Oh Human Happiness – Where art thou?

So desired and yet so illusive. Look it in the eye, demand a piece of it and more than likely it will disappear and we are left wondering if it was there at all. It’s like catching glimpses of  beauty across a crowded room, being caught out and feeling like a stalker.   Our desire for happiness becomes our downfall.

I blame Aristotle and his down-to-earth practicalities.  He was one of the first to dangle it out there. In following a line of enquiry, this philosopher asked “Why?” again and again in response to reasons for many human endeavours, until to ask, “Why?” one more time became ridiculous. The point at which he had arrived was eudaimonia, sometimes translated as happiness and at other times, as flourishing.   Why do we want happiness? We just do. So in Aristotle’s opinion, it was an end in its own right, the ultimate end to which we all aspire.

No Tambourines in Sight

As it turns out, attributing all human desire to one thing (monism) is considered simplistic these days, but it doesn’t stop us urging ourselves on. However, the field of positive psychology is making inroads into why wanting something so badly can drive it beyond our reach.  I need to admit that the study of positive psychology has in the past seemed to me a little….well soft and maybe overly hopeful with tambourines in tow.  However, I’m revising that opinion.  Understanding what conditions lead to personal well-being and lives of fulfilment requires sound research.  Left to our own devices it seems, particularly in the western world, we are capable of making ourselves ever more discontented and unhappy.  Our pursuit has led us away from the very thing we sought.

The Happiness Paradox

Mihaly Csikszentmaihalyi’s book, Flow: the Psychology of Happinessremains one of the most important books in the field of positive psychology for the layperson, despite it being first published in the United States back in 1990.  Mostly, I think it is because this book addresses the human paradox of happiness directly.

Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it.  ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy,’ said J.S. Mill, ‘and you cease to be so.’  It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.

The Universal State of Flow

Okay then, but what does it mean to be fully involved?  Csikszentmaihalyi draws our attention to those periods in our lives where we lose ourselves in what we are doing.  We become so immersed in the activity time itself seems to either slow down or speed up and our sense of self disappears.  Csikszentmaihalyi calls this a state of ‘flow’.  As head of a research team at the University of Chicago and then in partnership with other researchers from around the world, Csikszentmaihalyi’s research consisted of thousands of interviews with individuals from diverse backgrounds.

The flow experience was not just a peculiarity of affluent, industrialised elites.  It was reported in essentially the same words by old women from Korea, by adults in Thailand and India, by teenagers in Tokyo, by Navajo shepherds, by farmers in the Italian Alps, and by workers on the assembly line in Chicago.

 Deep Involvement

Csikszentmaihalyi and his team found that eight conditions were consistently reported by respondents during their flow states.

  1. The task, while challenging, must be completable.
  2. The subject must be able to concentrate.
  3. There must be clear goals.
  4. Feedback is immediate.
  5. Deep involvement, where daily worries disappear.
  6. A sense of control over one’s actions.
  7. Concern for self has disappeared.
  8. Duration of time is altered, either sped up or slowed down.

 The Right Kind of Challenge

It is so easy to withdraw when unhappy, to avoid challenges, as if one more disappointment is too much to bear, but the work of Csikszentmihalyi, his team and international colleagues show that it is through challenge we achieve mastery and through mastery we gain a measure of fulfilment.  It is a fine line, though.  We are reminded that too much difficulty can lead to frustration and too little to boredom.  It’s interesting though isn’t it?  By truly becoming immersed in a work of fiction, a mathematical problem, an engineering design, the growth of a plant, the behaviour and well-being of an animal, the manufacture of a car, the preparation of a meal, a conversation with family or friends can mean we struggle less and are happier than we would be, if happiness were our only goal.

 

2 comments

Michael Pollock

It seems to me that happiness could come from purpose:)

Gabrielle Blondell

Yes, I agree and being absorbed in what we do.