“…happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychologist who emigrated to the US in 1956. He was at one point concerned by the state of psychology, feeling that too often it focused solely on curing the ill, returning people from the dark depths of mental health to something closer to normalcy.
The mission he consequently set out to achieve was to take people from normalcy to greater heights. He wanted to find out how people could exceed their usual capabilities, and what would make people truly happy.
“Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”
True happiness comes not from hedonic pleasures or basic physiological needs. There is something else, something intrinsic and psychologically nourishing that we’re missing.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”
Put simply, we need a challenge. We need to face some difficulty to feel the sense of overcoming it. Success in the face adversity then is one way to achieve a happiness quite unlike tasty food or sex.
“Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment.”
What many might call being “in the zone,” Mihaly calls flow. As you might expect, it is a state common in sports players, computer programmers, and musicians. As they work their magic, they enter a state of total focus, as their abilities are stretched just the right amount.
“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”
The rest of Mihaly’s book—Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience—details the necessary conditions for flow and how we can achieve them. It’s available on Amazon.