Finding flow in America: work, play, and friendship

Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from "Finding flow", by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

I love January. I am grateful to start off the year right, and grateful for what I have achieved in 2012. On a more serious note in light of recent events, while much saddened by Aaron Swartz's death, I am hopeful that things will move forward.

I'm currently reading Finding flow, and felt inspired to share a few thoughts. Touching upon happiness, living in the US of A, and what it means to be "in the zone", let me start off with a piece from Mihaly's brief and brilliant explanation of flow VS happiness:

It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. When we are in flow, we are not happy, because to experience happiness we must focus on our inner states, and that would take away attention from the task at hand. If a rock climber takes time out to feel happy while negotiating a difficult move, he might fall to the bottom of the mountain. The surgeon can't afford to feel happy during a demanding operation, or a musician while playing a challenging score. Only after the task is completed do we have the leisure to look back on what has happened and then we are flooded with gratitude for the excellence of that experience—then, in retrospect, we are happy. But one can be happy without experiencing flow. We can be happy experiencing the passive pleasure of a rested body, a warm sunshine, the contentment of a serene relationship. These are also moments to treasure, but this kind of happiness is very vulnerable and dependent on favorable external circumstances. The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.

This has been a great way for me to understand the immense sense of reward and fulfillment I feel from the hobbies, risks and challenges I've taken in the past few years: kiteboarding, snowboarding, dancing, rock climbing. At my job also, I have been proactive and taken more responsibility, often questioning what more I can do to benefit both myself and the company. Regardless of how great or not-so-great your job is, here is an encouraging quote:

Yet when approached without too many cultural prejudices and with a determination to shape it so as to make it personally meaningful, even the most mundane job can enhance the quality of life, rather than detract from it.

How one spends their leisure time is an important part of happiness. According to the book, America has a big problem with this—Americans do not know how to spend their leisure time. This has been one of the most objective ways I have read in a book that explains how I've been feeling about it as a European.

While my friends in Europe have an easier time finding flow in free or cheap activities when they are not working, Americans seem to have a harder time actually doing things that they are super excited about. Most activities revolve around consuming: drinking, movies, music, TV, fashion, or generally taking things to the extreme, and very few are actually both challenging and relaxing (e.g. going to concerts, theatre plays, having intellectual conversations, reading books, taking walks in the park, biking together). It is a shame to see such a great country be so unable to enjoy life.

In 1958, the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry ended its annual report with the conclusion "For many Americans, leisure is dangerous."

The popular assumption is that no skills are involved in enjoying free time, and that anybody can do it. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: free time is more difficult to enjoy than work.

I dare say this would sound strange to most of my European friends. At least while we were in high school. Continuing, on why consumerism has done nothing for our happiness:

Ironically, it seems that how much happiness and enjoyment we get from leisure has no relation at all—if anything, a negative relation—to the amount of material energy consumed while doing it. Low-key activities that require investments of skill, knowledge, and emotions on our part are just as rewarding as those that use up a lot of equipment and external energy, instead of our own psychic energy. Having a good conversation, gardening, reading poetry, volunteering in a hospital, or learning something new exhaust few resources and are at least as enjoyable as things that consume ten times as many resources.

And, to top it off, a psychoanalytical explanation of why this is bad for America's future:

And if a society becomes too dependent on entertainment, it is likely that there will be less psychic energy left to cope creatively with the technological and economic challenges that will inevitably arise.

But we need to keep ourselves busy. Otherwise we go crazy:

Without goals and without others to interact with, most people begin to lose motivation and concentration. The mind begins to wander, and more oftan than not it will focus on unresolvable problems that cause anxiety.

But what could we do instead of consuming so much entertainment in our leisure time? A quick suggestion is reading:

In a large-scale study in Germany, it was found that the more often people report reading books, the more flow experiences they claim to have, while the opposite trend was found for watching television. The most flow was reported by individuals who read a lot and watched little TV, the least by those who read seldom and watched often.

With such consumerist habits, it is more difficult to bond with peers over engaging conversation. What could laughing about the latest TV-show or debating about the newest tech gadget do for creating a deep connection between two people? Is it the same as exchanging opinions on a thought-provoking book? Doubtful. I daresay people generally have fewer close friends now than they used to. Having enough close friends is hugely important for happiness (side note: only 30% of Americans rated themselves as "very happy"):

National surveys find that when someone claims to have five or more friends with whom they can discuss important problems, they are 60 percent more likely to say that they are "very happy."

It is much better to produce rather than consume. One is much less likely to be unhappy with oneself when there is so much fruit of one's labors to sample. This quote illustrates it well:

I make sure to start every day as a producer, not a consumer.

When you get up, you may start with a good routine like showering and eating, but as soon as you find yourself with some free time you probably get that urge to check Reddit, open that game you were playing, see what you’re missing on Facebook, etc.

Put all of this off until “later”. Start your first free moments of the day with thoughts of what you really want to do; those long-term things you’re working on, or even the basic stuff you need to do today, like cooking, getting ready for exercise, etc.

Information Diet

I look forward to finishing this book, and recommended it to anyone interested in learning about flow and how it can improve the quality of your life.