Conversations with Rocks

Happiness through Action: thoughts on Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This book has stuck with me in the few weeks since I read it. It is a book about happiness, about how to seek happiness through an active life involving doing things that challenge you and improve your life. The author started out his career studying people who were devoted to activities that they loved, like rock climbing, chess, and dancing. There is a state that people get into when they do these things that seems obviously desirable. He calls it flow: “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”

I appreciate the encouragement to seek out interesting, complex activities. I especially like his advice on being an amateur:

Originally, “amateur,” from the Latin verb amare, “to love,” referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly a “dilettante,” from the Latin delectare, “to find delight in,” was someone who enjoyed a given activity.

As I continue my sabbatical, I appreciate the encouragement to think that time spent as an amateur of mathematics or science, for instance, is not time wasted. I appreciate the encouragement to get out there and do challenging things, whether they are new things (like, for me, dancing) or old things (like programming). The idea is that there is a sweet spot where the challenge matches your skill, and you can make progress.

I do think the book might focus too much on things where there’s obvious progress towards a goal, like mastering chess or rock climbing. Open creativity is not as much encouraged, for instance he applauds classical music training but disparages teenagers forming rock bands as “captives of a subculture that does not offer many opportunities for making consciousness more complex”. But that’s just him being a fuddy duddy, let’s agree that playing in a rock band can be a source of flow. The point is to work out what your own flow state is, and find things that lead to it.

The flip side of flow is something he calls “psychic entropy”—those random, chaotic thoughts that come up when you have a little bit of downtime or boredom:

Worries about one’s love life, health, investments, family, and job are always hovering at the periphery of attention, waiting until there is nothing pressing that demands concentration. As soon as the mind is ready to relax, zap! the potential problems that were waiting in the wings take over.

Apparently Sunday mornings are the worst for this:

For people in our studies who live by themselves and do not attend church, Sunday mornings are the lowest part of the week, because with no demands on attention, they are unable to decide what to do. The rest of the week psychic energy is directed by external routines: work, shopping, favorite TV shows, and so on. But what is one to do Sunday morning after breakfast, after having browsed through the papers? For many, the lack of structure of those hours is devastating. Generally by noon a decision is made: I’ll mow the lawn, visit relatives, or watch the football game. A sense of purpose then returns, and attention is focused on the next goal.

I wholly disagree with this. On this sabbatical I am living the life of Sunday mornings with nothing to do and it’s great. I love these moments when I get bored. Getting bored is such a luxury. Getting to a point in a day when you have a genuine choice is so great. True, if you truly are constantly beset by anxious thoughts whenever you cease goal oriented activity this is going to be a problem. But those anxious thoughts themselves, even the “psychic entropy”, the little moments of mental chaos, those are clues, those are bits and pieces of information telling you “pay attention to me!”.

It is worth paying attention. In the book he mentions relationship issues coming up a lot for a hypothetical person experiencing psychic entropy—I would say that he should probably think harder about his relationship and stop avoiding that! If one can lovingly and patiently work with those thoughts, I mean, they might lead to all sorts of upsetting things, they might lead to needing to make big changes in your life, but if you face these things, it can open up to a more authentic life. It’s like he’s running away from something and he needs to avoid those Sunday morning moments by scheduling something engaging for every minute.

So while I feel that there is genuine wisdom in encouraging yourself to do the more challenging, complex, interesting thing instead of boring, addictive habits, there is also a problem if the flow activities themselves are a distraction. Distraction from what? Distraction from the uncomfortable thing that’s happening when you stop being active for a moment, whatever that is.

The thing I like about this book is that it seems genuinely interested in human happiness, in a way that’s grounded in real experience. Happiness can seem like an impossible thing to attain or even define, but it is reasonable to start with looking at what people freely choose to do. It is incomplete, he does not fully understand the contemplative life or how contemplation can help untangle the knots leading to psychic entropy. But the core message to seek out the things you most deeply enjoy is good.

#happiness #psychology