish the climb would go on forever. The reason for climbing is climbing, just as the meaning of poetry is writing; You don't conquer anything except things within yourself. The act of writing gives meaning to the poem. So is climbing: Realize that you are a flower. The purpose of the flow is to keep flowing, not to seek a peak or utopia, but to remain in the flow. The problem is not to move forward, but a constant flow; You move forward to keep the flow going. There is no good reason for climbing except the climb itself; It's a communication with yourself."
While the flow experience appears to make things easy, in itself it is not at all. It usually requires intense physical exertion or highly disciplined mental activity. It doesn't happen without the application of skilled skills. Any errors in the concentration process will erase the flow state. However, as long as consciousness is maintained to function smoothly, action after action will always flow smoothly and seamlessly. In ordinary life, we constantly interrupt what we do with doubts and doubts. "Why am I doing this? Is there anything else I should do?" Time and time again, we question the necessity of our actions and weigh our reasons for pursuing them. But in the flow there is no need for brooding, because the act moves us forward as if by magic.
CLEAR GOALS AND FEEDBACK
The reason such complete immersion into the flow experience can be achieved is that the goals are usually clear and there is an immediate response. A tennis player always knows what she has to do: hit the ball back to the opponent's court. And every time she hit the ball, she knew if she had done well or not. The goal of the chess player is equally clear: to project the opponent's champion before being projected. With each move, he can calculate whether he has come close to this goal. The climber who steps up the vertical rock wall has a very simple goal: to complete the climb without falling. Every second, for hours, he received feedback that he was achieving that basic goal.
Of course, if one chooses a trivial goal, success in achieving that goal will not bring enjoyment. If I set a goal for myself to be "alive" while sitting on my living room sofa, I can also spend my days knowing that I've achieved my goal, just like a rock climber. But this realization won't make me particularly happy, while the mountaineer's awareness brings excitement to his perilous ascent.
Some activities take a very long time to complete, but the components of goals and feedback are still extremely important to them. One example was given by a sixty-two-year-old woman living in the Italian Alps, who said her most enjoyable experiences were caring for cows and tending to orchards: "I feel particularly satisfied when I take care of plants. I love seeing them grow day by day. That's beautiful." Although this requires a period of patient waiting, seeing trees cared for and grown has a powerful impact even in urban apartments in American cities.
Another example is solo sea voyages, in which a person can roam on a small boat for weeks without seeing land. Jim Macbeth, who conducted a study of currents during the voyage, commented on the excitement a sailor felt when, after days of anxiously scouring the desolate waters, he noticed the outline of the island he was aiming for began to show on the horizon. One of the legendary navigators described this feeling as follows: "I... Experiencing a sense of satisfaction coupled with a surprise that my observations of the distant sun from a precarious foothold, combined with the use of some simple tables, made it certain to find the small island after the transatlantic journey." Another said: "Each time I felt the same mixture of awe, love and pride when this new land was born, as if for me and by myself."
The goal of an activity isn't always as clear as it is with tennis, and the feedback is often more vague than the simple "I didn't fall" information the climber receives. For instance, a composer may know that he wants to write a song or a concerto for flute, but other than that, his goals are often quite vague. And how does he know if the notes he writes down are "right" or "wrong"? The same situation plays out for the artist who paints a picture, as well as with all creative activity or what is not limited to nature. But these examples are all exceptions to the rule: Unless a person learns to set goals, recognize, and evaluate feedback during those activities, they won't enjoy the activity.
In some creative activities, where goals are not clearly set in advance, one must develop a strong personal sense of what one intends to do. The artist may not have a visual image of what the finished painting will look like, but when the painting is painted to a certain stage, she will know whether this is what she wants to achieve. And an artist who loves to paint must have her subjective criteria of what is considered "beautiful" or "ugly", so that after each brush stroke, she can say: "Yes, this is the line I want; Or, no, not this." Without such inner guidance, the artist cannot experience flow.
Sometimes the goals and rules that govern an activity are set or negotiated within the activity. For example, teenagers enjoy impromptu interactions in which they try to "each other off" or tell bragging stories or tease their teachers. The goals of such interactions appear by trial-and-error methods and are rarely clarified; Often it remains below the participant's cognitive level. However, it is clear that these activities develop their own rules and that participants have a clear idea of what constitutes a successful "move" and who is doing it well. In many ways, this is the model of a good jazz band, or any improvised ensemble. Scholars or debaters get the same satisfaction when the "moves" of their arguments go smoothly and produce the desired effect.
The components that make up feedback vary significantly in different activities. Some people are indifferent to things that others have always desired to have. For example, surgeons who love their jobs claim that they will not switch to internal medicine even if they are paid ten times more than surgical work, because an internist never knows exactly how well he is doing. As for an operation, the patient's condition is almost always clear: for example, as long as there is no blood in the incision, it is considered that a particular operation has been successfully performed. When the diseased organ is removed, then the surgeon's duties are fulfilled; Then the stitching of the incision gives the satisfaction of finishing the operation. And the surgeon's disdain for the profession of psychiatrist is even greater than that of an internist: because, as surgeons say, a psychiatrist can spend ten years with a patient without knowing whether the course of therapy will help him.
However, psychiatrists, who love face-to-face conversations, also receive constant feedback: the way the patient restraints, facial expressions, hesitation in the voice, the content of the conversation the patient initiates during therapy hours, are important clues that psychiatrists use to monitor the progress of therapy. The difference between a surgeon and a psychiatrist is that one considers blood and the removal of the body part the only feedback worthy of his attendance at the operation, while the other considers the signals reflecting the patient's state of mind to be important information. The surgeon considers the psychiatrist to be mushy when concerned with such ephemeral goals; Psychiatrists think that surgeons are rude because they only focus on mechanics.
The type of feedback we aim for usually doesn't matter: What makes any difference if I hit the tennis ball back and forth between the white lines, if I project my opponent on the board, or if I notice a look of enlightenment in my patient's eyes at the end of therapy? What makes this information valuable is the symbolic message it contains: that I have succeeded with my goal. Such awareness creates order in consciousness and strengthens the structure of the ego.
Almost any type of feedback can be indulgent, as long as it is logically related to the goal in which the person has invested mental energy. If I put a walking stick over my nose and try to keep it balanced, the sight of the cane swaying upright on my face would provide a brief period of enjoyment. But each of us has a different sensitivity in a certain area of information we learn to appreciate it more than most, and it's likely that we'll view feedback that includes that information as more relevant than others.
For example, some people are born with special sensitivity to sound. They can distinguish between different tones and pitches, can recognize and memorize melodies better than everyone else in general. It is likely that such individuals will be attracted to sound activities; They will learn to control and shape auditory information. For them, the most important feedback will include the ability to combine sounds, to create or reproduce rhythms and melodies. Composers, singers, musical performers, conductors and music critics will grow among that group of people. In contrast, some people are genetically predisposed to be unusually sensitive to others and they will learn to pay attention to the signals they send. The feedback they seek will be the expression of human emotions. Some people with fragile egos need constant reassurance about themselves, and for them, the only information that matters is winning in a competitive situation. Others are so invested in being liked that the only feedback they care about is praise and admiration.
A good illustration of the importance of feedback is contained in the responses of a group of visually impaired devout women, interviewed by Prof. Fausto Massimini's team of psychologists in Milan, Italy. Like the other participants in our study, they were asked to describe the most enjoyable experiences of their lives. For these women, many of whom have been blind since birth, the most talked about flow experiences come from reading books in braille, praying, doing crafts such as knitting and binding, and helping each other in case of illness or other needs. Of the more than six hundred people interviewed by the team in Italy, these visually impaired women emphasized more than anyone else the importance of receiving clear feedback as a condition to enjoy whatever they were doing. Unable to see what's going on around them, they need to know more than the people who see it, whether what they're trying to accomplish is really going on.
FOCUS ON THE TASK AT HAND
One of the most talked about aspects of the flow experience is that while it takes place, one can forget all the unpleasant aspects of life. This feature of flow is an important byproduct of the fact that pleasurable activities require full concentration of attention on the task at hand, so that the mind leaves no room for irrelevant information.
In everyday life, we fall prey to unwanted intrusive thoughts and worries into consciousness. Because most work and home life in general lack the exigencies of experiencing flow, concentration is rarely so intense that preoccupations and worries can be automatically removed. Thus, the usual mental state consists of random and frequent recalls of entropy interference into the smooth functioning of mental energy. This is one reason why the state of flow improves the quality of the experience: the clearly structured requirements of the activity will establish order and eliminate the interference of chaos in consciousness.
A physics professor who is an avid climber described his mental state while climbing the mountain as follows: "It was as if my memory input had been cut off. All I can remember is the previous thirty seconds and all I can think about is about the next five minutes." Practically any activity that requires concentration has a similarly narrow time frame.
But it's not just the momentary focus that's significant. It is even more remarkable that only a very selective range of information can be allowed to enter the cognitive zone. Therefore, all the disturbing thoughts that usually linger in the mind are temporarily overpowered. As one young basketball player explained: "The court — that's all that matters... Sometimes when I'm on the pitch I think about something, like arguing with my headstrong girlfriend and I see it as nothing compared to the game I'm about to play. You can think about the same problem all day, but as soon as you're in the game, you're ignoring everything!" And another said: "At my age, we always think a lot, but when you go into a basketball game, all you have in mind is basketball. Everything seemed to go smoothly."
One climber echoed the same theme: "When you're [climbing], you're not aware of life's other dilemmas anymore. Climbing becomes a world of its own, meaningful only to itself. It's a focus. Once you're in that situation, it becomes very real and you take full responsibility for it. It becomes your whole world."
A similar feeling is narrated by a dancer: "I began to have a feeling that I didn't get anywhere else... I have more confidence in myself than at any other time. Maybe an attempt to forget about my problem. Dancing is like therapy. If I had any trouble, I'd leave it outside the door when I walked into [the dance studio]."
On a larger time scale, voyages offer an equally generous forgetfulness: "No matter how much discomfort may occur at sea, the actual human anxiety and distress seems to disappear as land looms behind the horizon. Once we were at sea it made no sense to worry, there was nothing we could do about our problems until we landed in the next port. Life, for a moment, was stripped of its artificiality; [other issues] don't seem to matter much compared to the state of the wind, the sea and the time of day."
Edwin Moses, the great hurdler, had this to say when describing the focus required for a race: "Your mind has to go completely blank. The fact that you have to deal with rivals, time zone differences, strange food, sleeping in hotels and personal problems has to be erased from consciousness as if they don't exist."
Although Moses was talking about what it takes to win world-class sporting events, he also described the kind of focus we achieve when we enjoy any activity. The concentration of flow experience, coupled with clear goals and immediate feedback, will provide order to consciousness, creating a positive sublimated mental state.
THE PARADOX OF CONTROL
Enjoyment often occurs in games, sports, and other leisure activities, which are distinct from everyday life, where anything bad can happen. If a person loses a game of chess or is clumsy in pursuing his hobby, he need not worry; However, in real life, failure in a deal can lead to layoffs, loss of a home mortgage and eventually having to apply for social assistance. Thus, the experience of flow is specifically described as involving a sense of control, or more precisely, the absence of anxiety about losing control, which is typical in many situations of everyday life.
Here's how one dancer embodies this dimension of the flow experience: "A deep relaxation and a strong sense of calm enveloped me. I don't have to worry about failure. What a strong and warm feeling! I want to open my heart, to embrace the world. I feel a tremendous power to create something graceful and beautiful." And one chess player said: "... I have an overall sense of well-being and I'm in complete control of my world."
What respondents actually described was the possibility, rather than reality, of control. Ballet dancers can fall, break their legs and never make the perfect turn and the chess player can be defeated and never become a champion. But at least in principle, in the world of flow, perfection is achievable.
This sense of control is also narrated in pleasurable activities that involve serious risks, activities that in the eyes of an outsider would seem potentially dangerous compared to the problems of normal life. Those who practice windsurfing, caving, rock climbing, race car driving, deep-sea diving and many similar sports for recreation are deliberately putting themselves in a situation where they lack the protective networks of civilized life. However, all of these individuals have narrated the experience of flow, in which a heightened sense of control plays an important role.
It is common to interpret the motivation of people who like risky activities as some pathological need: They are trying to dispel deep fears, they are making up for something, they are reconstructing a cohesion of the Eucalyptus complex, They are "sensation-seekers." Although such motives are sometimes involved, once they actually talk to venture experts, the most remarkable thing is that their enjoyment comes not from the danger itself, but from their ability to mitigate it. So instead of suffering from a morbid pulsation that comes from a chilling disaster, the positive emotion they enjoy is the perfectly healthy feeling of being able to control potentially dangerous forces.
It's important to recognize here that activities that create flow experiences, even the ones that seem the most risky, are inherently built to allow practitioners to develop enough skills to reduce the margin of error to the shortest possible level. For example, rock climbers recognize two dangerous tendencies: one "objective" and one "subjective." The first type is unpredictable physical events that can precede a climber: a sudden storm, an avalanche, a falling rock or a sudden sharp drop in temperature. One can prepare oneself for these threats in advance, but can never fully anticipate them. Subjective dangers are those that arise from the lack of skill of the climber, including the inability to accurately estimate the difficulty of the climb in correlation with the ability of the performer.
The point of climbing is to avoid objective dangers as much as possible and completely eliminate subjective dangers with strict discipline and careful preparation. As a result, climbers actually believe that climbing the Matterhorn is safer than crossing the street in Manhattan, where objective dangers — taxi drivers, postmen, vehicles, pimps — are less predictable than those on the mountain and personal skills are less likely to ensure safety for pedestrians.
As this example illustrates, what people enjoy is not the feeling of being in control, but the feeling of exercising control in difficult situations. We can't experience a sense of control unless we're willing to give up the security of defensive habits. Only when an ambiguous outcome is at stake and the individual has the ability to influence that outcome does he or she truly know whether he or she has control over it.
There is one type of activity that seems to constitute an exception. Games of chance are also enjoyable, but by definition they are based on random outcomes that are considered unaffected by individual skills. Players cannot control the spin of the wheel or the turn of cards in blackjack. At least in this case, the feeling of control is not related to the experience of enjoyment.
However, the "objective" conditions of the game are also set to deceive, because in this case, gamblers who prefer games of chance subjectively believe that their skills play a dominant role in the outcome of the game. In fact, they even tend to emphasize control more than those who perform activities whose skills clearly support better control. Poker players firmly believe that it was their ability, not chance, that helped them win; If they lose, they tend to blame bad luck more, but even in failure, they are willing to look for a personal flaw to explain the outcome. Ruby players develop complex systems for predicting the probability of wheel rotation. In general, people who play games of chance often believe that they have a gift for predicting the future, at least within the scope of the goals and rules that define their game. And this most ancient sense of control — whose precursors were associated with divination rituals so common in every culture — is one of the most appealing features of the gambling experience.
The feeling of existing in a world where the entropy state is postponed explains in part why activities that produce flow experiences can become so addictive. Novelists often write about the subject of chess as a metaphor for escaping reality. Vladimir Nabokov's short story The Luzhin Defense describes a young chess genius who engages in the game so much that the rest of his life — his marriage, his friendship, his life — is passing on the board. Luzhin tries to deal with these problems, but he cannot see them as anything other than situations on the chessboard. His wife, the White Queen, standing in the fifth square of the third row, was threatened by the Black Statue troops, who were Luzhin's representatives and the like. When trying to resolve personal conflicts, Luzhin turns to chess strategy and attempts to invent "Luzhin's defense system," a set of moves that will make him unable to attack from the outside. When his real-life relationships fall apart, Luzhin has a series of hallucinations in which important people around him become chess pieces on the big chessboard, trying to block his path. Eventually, he has an illusion of perfect defense against his problems and he jumps down from a hotel window. Such stories about chess are not so fanciful; many champions, including great American chess masters in general, such as Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer, became so indulgent with the beautiful and logically ordered world of chess, that they turned their backs on the indiscriminate chaos of the real world.
The eagerness that gamblers feel in "calculating" random chances is even more evident. Early ethnographers described the North American Plains as so addicted to gambling with buffalo ribs that the losers often left their silver tents losing all their clothes in the cold winter, losing all their weapons, horses and wives. Almost any pleasurable activity can become something addictive, in the sense that, instead of being a conscious choice, it becomes an essential requirement, disturbing other activities. For instance, surgeons describe surgical operations as addictive, "like taking heroin."
When a person becomes so dependent on his ability to control an indulgent activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, he loses the most crucial control: the freedom to dispose of the content of consciousness. Thus, the indulgent activities that create a flow experience have a potentially negative aspect: while they have the potential to improve the quality of life by creating order in the mind, they can be addictive, where the ego becomes a prisoner of a certain type of order and thus does not want to confront ambiguities of life too.
LOSS OF SENSE OF EGO
We now know that when an activity is taking place passionately, there is not enough attention left to allow a person to consider the past or future, or any other stimuli that are temporarily unrelated to the activity. There is one object that disappears from consciousness that deserves special mention, since in ordinary life we spend too much time thinking about it: our own ego. Here's one climber's description of this aspect of the experience: "It's a Meditative feeling, like meditation or concentration. The only thing you pursue is a one-pointedness of mind. You can get your ego into climbing in all sorts of ways and not necessarily unravel. But when everything becomes automatic then in a way, it becomes like a non-self entity. Somehow, the right thing is done even if you don't think about it or don't even do anything. It simply happens. And now you're even more focused." Or in the words of a famous long-distance cruiser: "So when a man forgets himself, he also forgets everything, seeing only the frolic of the ship with the sea, the frolic of the sea around the ship and ignoring everything unnecessary for that game."
The loss of a sense of self isolated from the world around them is sometimes accompanied by a sense of oneness with the environment, whether it's a mountain, a team, or, in the case of this member of a Japanese motorcycle group, the "movement" of hundreds of roaring spins on the streets of Kyoto: "When all our emotions were wired, I realized something. When driving, we weren't quite in tune with each other at first. But if the race starts well, we all feel like we're in tune with everyone else. How can I explain this?... When our minds merge. At the time, it was a real pleasure. When we all became one, I understood something. Suddenly I realized, 'Oh, we're one' and I thought, 'If we accelerate as fast as we can, it's going to be a real race.' When we realize that we become the same mass of flesh, it is the ultimate feeling. When we were up at full speed, at that moment, it felt really good."
The "becoming a mass of flesh" so vividly described by this Japanese teenager is a very real feature of the flow experience. Many people report feeling it very concretely, in the same way they feel relief from hunger or when they are free from pain. It is a very rewarding experience, but as we will see later, it also presents its own danger.
Preoccupation with ourselves consumes mental energy because in our daily lives we often feel threatened. Whenever we are threatened, we need to bring the image we have of ourselves back to awareness, so that we can recognize whether the threat is serious and how we should face it. For example, if I'm walking down the street and notice people turning to me with devilish smiles, the normal reaction I need to do is immediately think, "Is something wrong? Do I look funny? Is it because of the way I walk or is it dirty on my face?" Hundreds of times a day, we are reminded of our ability to be attacked. And every time this happens, mental energy is lost when trying to restore order to consciousness.
But in a state of flow there is no room for self-examination. Because indulgent activities have clear goals, stable rules, and challenges that match skills, there is little chance of ego being threatened. When a mountaineer makes a difficult climb, he wholeheartedly takes on the role of a climber. Either he was a hundred percent climber, or he wouldn't survive. No one or anything can question other aspects of him. Even if his face was smeared, it made absolutely no difference. The only likely threat comes from the mountain, but a good climber is well-trained to face that threat and doesn't need to put his ego into the process.
The absence of the ego from consciousness does not mean that the person in the flow state has relinquished control of mental energy or is not aware of what is happening in his body or in his mind. In fact, the opposite is often more true. When people first learn about the flow experience, they sometimes assume that a lack of self-consciousness is related to the passive obliteration of the ego, a Southern California-style form of "flowing." But in fact, optimal experience is associated with a very positive role for the ego. A violinist must be extremely aware of every movement of her fingers, as well as the sound that enters her ears and of the entire genre of the piece of music she is playing, note by note, both analytically and comprehensively, within the overall creative scope of the score. A good athlete is usually aware of every relevant muscle in the body, aware of breathing, as well as the performance of competitors in the overall strategy of the race. A chess player cannot enjoy the game if he cannot rummage from his memory at will, about previous chess positions, about past combinations.
Thus, loss of self-consciousness is not related to loss of self and certainly not loss of consciousness, but rather just loss of self-consciousness. What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, which is the information we use to represent who we are. And being able to temporarily forget who we are seems exciting. When we don't mind ourselves, we actually have the opportunity to expand our concept of who we are. Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a sense that the boundaries of our nature have been extended forward.
This feeling is not just a fantasy, but is based on a specific experience of intimate interaction with some Other Entity, an interaction that creates a rare sense of mergery with these usually external entities. During the seemingly endless guard sessions of the dark night, the lone sailor begins to feel that the boat is an extension of himself, moving in the same rhythm, towards a common destination. The violinist, enveloped in the stream of sounds she helps create, feels as if she is part of "celestial music". The climber, focusing all his attention on the roughness of the rocky cliff that will safely support her weight, refers to the feeling of the close relationship between the fingers and the cliff, between the fragile body and the panorama of the rocky mountain, sky and wind. In a chess tournament, players whose attention is focused for hours on end to the logical match on the board, indicate that they feel as if they are merged into a powerful "energy field" with other forces, in an immaterial aspect of existence. Surgeons say that during a difficult operation, they have a feeling that the entire surgical team is a single being, moving by the same purpose; They describe it as a ballet in which each individual depends on the performance of the group and all involved share a sense of harmony and empowerment.
One can take these testimonials as poetic metaphors and then ignore them. But it's important to recognize that they are associated with very real experiences like hunger, or very specific like hitting a wall. There is nothing mysterious or mysterious about these experiences. When a person invests all of their mental energy into an interaction, whether it's with another person, a ship, a mountain, or a piece of music, they have truly become part of a larger system of actions than they were before. This system is shaped by the rules of operation; Its energy comes from the participants' attention. But it's a real system—as subjectively as being a member of a family, a company, or a team—and the ego, which has a part of it, has expanded its boundaries, becoming more complex than it used to be.
This maturation of the ego occurs only if the interaction is a thing of enjoyment, that is, if it offers significant opportunities for action and requires the continuous perfection of skills. It is also likely that one will lose oneself in systems of action that require nothing but faith and loyalty. Mainstream religions, mass movements, and radical political parties also offer opportunities for ego superiority that millions eagerly embrace. They also lead to a welcome expansion of the boundaries of the ego, a sense that one is bound to something wonderful and powerful. The true believer also becomes part of the system concretely, because his spiritual energy will be focused and shaped by his goals and belief rules. But that true believer doesn't actually interact with the belief system; He often lets his mental energies be absorbed by them. Because of that obedience nothing new came to him; Consciousness can achieve a pleasant order, but it will be an imposed order rather than one that the person achieves. The best image of the true believer's ego is like a crystal: sturdy and symmetrical beauty, but very slow to mature.
There is a very important and at first seemingly paradoxical relationship, between the loss of self in the flow experience and then the stronger rising ego. It seems that sometimes giving up a sense of self is essential to building a stronger concept of self. The reason this is happening is pretty obvious. In a state of flow, one is challenged to do their best and to constantly improve their skills. At the time, she didn't get a chance to examine what her ego was like—if she allowed herself to become self-conscious, the experience might not have been truly profound. But then, when the activity ends and the self-consciousness has the opportunity to resume, the ego that the person reflects no longer resembles the self that existed before the flow experience took place: it is now enriched with new skills and achievements.
THE VARIATION OF TIME
One of the most common descriptions of an optimal experience is that time no longer seems to pass the way it usually does. The objective, external duration that we measure by external events such as night and day, or the orderly evolution of clocks, is manifested incompatible with the rhythms dictated by activity. Often hours seem to pass in a matter of minutes; In general, most people report that time seems to pass a lot faster. But sometimes the opposite happens: Ballet dancers describe how a difficult twist that takes less than a second in real time feels as if it lasts a few minutes: "Two things happen. One is that it seems to happen very quickly in a way. After it passed, it felt like it had passed incredibly quickly. I saw it was one o'clock in the morning and I said, 'Aha, it was eight minutes ago.' But then when I danced, it seemed to take longer than I really did." A reliable generalization of this phenomenon holds that in the process of experiencing flow, the sense of time has little to do with the type of time measured by the absolute convention of the clock.
But here there are also exceptions that further shed light on the rule. An excellent open-heart surgeon, who derives profound pleasure from his work, is famous for his ability to know the exact time during an operation without looking through the clock, with only a half-minute error. But in his case, timing was one of the essential challenges of the job: since he was only called upon to perform a very small but extremely difficult part of the operation, he often participated in several surgeries that took place at once and had to move from one shift to the next, Make sure he doesn't delay colleagues responsible for pre-operative stitches. A similar skill is often found in practitioners with other activities, activities where time is of the essence, for example, runners and riders. To lead the pace correctly in a competition, they must be very sensitive to the passage of time in seconds and minutes. In such cases, the ability to keep track of time becomes one of the essential skills to perform the activity well and therefore it contributes, rather than diminishes, the enjoyment of the experience.
But most activities offer a flow experience that doesn't depend on time counted around the clock; Like baseball, players have their own pace, their own sequence of events, marking the transition from one state to another without involving peer time periods. It is unclear whether this aspect of the flow experience is just a byproduct of the intense concentration required for the activity at hand, or if it is something that properly contributes to the positive quality of the experience. While it may seem that the loss of real-time consciousness is not one of the main elements of enjoyment, being free from the tyranny of time adds to the excitement we feel in a state of full immersion in activity.
The key component of an optimal experience is that it aims for itself, in other words, it has a purpose in itself. Even if it's done for other reasons at first, our energy-consuming activity actually has an intrinsic reward. The surgeons say of their work: "It's exciting that I do it even if I'm not forced to." The sailors said, "I'm spending a lot of money and time on this boat, but it doesn't compare to the feeling I get when sailing."
The term "autotelic purpose" comes from two Greek words, auto meaning self and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained, closed activity, one that is carried out not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because doing so is rewarding. Playing stocks for money is not a purposeful experience in itself; But playing it to demonstrate an individual's skill in predicting future trends is a must – even though the money results are exactly the same. Teaching children to be good citizens is not an end in itself, but teaching them because people enjoy interacting with children. What transpires in the two situations is identical; The difference is that when experience has a purpose in itself, one pays attention to the activity for the activity itself; When it's not, attention is focused on the outcome of the action.
Almost everything we do is not purely self-purposed, nor is it purely extrinsic (as we call activities done solely for external reasons), but rather a combination of both. Surgeons often engage in long-term training with expectations of an external purpose: helping people, earning money, or becoming famous. If they are lucky, after a while, they begin to enjoy their work and then the surgery in large part becomes a goal in itself.
Some things we are initially forced to do against our will, over time turn out to be intrinsically rewarding. A friend of mine, who many years ago worked with me, had a great aptitude. Whenever work became particularly boring, he would look up with a half-closed look through his half-closed eyes and would begin to hum a piece of music—a Bach chorus, a Mozart concerto, or a Beethoven symphony. But humming is an unsatisfactory description of what he did. He recreated the entire score, imitating the dominant instruments in each specific piece with his own voice: when he was as dire as a violin, when he hummed softly as a fagot, when it was loud like a trumpet. We sat in the office listening passionately and returned to work refreshed. The strange thing is how my friend developed this gift. From the age of three, he was taken by his father to classical concerts. He remembers feeling indescribably bored and occasionally falling asleep in his chair, often being awakened by a sudden slap. He grew to hate concerts, classical music, and perhaps his father as well, but year after year, he was forced to repeat this painful experience. Then one evening when he was about seven years old, in the middle of the opening sequence for an opera by Mozart, he acquired what he described as ecstatic insight: he suddenly became aware of the melodic structure of the work and had an overwhelming sense of a new world opening up before him. It was three years of painstaking listening that prepared him for this insight, years when his musical skills unconsciously developed and enabled him to understand the challenge Mozart had embedded in music.
Of course he got lucky; Many children never reach the point where they realize the possibilities of the activity they are forced to engage in and end up forever hating it. How many children have hated classical music because their parents forced them to learn to play an instrument? Often children — and adults — need extrinsic motivation to take the first steps in an activity that requires a relatively difficult attention restructuring process. Most indulgent activities are not natural; They require an effort that people don't want to put in at first. But once the interaction starts providing feedback to the performer's skills, it often begins to yield personal rewards.
Experiencing self-purpose is very different from the feeling we usually have in life. Much of what we do normally carries no value in itself, and we do it only because we have to, or because we expect some future benefit from it. Many people feel that the time they spend at work is essentially wasted — they shun it and the mental energy they invest in work doesn't help strengthen their ego. For quite a few people, free time is also wasted. Idleness provides a relaxing respite from work, but usually it consists only of passively absorbing information without using any skills or exploring new opportunities for action. As a result, life passes in a series of boring and anxious experiences over which one has little control.
Experiences have a purpose in themselves, or flow, that elevates life to another level. Alienation gives way to wholehearted commitment, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness transforms into a sense of control, and mental energy works to reinforce a sense of self instead of getting lost in serving external goals. When experience is an intrinsic reward, life has meaning in the present instead of being held hostage by some hypothesis of future gain.
But, as we saw in the section concerning the feeling of control, one must be aware of the potential addictive potential of experiencing flow. We should agree with ourselves on the fact that nothing in the world is entirely positive; Any power can be abused. Love can lead to cruelty, science can create destruction, unregulated technology can create pollution. An optimal experience is a form of energy and energy that can be used to help or destroy. Fire heats or burns; Atomic energy can generate electricity or can wipe out the world. Energy is power, but power is only a means. The goals to which the power is applied can make life richer or more painful.
The Marquis de Sade perfected the torture of pain into a form of pleasure and, in fact, brutality was a common source of enjoyment for those who had not yet developed more sophisticated skills. Even in so-called "civilized" societies that try to make life interesting without interfering with anyone's happiness, people are still attracted to violence. Gladiatorial fights were the pastime of the Romans, who lived during the Victorian reign paid to see terriers tear apart rats, the Spaniards viewed the killing of cows with devotion and boxing as a big factor in our own culture.
Veterans returning from Vietnam or from other wars sometimes talk about operating on the front lines with nostalgia, describing it as a flowing experience. When you sit in a trench, next to a rocket launcher, life is clearly focused: the goal is to destroy the enemy before he destroys you; good and bad become self-enlightening; the means of control are at hand; All distractions are removed. Even for someone who hates war, the experience of war can be more enjoyable than anything ever encountered in civilian life.
Criminals often say things like this: "If you show me something I can do that is as fun as breaking into a house in the middle of the night, stealing all my jewelry without waking anyone up, then I will." Most of the actions we classify as juvenile delinquency — theft of vehicles, vandalism of cultural buildings, disorderly conduct in general — are motivated by the same need for flow experiences that are not available in normal life. As long as a significant segment of society has fewer opportunities to encounter meaningful challenges and fewer opportunities to develop the skills needed to benefit from those challenges, we must accept that violence and guilt will continue to attract those who cannot seek more complex self-purpose experiences.
This issue is further complicated when we contemplate the highly regarded scientific and technological activities that later take on an extremely vague and perhaps even terrifying appearance, are all very interesting at first. Robert Oppenheimer called his atomic bomb work "sweet deal," and there's no arguing that the creation of nerve gas or Star Wars plans might have deeply appealed to those associated with them.
Experiencing flow, like everything else, is not "good" in an absolute sense. It is only good in that it has the ability to make life richer, more vibrant, and meaningful; It's good because it increases the strength and complexity of the ego. But whether the outcome of any particular instance of flow experience is "good" in a broader sense needs to be discussed and evaluated according to broader societal criteria. After all, the same is true of all human activities, whether scientific, religious, or political. A particular religious faith may benefit one person or group of people, but suppress many others. Christianity helped integrate the declining ethnic communities of the Roman Empire, but it was instrumental in the dissolution of many of the cultures it came into contact with. Some scientific progress may be good for science and a few scientists, but bad for all of humanity. It would be delusional to believe that any solution benefits everyone and all time; No human achievement can be considered the perfect solution. Jefferson's uncomfortable maxim, "Constant vigilance is the price of freedom" applies to spheres outside politics as well; It means that we must constantly reevaluate what we do, not let the habits and understandings of the past blind us to new possibilities.
However, it would be foolish to ignore an energy source just because it can be abused. If humanity had tried to eliminate fire just because it could be used to incinerate things, we wouldn't have evolved superior to apes. As Democritus [a Greek philosopher] said centuries ago: "Water can be both good and bad, useful and dangerous. However, for the danger, a remedy was found: learning to swim." "Swimming," in our case, involves learning to distinguish useful and harmful forms of the flow experience, then making the most of the useful experience and putting limits on the harmful experience. The task is to learn to enjoy one's own life every day without diminishing one's chances of enjoying another's life.