A fantastic book that brings together research on “flow” states to craft a story (and actionable suggestions) on how we can all become happier with work and life.
I continue referring back to this book, and it blends well with many other books, like Deep Work, or Mastery. Heavily cited by other authors, it will force you to think about how you structure your life and the activities you pursue.
While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal—health, beauty, money, or power—is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy.
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.
"For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.” - Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
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.
Chapter 2: The Anatomy of Consciousness
This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.
Attention as Psychic Energy
The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.
Complexity and the Growth of the Self
The self becomes complex as a result of experiencing flow. Paradoxically, it is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.
Chapter 3: Enjoyment and the Quality of Life
There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life. The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better.
The Elements of Enjoyment
As our studies have suggested, the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components.
When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following.
First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.
Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.
Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.
Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.
Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.
A Challenging Activity That Requires Skills
It is important to clarify at the outset that an “activity” need not be active in the physical sense, and the skill necessary to engage in it need not be a physical skill. For instance, one of the most frequently mentioned enjoyable activities the world over is reading.
Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.
In all the activities people in our study reported engaging in, enjoyment comes at a very specific point: whenever the opportunities for action perceived by the individual are equal to his or her capabilities.
Clear Goals and Feedback
The reason it is possible to achieve such complete involvement in a flow experience is that goals are usually clear, and feedback immediate.
Unless a person learns to set goals and to recognize and gauge feedback in such activities, she will not enjoy them.
The feedback can be anything, as long as it contains the message: I have succeeded in my goal.
Concentration on the Task at Hand
One of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life.
Chapter 4: The Conditions of Flow
The Effects of the Family on the Autotelic Personality
There is ample evidence to suggest that how parents interact with a child will have a lasting effect on the kind of person that child grows up to be.
The family context promoting optimal experience could be described as having five characteristics.
The first one is clarity: the teenagers feel that they know what their parents expect from them—goals and feedback in the family interaction are unambiguous.
The second is centering, or the children’s perception that their parents are interested in what they are doing in the present, in their concrete feelings and experiences, rather than being preoccupied with whether they will be getting into a good college or obtaining a well-paying job.
Next is the issue of choice: children feel that they have a variety of possibilities from which to choose, including that of breaking parental rules—as long as they are prepared to face the consequences.
The fourth differentiating characteristic is commitment, or the trust that allows the child to feel comfortable enough to set aside the shield of his defenses, and become unselfconsciously involved in whatever he is interested in.
And finally there is challenge, or the parents’ dedication to provide increasingly complex opportunities for action to their children.
The presence of these five conditions made possible what was called the “autotelic family context,” because they provide an ideal training for enjoying life.
Chapter 5: The Body in Flow
Higher, Faster, Stronger
Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is transformed so as to produce flow. The essential steps in this process are:
(a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible;
(b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen;
(c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity;
(d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and
(e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.
What we found was that when people were pursuing leisure activities that were expensive in terms of the outside resources required—activities that demanded expensive equipment, or electricity, or other forms of energy measured in BTUs, such as power boating, driving, or watching television—they were significantly less happy than when involved in inexpensive leisure. People were happiest when they were just talking to one another, when they gardened, knitted, or were involved in a hobby.
Sex as Flow
It is especially difficult to keep enjoying sex with the same partner over a period of years. It is probably true that humans, like the majority of mammalian species, are not monogamous by nature.
How to keep love fresh? The answer is the same as it is for any other activity. To be enjoyable, a relationship must become more complex. To become more complex, the partners must discover new potentialities in themselves and in each other. To discover these, they must invest attention in each other—so that they can learn what thoughts and feelings, what dreams reside in their partner’s mind. This in itself is a never-ending process, a lifetime’s task. After one begins to really know another person, then many joint adventures become possible: traveling together, reading the same books, raising children, making and realizing plans all become more enjoyable and more meaningful. The specific details are unimportant.
Chapter 6: The Flow of Thought
To enjoy a mental activity, one must meet the same conditions that make physical activities enjoyable. There must be skill in a symbolic domain; there have to be rules, a goal, and a way of obtaining feedback. One must be able to concentrate and interact with the opportunities at a level commensurate with one’s skills.
For instance, one of the simplest ways to use the mind is daydreaming: playing out some sequence of events as mental images. But even this apparently easy way to order thought is beyond the range of many people.
There are several levels at which history as a flow activity can be practiced. The most personal involves simply keeping a journal. The next is to write a family chronicle, going as far into the past as possible.
The study of history, science, philosophy, or any other topic can be the means to flow.
Chapter 7: Work as Flow
The more a job inherently resembles a game—with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback—the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development.
To improve the quality of life through work, two complementary strategies are necessary.
On the one hand jobs should be redesigned so that they resemble as closely as possible flow activities—as do hunting, cottage weaving, and surgery.
But it will also be necessary to help people develop autotelic personalities by training them to recognize opportunities for action, to hone their skills, to set reachable goals.
Neither one of these strategies is likely to make work much more enjoyable by itself; in combination, they should contribute enormously to optimal experience.
Chapter 8: Enjoying Solitude and Other People
Studies on flow have demonstrated repeatedly that more than anything else, the quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people.
The Conflict Between Being Alone and Being With Others
How is it possible to reconcile the fact that people cause both the best and the worst times?
This apparent contradiction is actually not that difficult to resolve. Like anything else that really matters, relationships make us extremely happy when they go well, and very depressed when they don’t work out.
The Pain of Loneliness
To fill free time with activities that require concentration, that increase skills, that lead to a development of the self, is not the same as killing time by watching television or taking recreational drugs. Although both strategies might be seen as different ways of coping with the same threat of chaos, as defenses against ontological anxiety, the former leads to growth, while the latter merely serves to keep the mind from unraveling. A person who rarely gets bored, who does not constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy the moment, has passed the test for having achieved a creative life.
One does not actually have to be a god, but it is true that to enjoy being alone a person must build his own mental routines, so that he can achieve flow without the supports of civilized life—without other people, without jobs, TV, theaters, restaurants, or libraries to help channel his attention.
It is this constant concentration on a workable goal that makes sailing so enjoyable. But when the doldrums set in, they might have to go to heroic lengths to find any challenge at all.
Yet how one copes with solitude makes all the difference. If being alone is seen as a chance to accomplish goals that cannot be reached in the company of others, then instead of feeling lonely, a person will enjoy solitude and might be able to learn new skills in the process. On the other hand, if solitude is seen as a condition to be avoided at all costs instead of as a challenge, the person will panic and resort to distractions that cannot lead to higher levels of complexity.
Flow and the Family
Many successful men and women would second Lee Iacocca’s statement: “I’ve had a wonderful and successful career. But next to my family, it really hasn’t mattered at all.”
The problem remains with the period of puberty, roughly the five years between twelve and seventeen: What meaningful challenges can be found for young people that age? The situation is much easier when the parents themselves are involved in understandable and complex activities at home. If the parents enjoy playing music, cooking, reading, gardening, carpentry, or fixing engines in the garage, then it is more likely that their children will find similar activities challenging, and invest enough attention in them to begin enjoy doing something that will help them grow. If parents just talked more about their ideals and dreams—even if these had been frustrated—the children might develop the ambition needed to break through the complacency of their present selves. If nothing else, discussing one’s job or the thoughts and events of the day, and treating children as young adults, as friends, help to socialize them into thoughtful adults.
Chapter 9: Creating Chaos
Coping with stress is key to maintaining your ability to have flow experiences.
The Power of Dissipative Structures
The peak in the development of coping skills is reached when a young man or woman has achieved a strong enough sense of self, based on personally selected goals, that no external disappointment can entirely undermine who he or she is. For some people the strength derives from a goal that involves identification with the family, with the country, or with a religion or an ideology. For others, it depends on mastery of a harmonious system of symbols, such as art, music, or physics.
Those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal. There are three main steps that seem to be involved in such transformations:
1. Unselfconscious self-assurance.
These people believe their destiny is in their hands. They don’t doubt their own resources would be sufficient to allow them to determine their own fate.
They also recognize they are part of an environment and must do their best within that system.
Basically, to arrive at this level of self-assurance one must trust oneself, one’s environment, and one’s place in it.
2. Focusing attention on the world.
Avoid focusing on your own ego, and instead be aware of alternative possibilities, open to the surrounding world.
3. The discovery of new solutions.
Focus on the entire situation, including oneself, and discover whether alternative goals might be more appropriate, and whether other solutions exist.
The Autotelic Self: A Summary
The difference between someone who enjoys life and someone who is overwhelmed by it is a product of a combination of such external factors and the way a person has come to interpret them—that is, whether he sees challenges as threats or as opportunities for action.
The “autotelic self” is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony. A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time may be said to have an autotelic self. The term literally means "a self that has self-contained goals," and it reflects the idea that such an individual has relatively few goals that do not originate from within the self.
The autotelic self transforms potentially entropic experience into flow. Therefore the rules for developing such a self are simple, and they derive directly from the flow model. Briefly, they can be summarized as follows:
1. Setting goals.
One must have clear goals to strive for. A person with an autotelic self learns to make choices without much fuss and the minimum of panic.
They also learn to define the goals, challenges, and a system of action in a specific direction to reach a larger goal.
2. Becoming immersed in the activity.
The person grows deeply involved in whatever they are doing, balancing expectations and demands with one’s capacity to act, ensuring neither stagnation, nor gross disappointment.
3. Paying attention to what is happening.
Concentration leads to involvement, which can only be maintained by constant inputs of attention. Athletes are aware that in a race even a momentary lapse can spell complete defeat.
The same pitfalls threaten anyone who participates in a complex system: to stay in it, he must keep investing psychic energy.
4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience.
The outcome of having an autotelic self—of learning to set goals, to develop skills, to be sensitive to feedback, to know how to concentrate and get involved—is that one can enjoy life even when objective circumstances are brutish and nasty. Being in control of the mind means that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy.
To achieve this control, however, requires determination and discipline. Optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic, lotus-eating approach to life. A relaxed, laissez-faire attitude is not a sufficient defense against chaos.
But to change all existence into a flow experience, it is not sufficient to learn merely how to control moment-by-moment states of consciousness. It is also necessary to have an overall context of goals for the events of everyday life to make sense.
Chapter 10: The Making of Meaning
As long as enjoyment follows piecemeal from activities not linked to one another in a meaningful way, one is still vulnerable to the vagaries of chaos. Even the most successful career, the most rewarding family relationship eventually runs dry. Sooner or later involvement in work must be reduced. Spouses die, children grow up and move away. To approach optimal experience as closely as is humanly possible, a last step in the control of consciousness is necessary.
What this involves is turning all life into a unified flow experience.
It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual. But it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning.
From the point of view of an individual, it does not matter what the ultimate goal is—provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime’s worth of psychic energy.
As long as it provides clear objectives, clear rules for action, and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can serve to give meaning to a person’s life.
What Meaning Means
In this sense the answer to the old riddle “What is the meaning of life?” turns out to be astonishingly simple. The meaning of life is meaning: whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.
The second sense of the word meaning refers to the expression of intentionality. And this sense also is appropriate to the issue of how to create meaning by transforming all life into a flow activity. It is not enough to find a purpose that unifies one’s goals; one must also carry through and meet its challenges. The purpose must result in strivings; intent has to be translated into action. We may call this resolution in the pursuit of one’s goals. What counts is not so much whether a person actually achieves what she has set out to do; rather, it matters whether effort has been expended to reach the goal, instead of being diffused or wasted.
The third and final way in which life acquires meaning is the result of the previous two steps. When an important goal is pursued with resolution, and all one’s varied activities fit together into a unified flow experience, the result is that harmony is brought to consciousness. Someone who knows his desires and works with purpose to achieve them is a person whose feelings, thoughts, and actions are congruent with one another, and is therefore a person who has achieved inner harmony.
Purpose, resolution, and harmony unify life and give it meaning by transforming it into a seamless flow experience. Whoever achieves this state will never really lack anything else. A person whose consciousness is so ordered need not fear unexpected events, or even death. Every living moment will make sense, and most of it will be enjoyable. This certainly sounds desirable. So how does one attain it?
Inner conflict is the result of competing claims on attention. Too many desires, too many incompatible goals struggle to marshal psychic energy toward their own ends. It follows that the only way to reduce conflict is by sorting out the essential claims from those that are not, and by arbitrating priorities among those that remain. There are basically two ways to accomplish this: what the ancients called the vita activa, a life of action, and the vita contemplativa, or the path of reflection.
Immersed in the vita activa, a person achieves flow through total involvement in concrete external challenges.
Successful executives, experienced professionals, and talented craftspeople learn to trust their judgment and competence so that they again begin to act with the unselfconscious spontaneity of children. If the arena for action is challenging enough, a person may experience flow continuously in his or her calling, thus leaving as little room as possible for noticing the entropy of normal life. In this way harmony is restored to consciousness indirectly—not by facing up to contradictions and trying to resolve conflicting goals and desires, but by pursuing chosen goals with such intensity that all potential competition is preempted.
This is where the presumed advantage of a contemplative life comes in. Detached reflection upon experience, a realistic weighing of options and their consequences, have long been held to be the best approach to a good life.
Activity and reflection should ideally complement and support each other. Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent. Before investing great amounts of energy in a goal, it pays to raise the fundamental questions: Is this something I really want to do? Is it something I enjoy doing? Am I likely to enjoy it in the foreseeable future? Is the price that I—and others—will have to pay worth it? Will I be able to live with myself if I accomplish it?