The most remarkable theory of how to achieve happiness

Review of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow

Happiness is subjective. And yet, it is hard not to relate to someone else’s happy moments. In this book Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced as mihayli sixcentmihayli) compiles decades worth of research to construct a theory of achieving happiness. Well, actually, he uses the term optimal experience, which he defines as:

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a land-mark in memory for what life should be like.

To achieve this state Csikszentmihalyi says we need to achieve control over our consciousness. That will then allow us to enter a state of “flow”, where there is nothing left to desire. The fact that one is not slim, rich or powerful no longer matters. ” The tide of risking expectations is stilled; unfulfilled needs no longer trouble the mind. The most humdrum experiences become enjoyable.”

That quote appeared quite early on in the book and made me very skeptical. But in the light of numerous example that Csikzsentmihalyi gives, many of which you can relate to, it is hard to not accept the validity of his theory. The author readily admits that the theory is not a new one. Some of the oldest examples come, not surprisingly, from mythology. Many religions have approached the idea of happiness and Csikszentmihalyi’s theory only adds to their conclusions.

For instance, a key message in the Bhagwad Gita is that happiness is the result of the journey towards a goal rather than achieving the goal. Similarly Csikszentmihalyi says that a key element of optimal experience is that it is an end in itself, where an action is performed not for some expected future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

In one of the most extreme examples of flow that Csikszentmihalyi discusses is one where a paraplegic considers the accident of losing both his legs as the most positive thing that happened to him. When his case is analysed it is clear before the accident, he let life happen to him. Whereas after the accident he had to rethink almost everything he had to do in life, and in doing that he followed a process that helped him achieve flow.

So what do we need to produce flow (one that leads to an optimal experience)?

  1. Set an overall goal (and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible)
  2. Find a way of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen
  3. Keep concentrating on what one is doing. Such that one is able to make finer distinctions  in the challenges involved in the activity
  4. Develop skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available
  5. Keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring

The above steps will make it clear why sport is the most popular flow activity. Csikszentmikhalyi argues that the same flow can be achieved in work, if step 2 and step 5 are given more emphasis. (PS: For those who’ve learnt Yoga in its truest form, Csikszentmihalyi considers it to be the most thoroughly planned flow activity.)

This is not a self-help book, and it is not a light read. At times it can also get very repetitive. Having laboured through it though, I am left with a pretty robust theory to approach every activity in life. Although I’ve always used some of the tools like goal-setting, measuring progress and raising stakes, using them all in sync and with added focus on the process is certainly bound to change how I experience everything.

It’s not just about wanting

The desire to want is not enough to make someone do what is needed to get it. This is to say: desire ≠ motivation (to do).

We tend to want a lot more than we can actually get. I feel the solution lies in deeply caring about what you want. If you care enough, you will do enough and make it happen.

You want to learn something, care about learning it. You want to achieve something, care about achieving it. You want to give something, care about giving it.

There are far too many distractions around us. If you don’t care, you won’t do. 

It should be about Choices not Goals

Previously, I have written about why I was unconvinced with Leo’s philosophy of living without goals and expectations. It was the logic in Leo’s arguments which had a flaw and not the concept. In the light of a new way of looking at the same problem, it seems to me that there may after all be a way to incorporate this way of living without ‘adverse’ consequences.

A Different Perspective

Instead of looking at what you want to do as goals, think about them as choices. For example, instead of considering ‘living a healthy life’ as a goal, treat is as a choice. Or consider ‘writing a book’ a choice not a goal. In doing so, attach value to the whole activity and not the just end point.

It’s a fundamentally different view of we tend to call goals. When we treat something as ‘our choice’, we are able to attach much more value to it. In a liberal society, we value other’s choices because we value our own as much. Even evolution supports giving choices more value because those who are able to make better choices are those who will survive longer.

Goals, on the other hand, don’t seem that personal and thus, less valuable. They seem to be something we conform to.  We should have goals because everyone else has them. We should have goals because that is the only way in which we can achieve great things.

The point I am trying to make is that choosing to do something without it being your ‘goal’ is a much more powerful motivator.

Goals: The Stressful Motivators

The idea of living without goals is scary. We create goals to motivate ourselves to do the work which we deem important. But there is a problem with this kind of motivation, it causes stress.

The stress of not achieving your goals (within the time frame) can motivate you to ‘get on with it’ but that kind of motivation can only last for so long. Where as choosing to do something means that one is doing that only because one derives pleasure from doing it. I think this kind of pleasure is greater than the pleasure of just achieving goals and thus can sustain one to not only complete what they started but also do better work. The pleasure may even help one achieve more than what they would’ve set a goal for.

Philosophically Speaking

Isn’t living without goals a goal in itself?

Unfortunately, the movement of ‘living without goals’ lacks the ability to counter that attack. A better name to this movement would be ‘living only by your choices’. But that’s not controversial enough for it to market well.

People ‘choose’ to live by goals. So what is it that I am claiming people should do that they are not already doing? 

Everyone lives by their own choices, of course. I am arguing for choosing to do something because you like to do it rather than choosing to do something that you do because it’s your goal. Even if people choose goals for the pleasure that they derive on achieving them, it’s a much more powerful motivator if you do something because you derive pleasure in the activity rather than in just finishing it.

Letting go off expectations and goals?

Leo Babauta writes about living a life with no goals and without expectations. Yes, the blog is called zen habits and may be its only zen monks who are able to do what Leo wants people to do. That would have been ok if he wrote this for zen monks alone. But that is not the case, he writes this for everyone. I find this to be a problem.

David Damron wrote about why Leo is wrong about goals. His five reasons are that:

  1. A goal can teach you how to handle your emotions
  2. Focus on a goal can deliver measurable results
  3. The journey is more appreciated when you set your sights on “Destination X”
  4. There’s faith that you will achieve a goal by just being and then there’s faith in focused action that you will achieve a goal
  5. A community is far likelier to back a goal than a way of life

Leo’s rebuttals to all those points run around one argument – I have lived a life without goals and I know that it works better. I suppose that his arguments for living without expectations may also lie on the same thread of arguments.

At present, I find this philosophy of living very hard to digest. If you can live a life like Leo where you are self-employed and make enough money to support your family then it might be possible to live that way.

Yes, theoretically I’d love to be able to live without goals or expectations. I’d like to do whatever takes my fancy like spend my time climbing the mountains, swimming the seas and enjoying the peace. All would have been well if I was in a Himalayan monastery supported by philanthropy to search for the ‘ultimate truth’. But that is not the case, I live a life that we have built for ourselves after many millennia of organised human effort.

I am not trying to be philosophical when I say that this life that I am able to live is better than the life that I would have had, had everyone of us lived without goals or expectations. It is a better life from a utilitarian perspective. Sure there are many more who are poor and suffering from the time when Buddha walked the earth. But there are also many many more who are able to experience new things, live longer and have the ability to contribute to humanity than those who did in Buddha’s times.

We have achieved what we have through innovation and hard work.

Many times the achievement has been possible only because of organised hard work. Organisations and institutions would fail without goals and a clear vision.

One may argue that at least for innovation it might be better to live a free life. We can explore and learn new things and in the process develop new things. Sure that is one way to look at innovation. Innovation is very a murky area to explore but one thing we know is that there is no fixed formula to innovate. But in certain situations, we might have been able to innovate only because we were pushed by goals and expectations.

I am not trying to destroy Leo’s idea. I think there is value in the advice but it has limited applicability. If everyone adopts this philosophy of living without goals and expectations, many things will not work and we may not progress.