Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Happiness is not something we passively experience. Rather, it is a state whose conditions must be met through our own efforts. Flow, when the mind is focused on a task so deeply that all else falls away, results in optimal experience, in moments where we feel larger than life and in control of ourselves. Optimal experience depends on our ability to control what happens in our consciousness, on being mindful of our experience and inner life. The optimal state of inner experience occurs when there is order in consciousness. That is, there are realistic goals which we employ our attention trying to reach. Controlling our psychic energy and directing it toward consciously chosen goals makes us grow.
Flow is the state of mind that results from a harmoniously ordered consciousness. Certain activities can cause flow but it can be developed across everything that we do, so that even the most menial tasks begin to appeal. An obstacle in the way of contentment is chronic dissatisfaction, wanting more only to receive it and want more still. The way out of this endless dance is to directly control experience and enjoy life as it happens, moment by moment. Happiness is our own task to fulfill.
It is hard to attain because the universe is indifferent to us and chaos reigns. The strategies we employ to account for this fail in the conquest of happiness and we do not feel contentment. Attempting to control external forces does not help us, rather we must focus on achieving inner harmony through mindfulness of every day experience. That is, once the mind sees rightly and interprets what happens to us in the right way, accepting it without grasping for more, we may move toward fulfilment.
Shields of culture such as religion, race and wealth have been used to fortify us against chaos. Presently however, ontological anxiety or existential dread has resulted from our realisation that we are not the centre of the universe, that our existence is objectively meaningless. The shields no longer protect us. Likewise, our focus on improving our lives materially in the expectation that an objectively better quality of life than those of our ancestors would make us happy falls flat. Instead, our focus must rest on improving the content of experience.
In order to reclaim experience we have to be able to feel a sense of purpose regardless of external circumstances. The process of socialisation has made the individual into a commodity whose use is whatever the society needs. The socialised person responds predictably to social controls such that rewards and punishments influence their behaviour. This works because the controls are based upon our biology, on our survival instinct. People work and offer their services docilely in order to survive. If something is postponed they are happy to wait for the raise, for reputation, for happiness. So long as they are paid enough to live on, they are satisfied with their lot. In the light of these social controls, the rewards and punishments that compel us, in order to improve our experience we must be able to find rewards in every moment.
The ongoing stream of experience must be regarded as intrinsically valuable – meaning must be found in living itself. Power is ours when rewards are no longer dependant on outside forces. When we are as unaffected by an advert as we are by the likes we receive. When it fails to bother us how someone acts toward us, only then can we control consciousness and the quality of our experience. If the socially conditioned stimulus-response patterns influence our biological inclinations, if we desire sex because our genes compel us and we see something that puts us in mind of this, we are operated on by outside forces. Even after overcoming social controls we must wrestle with our instinctual urges, as the desires of the body also come in the way of mastering our minds.
The control of consciousness determines our quality of life because it allows us to improve the quality of experience. ‘Know thyself’ is a famous maxim precisely because it is an intuition that our happiness depends on us. Masters of meditation have learned to control consciousness of pain and pleasure, to resist sexual urges and hunger. The aim is then to free inner life from chaos and to overcome biological urges, in the process vaulting the social controls that exploit both. Controlling consciousness allows us to choose what enters our minds, and in this way the quality of our experience is our own affair.
Anatomy of Consciousness
Those who take care to master consciousness live happier lives. A phenomenological model of consciousness based on information theory holds that conscious events are occurring, and we direct their course. That is, while consciousness has arisen from our biology, it has developed the ability to independently direct itself. A person can remain happy regardless of what is going on outside precisely because they can control the content of consciousness. They can choose which thoughts and feelings to give sway to. Consciousness can then be described as intentionally ordered information. We form intentions based on our perceived needs and admit only the information that will help us to meet these into our consciousness. We then decide what is important to us and in this way we control our subjective realities. The information we allow into consciousness is consequently extremely important; it determines the content and quality of life.
Attention is psychic energy generated by the nervous system. Information enters consciousness when we intentionally focus our attention on it or when attentional habits with roots in biological or social instruction compel us to. A person in control of consciousness is able to direct attention at will to whatever goal they are occupied with and keep it focused until it is completed.
Attention is energy because it can be directed at particular tasks but not at others and has to be focused intentionally if we are to achieve our goals or it will be wasted on trivialities. We create ourselves with attention because we choose what to think, feel and remember by focusing it. It is then our biggest asset in improving the quality of our experience and ordering our consciousness. It is however exhaustive and can only be used a certain amount. It is therefore wasted on music, movies and pastimes by most so that when it comes to reading, writing and growing it has been expended. Choose what to pay attention to wisely, for the choice will decide what enters your consciousness, and what guides your life.
The self, the ‘I’ is also a content of consciousness. Circularity obtains in its line of causality such that attention determines the self through the thoughts, feeling and memories focused on, and the self also decides what to pay attention to in line with the goals resulting from our identities.
Information that adversely affects consciousness and prevents us fulfilling our intentions, anxiety or boredom, will direct attention to undesirable objects so that we can no longer wield it toward our desired task. Psychic entropy, or inner disorder, results when information that conflicts with our goals disrupts consciousness and makes it less effective. Admitting this kind of information will make it harder to invest attention and pursue goals.
An outside event occurs purely as information, and whether it is positive or negative is up to us and depends upon whether it helps us to achieve our goals. New information will either create disorder in consciousness or free up psychic energy, depending on whether it threatens or reinforces our goals.
When attention brings new information into awareness that is congruent with our goals, psychic energy flows in a state of optimal experience. This is the opposite to psychic entropy and more attention is freed to focus on the environment. There is no questioning our adequacy or worrying, one can focus on themselves and find the evidence encouraging, that one is doing well.
Optimal experiences are situations where attention can be freely invested toward a goal in the absence of disorder or a threat to the self. This Flow is the opposite of psychic entropy, and is also known as negentropy, because those who attain it use most of their psychic energy to develop confidence pursing goals they have chosen. When consciousness can be ordered to experience flow quality of life improves because what we do becomes meaningful. In flow psychic energy is controlled and whatever we do adds order to consciousness. There is a battle between energy and entropy, attention and disorder, which means that happiness and flow require disciplined concentration and order in consciousness. We must own and direct our attention.
Flow grows us by increasing our complexity though differentiation and integration. Differentiation refers to our becoming unique and separating from others. Integration is a union with others. We must have both to relate appropriately to others for too much differentiation means arrogance while too much integration would mean self-effacement. A healthy medium is needed for the right complexity in an individual and the flow state results in it. When we do something for its own sake, focus on an act as an end and stretch our concentration to complete it, we enjoy it and grow. Flow makes the present more enjoyable and builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills. In order to attain the condition we must use our attention intentionally and focus on goals worthy of us.
Enjoyment and the quality of life
To increase happiness we have two options; we can either change external conditions to suit our goals or change our way of looking at what is outside us so they better match our goals. However, neither achieves much by itself for external things such as wealth or even education have little bearing on our happiness. Those in the most affluent countries are still unhappy in parts and even the very richest are only slightly happier than those on average wages. Consequently, it becomes apparent that our quality of life is determined by controlling our consciousness in such a way that external conditions, whatever they may be, do not influence it more than is necessary. What matters is how we feel about ourselves and how we view what happens to us, the quality of experience is what improves life.
While most see pleasure as increasing happiness this is not the case. It merely gives the body a restorative homeostatic experience by fulfilling a need, whether biological or social. That is, we feel pleasure after eating because hunger is satiated, or feel good after sex because our biology dictates that passing our genes on should be encouraged, but here all that occurs is a return to order. We merely gratify a need without going beyond it. In other words, we avoid psychic entropy that prevents us from working while we are hungry, but following this there is no real psychological growth. It does not create new order in consciousness and fails to add to our complexity.
Enjoyment is experienced when we go beyond our calling, when, having met our needs, we accomplish something further and seek out and find novelty. We look back on these experiences and see that we have grown more complex, have become different people. Though we may not have enjoyed the public speech during it or appreciated the conversation, the battle across a chess board, in hindsight we regard these events as deeply enjoyable and lust after their recurrence.
While pleasure requires no real attention and results in no growth, psychic energy is invested in enjoyable activities. Attention has to be fully concentrated on the activity for us to feel enjoyment and this results in a complex self that is growing through stretching its limits and gaining new abilities. In children, learning has no extrinsic reward and is done for its own sake, because it is enjoyable. Many cease to regard learning in this vein and make it into a means with an end that lies outside the activity itself, perhaps because they are trying to impress someone or pass a test. Nevertheless, this approach takes the growth out of the process, for only when we are intensely concentrated, consumed as it were by the task at hand, will we gain new abilities and enjoy the process of becoming increasingly complex as human beings. Only a flow state will move us forward. While life can be pleasurable without enjoyment this will rely on luck, on external conditions being right. If however, we are to control the quality of our own lives we must find ways of feeling enjoyment daily, and in doing so understand how to improve our quality of life.
Elements of Enjoyment
What people do to feel enjoyment varies, but how they describe it is similar the world over. Enjoyment has eight components the knowledge of which will help us to control consciousness and turn even the most uninteresting daily occurrences into events that make us grow.
A challenging activity that requires skills
Enjoyment becomes possible when the activity is challenging enough to require our having certain skills in order to complete it. There must be a balance between the challenge, and the skills at our disposal. Reading is one enjoyable activity because we have literacy skills that are used to understand the plot, the historical context and the authors ideas, so that we may predict what might happen next. Socialising is also enjoyable but only when the skills of the individual meet the challenge. A shy person will therefore fail to find enjoyment because they lack the skills. Every day events can be made into challenges requiring skills with some ingenuity. However, the challenges need to be matched by a person’s capacity to act. That is, a chess player has to play someone his level while an athlete needs to face an opponent with similar ability.
Merging of action and awareness
Once our skills are being occupied by an enjoyable activity our attention is absorbed by it. Psychic energy is consumed by it so that none is left over. Optimal experiences then make us inseparable from whatever it is we are doing so that we remain aware of the action as something spontaneous and automatic, because it flows so effortlessly. We cannot be separated from the act we are performing. We no longer question ourselves and are carried by the flow. Our concentration is focused completely on the task and we act out of necessity to meet it. There is no time to reflect, nor interest in doing so, all that matters is the act itself.
Clear goals and feedback
There must be an idea of what needs to be achieved and criteria, however ambiguous, by which this can be measured. Once one comes closer to the goal or perceives themselves as having achieved it there is order in consciousness and strengthening of the self. Any feedback can be enjoyable if logically related to a goal one has invested psychic energy into.
Concentration of the task at hand
Our attention is so concentrated that any worries or doubt, or physic entropy, is kept at bay. Flow improves the quality of experience precisely because the clearly structured demands of the activity give order and prevent disorder in consciousness. Anything outside of the enjoyable activity is no longer of any consequence and it is completed across a landscape defined by clear goals and feedback which becomes a world unto itself. It creates order in consciousness because our concentration on a task with clear goals and feedback results in psychic negentropy.
Paradox of control
Enjoyable activities give us a sense of control that remains unavailable in every day life where a mistake would potentially have greater consequences. The chess player may lose but is not consumed by doubts, though he may be wary where appropriate. Flow presents a world without entropy, where we do not have complete control, but can explore our power to gain it without fear of repercussions if we do not. The potentiality for control makes us want the actuality, though we may never possess it. This grasping increases order in consciousness but may lead to addiction if our escapes from reality leave us disdainful of the ambiguities of life.
Loss of self-consciousness
When we are concentrated on an enjoyable activity we forget ourselves and leave our egos at the door. We no longer see ourselves as apart from the world, but feel a union with the environment. We do things automatically without stopping to think about the mechanics of how. We are carried along without having to introspect. Self-consciousness is how we determine whether there is a threat to us. Preoccupation with self wastes psychic energy because we often feel threatened by strangers or by what others may think. During enjoyable activities and flow there are clear goals and stable rules which do not require our bringing in this aspect of the self. It is a matter of indifference whether or not we are being looked at in a particular way because we know what we need to do and are focusing on that task, so that everything else falls away. We remain self-aware during optimal experience and there is psychic energy being expended.
Loss of self-consciousness is then neither a loss of self or consciousness but a loss of consciousness of the self. We cease to regard ourselves as objects of thought to be doubted and judged but allow this to fall outside our awareness so no attention is wasted on it during the activity. We may then paradoxically experience self-transcendence as we grow during an experience that expands the self to new proportions. The loss of self-consciousness temporarily then adds to our self-concept after.
During the activity our attention is so concentrated on meeting the goals while expanding our skills that everything else is discarded, including thoughts of ourselves. If this did not occur it would not be a flow experience as psychic energy would be wasted on psychic entropy and it would fail to add to our complexity. After the activity we reflect on how the self has changed and see that we have new skills and have achieved something.
Transformation of time
Time flows differently during a flow experience and oftentimes we find ourselves finishing the activity hours later without having kept track of it. At the very least this confirms to us that we have been enjoying the activity, for time would drag on if we had not.
The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Flow experiences are self-contained activities that are intrinsically rewarding. Most of the things we do in every day life are exotelic in that external rewards encourage us to undertake them. Only when the activity becomes an end in itself, something we do for its own sake, can it consume our attention fully. If we are doing it for the consequences and those are obscured we may lose motivation. If however, we are doing it because we regard it as itself meaningful we will continue to do it. Most activities require effort that can make them seem difficult but once the person’s skills begin to match the challenges presented it begins to be intrinsically rewarding. Psychic energy is not wasted on a future goal and life is justified in the present. Flow experiences add to the strength and complexity of the self but their power must be used to enrich life, on complex autotelic experiences, rather than ones that may affect others beside us.
Conditions of Flow
Optimal experience occurs during a goal-bound activity with clear rules which one is so concentrated toward that self-consciousness disappears and effortless attention is held. This state usually occurs during a structured activity, through our own efforts as opposed to spontaneously. Games fill us with this enjoyment, while our daily tasks give rise to boredom. Improving experience requires understanding why the one is more enjoyable than the other, and what can be done to bridge the gap to satisfy the conditions of flow more often.
Games have been created in order to give rise to the flow state, to create enjoyment. They have been contrived with clear rules to be used across a closed system. Within its confines our skills are constantly refined by the challenges faced, and should these match there is inevitably growth of self and an increase in our complexity. Many flow activities are therefore designed to precisely that end and games such as chess will remain sources of enjoyment.
There are four types of games: Agon, Alea, Ilinx and Mimicry. Agonistic games rely on competition, these are sports and games such as chess. The etymology of ‘competition’ itself comes from latin, where it means to seek together; by challenging each other we grow our ability. However, if an activity is picked up for competition only then the flow state will become harder to reach, because it will no longer be done for its own sake. Aleatory activities involve chance, and because these involve just enough control for a person to feel enjoyment, they result in flow. The luck involved does not dissuade them, but this is not a replicable way of creating enjoyment, as games of poker may go either way and addictions can develop. Vertigo or ilinx refers to those activities which change consciousness for a while, this could involve the use of psychedelics like magic mushrooms which momentarily modify consciousness so that one can enjoy reality in a different way, see as though through new eyes. Nevertheless, when it fades there is a return to normal consciousness. Mimicry are escapes from reality through fantasy, where one changes themselves into more than they are. Daydreaming is an example, as are acting and dancing, or the creation or appreciation of art. We identify with something greater than us and feel affinity with it in order to feel more important. Religion is perhaps the best example and is in fact one of the most important attempts at creating order in consciousness through a cosmic order. Today, it is no longer so convincing and secularised activities are what most seek flow in.
Flow activities cause optimal experience when the skills being used are met by the challenge at hand so that there is no room for thinking about ourselves, or anything else. Depending on where we stand in our development in the activity this may mean increasing or decreasing the difficulty to avoid anxiety and boredom. If our skills are greater than the challenges faced, we will become bored. Think of playing football against someone smaller than you, they can’t get to it and you walk while they run aimlessly. Conversely, if our skills are not enough to meet the challenges, we will become anxious. If I were to play the world champion at chess I would not enjoy the experience. The flow channel, where skills and challenges are close enough to create flow, is then the space in which we strive to remain. This will mean increasing the difficulty when we feel we are no longer being challenged, or working harder to meet challenges that seem beyond us. An optimal experience that requires high skills to meet a difficult challenge is more meaningful than one that does not, because it adds to our complexity and grows the self.
Though flow is achieved in this way the objective conditions of a flow activity will depend on consciousness. While chess may be enjoyable to me when I am challenged enough this is not the case for others. It is the same for me with painting as I cannot sustain interest long enough for my skills to face any challenge. Whether or not an activity can be enjoyable depends on how we view it. If we do find it worthwhile, then we should aim to keep the demands of the activity in line with our skill, so that we act within the flow channel and create enjoyment.
Different cultures cannot be compared morally but levels of enjoyment can offer some barometer of their respective ‘values’. Psychic entropy is prevalent in many preliterate cultures where superstition is still guiding actions. However, some materially poor tribes lead lives full of enjoyment, where they all engage in a wide range of activities outside their primary role and experience flow often. Culture sets out rules by which a person is expected to live and which are intended prescriptively. The aim is to ward off chaos in a populace but whether or not people are happy depends upon whether the culture is structured in such a way that their skills are challenged across society. While games fill up our ‘free’ time culture encompasses more but its effect ultimately depends upon the individual, who chooses how to interpret its decrees through control of consciousness.
The individual needs to control consciousness before flow becomes possible. External conditions such as the activities one engages in will not result in enjoyment if there is not order in consciousness. In order for us to enjoy the most basic tasks that we must do every day we must ourselves be receptive to enjoying them.
Some are able to enjoy ordinary experiences while others are bored by them. This lies in part because they are better able to control consciousness and direct psychic energy in a way conducive to effortless attention. Those that are self-conscious find it harder to achieve flow because their attention is wrapped up in themselves. That is, their attention is too rigid to be extended to activities outside the self, to the outside world of which they are part.
In extreme conditions in nature, such as those eskimos in Antarctica experience, there remain opportunities for flow such as singing. It is not so much the external conditions as our approach to them. Social restrictions to flow are anomie, a lack of order, and alienation. Anomie means we no longer have a clear sense of our goals, perhaps because there is an economic crisis or an event with unpredictable consequences which gives us anxiety. Alienation means we have a clear idea of what we would like but society denies us their fulfilment, resulting in boredom.
For those in hopeless situations, whether solitary confinement in an oppressive regime or a concentration camp, flow became possible in the most simple ways. Examining the details of their cells, constantly holding their surroundings up to scrutiny, playing chess games in their heads, imagining different places and times. Even when our freedom is restricted we can enjoy the small things. The limits of our freedom confine our capacities for enjoyment but all this means is our activities must be simpler in line with the circumstances, but still require some challenge. Though objective conditions are dire we can subjectively control experience.
By controlling consciousness, the one thing that cannot be externally influenced, we decide what to pay attention to and guide our own life. This attitude is a non-self consciousness individualism, that is, we have a meaningful purpose that is not self-seeking. We forget ourselves in our adversity and focus on the environment, and do so for its own sake. In fact focusing outwardly on external objects, on having an active relationship with the world, is the way to happiness. We need to lose sight of ourselves and our shortcomings and look out at the world around us, where we can find some new idea, embrace new ways of thinking and interact with others.
Body in Flow
Flow can be found by using our body to feel enjoyment and controlling the way in which our senses are employed. We can learn to really taste food, to listen to music attentively and to watch with full focus. Activities that use our bodies can be structured so that they are conducive to flow. Running can become a challenge which we rise to in order to meet the goals we set. More generally, our senses could be used more purposefully so that we truly control consciousness. We can then explore almost unlimited enjoyment through our many senses, through what we can touch, see and hear. By concentrating on these we can begin to exert control over the way in which our bodies are used and find flow throughout the day.
Through pushing our bodies to improve we can find enjoyment in a wide range of physical activities. Any of these can become sources of enjoyment provided the conditions for flow are met and we control the task to ensure this.
Physical acts will result in flow provided the following criteria are met. There must be an overall goal for the activity with as many sub-goals as are necessary to reach it. We must also be able to measure progress as we edge toward it. One must concentrate on what they are doing and draw finer distinctions as they go on. A person must develop the skills necessary to meet the opportunities available, or raise the stakes if the activity becomes boring.
In the case of running I can set a goal of a 5-minute mile with sub-goals of 6 minutes and 7 minutes to meet first. I measure my progress through timing myself over the distance. I am concentrating on the run and shaving my time down by pacing myself and deciding upon the best places to speed up and slow down in order to improve. Naturally, I will have to improve my running ability in order to meet the goals I set myself. Should I become bored I can add sprints into the run or even a parachute.
Enjoyment depends not on what you do, but how you do it. Running without a purpose might become draining because a person is forcing themselves to do it and is not really likely to enjoy the process. By setting goals to aspire to we can give ourselves something worth our attention. In fact, even the most expensive leisure activities result in less enjoyment than those in which we invest more of ourselves. This is because there is a higher investment of psychic energy. Leisure that uses up external resources requires less attention and is not as rewarding. Watching tv is generally less enjoyable than talking to others or reading because we put less of ourselves into the process.
Dance can be a source of enjoyment and flow once one loses themselves in the process. On a dancefloor one becomes consumed by the music, forgets themselves, and goes along with their feeling. In these moments we express ourselves honestly, without caring what others think of us, how we may look, but move almost impulsively. The rhythm decides our movement and we fall into it without a care.
Sex is arguably the most enjoyable activity we can engage in, perhaps because evolution has meant we have evolved to desire procreation, but most derive only pleasure from it because they lack the attention to find flow. In some relationships sex even grows stale as the same partner no longer presents new challenges. Moreover, sex can sometimes cause psychic energy to be redirected away from necessary goals. It becomes an addiction for some and the enjoyment is taken out of the act, so that it turns into a compulsion they cannot overcome.
In order to avoid this and instead find flow and enjoyment through sex three elements must be accounted for, each in turn. Eroticism focuses on the purely physical, on finding new ways to relate to your partner through touch. However, by itself this does little as pleasure will gradually fade as one gets used to their partner. The art of love brings in the psychological aspect so that the relationship itself is developed, the partners talk and share feelings, or seduce each other. This is itself a source of flow as one can lose themselves in the process of relating to someone romantically. The last element comes after physical pleasure and enjoyment of a romantic relationship; it is a genuine care for a partner which means new challenges develop, those of getting to know a unique individual, understanding her, and helping to fulfil her goals.
Of course, these increase enjoyment and add to the complexity of the relationship so that it cannot grow stale. Rather, both partners grow as a couple and find flow and enjoyment in each other’s company.
In Yoga the flow experience becomes possible because there is control over consciousness. A person must learn to control their senses and to overcome psychic entropy in order to attain peace of mind. Through various stages one gradually learns the skills to control consciousness and achieve optimal experience through meditation.
Martial arts in eastern traditions focus upon the mental and spiritual qualities of the individual. Those who are skilled talk of flow experiences where the usual duality of mind and body instead merge to achieve a one-pointedness of mind where their focus is laser-like. They no longer reason about the best attack or defence but are carried along by their first impression. Such a warrior is so attentive that all else is secondary, and the fight becomes something they control, precisely because they direct their consciousness at will.
The use of the senses can lead to flow and an unlimited amount of enjoyment if psychic energy is invested in them. This is true of all flow activities, without the necessary skills, we cannot expect to find enjoyment.
Works of art can have profound effects on us if we look closely enough and really survey the canvas. Most lazily cast their eyes over a painting and forget it, never really understanding its meaning or purpose. Those who really see go beyond the painting itself and find enrichment intellectually and sensually.
Moreover, every day views can also become beautiful and worthy of the full employment of our sight. If we train our eyes we can see the beauty in nature. Even our cities can become stunning; what we see every day can take on a new hue provided we look attentively enough.
Music offers many endless pleasure, but few really learn to find enjoyment in the process. Rather, they listen mindlessly and are not really paying attention to anything other than the sound. In other words, they are hearing but not listening. In order for us to find enjoyment and flow while listening to music the experience must be sensory, analogic and analytic. Music is a sensory experience because we are using our sense of hearing to pick up the sound. Analogic experiences are those that evoke feelings and moods, such that a song that results in flow will have us feeling a certain way. Analytic experiences will have us focus on the way the music is structured and why, or on the meaning of the lyrics themselves. We ask ourselves what the music conveys and find enjoyment in picking it apart and truly listening.
Music is also a key part of culture and social order such that in the past it has been used to signify various events across innumerable civilisations. Even now, concerts provide ‘collective effervescence’, we feel we belong to a group that has concrete existence and feel affinity with the crowd. That we have evolved using music to control our feelings since the dawn of civilisation means that it is one of the most common ways in which to find enjoyment and flow, but this only obtains if we really listen.
Cultivating a discriminating palate for its own sake will lead to a new range of flow experiences where we become absorbed by the food we eat and are aware of the sense of taste to such a degree that the process becomes more pleasurable. Most of the time we eat without really tasting the food and finish it as quickly as possible. However, as one of the essential things we have to do every day, eating is an ideal activity to find flow through.
Our bodies provide many sources of enjoyment and opportunities for flow, so many in fact that we are hard pressed to find time for them all. As a result, we may only become dilettantes in most while mastering a select few. Nevertheless, controlling our bodies and fully employing our senses will help us to control consciousness and find optimal experiences every day.
Flow in Thought
Wonder is the feeling that results from a flow experience achieved through thought. Especially through subjects such as philosophy or science we become awed by what we think on, the questions to be solved. While most activities will involve both the body and the mind, some are almost exclusively dependent on the mental aspect. Mental activities will have the same flow conditions as any other activity, as clear goals and feedback give us reason to invest attention.
The natural state of the mind is chaos, consciousness is usually beset by psychic entropy, by worries and problems which we wish to avoid. As a result of this desire to beat down pain we watch tv, investing very little psychic energy in the process. Though reading or talking to others would be better for us, we pick the easy choice precisely because we can put little effort into it, and not have to order attention to forget our demons.
The most obvious flow activity requiring thought is reading but even here attention must be directed. Most read books for a few pages and trail off, thinking about something else while they mechanically skim the lines. Ironically, daydreaming itself is a flow activity because it can be used to deal with events we anticipate. Before we are in the situation we can anticipate the different possibilities, what might happen or what might be said, and in this way use our skills to meet the challenge in the best way possible. It is a skill few children develop but, if used constructively, can be helpful, though it is done at the expense of reality.
The Greeks personified memory as Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, who was responsible for the creation of science. Given that memory is the mental skill from which all others derive it is only right to accord it such a distinction. The primacy of memory is evident, without it we could not engage in any meaningful conversation, let alone flow activities leading to optimal experience. The rules of any game or activity must be memorised before one can even begin to take part in it. A strong memory makes this process easier and allows us to more quickly come up to speed with the demands of any goal-bound activity.
Memory also brings more enjoyment into our lives because external stimulation is no longer needed to feel satisfaction. Instead, a person can amuse themselves with their own mind and think on the information they have learnt. A quote relevant in the moment, or a song that they particularly enjoy, even a position on a chessboard, can all act as sources of enjoyment. In each case the process of remembering serves to fulfil a goal that brings order to consciousness.
Nevertheless, in order to memorise anything we must be intrinsically motivated to do so. We can only sustain attention if we are interested in the subject we wish to learn about. Once we have found such a topic it will not feel as tiresome to learn the content as it is when we are forced to cram for an exam. Rather, it will be pleasant to learn more about something of lasting fascination to us. As we amass these pieces of information we have chosen to store in memory we feel a sense of ownership, that they connect to us in some way, if only because we have made the effort to recall them because we find them meaningful.
Memory is essential but words allow us to order experience, by helping us to build up symbolic systems in which stimuli can be stored. Without such a system allowing us to order information, consciousness will remain chaotic even if we possess strong memories. As such our capacity for memory depends on the symbolic systems we have recourse to, which themselves give rise to abstract thinking.
Thinking itself is pleasurable to such an extent that the great philosophers were motivated not by material rewards but by the enjoyment thinking gave them. The flow of thought led many to be labelled ‘absent-minded’ when their seeming lack of awareness was instead order in consciousness, for their minds were absorbed with their ideas. Democritus was especially known for his unworldliness but this only meant that he had learnt to enjoy life by controlling consciousness.
The power of thought can be realised once the symbolic systems and the rules constituting them help to create a self-contained world within the mind. This will allow us to order our thinking independently of external reality because we have internal rules to fall back on. An internalised symbolic system will help to ward off the media so that our mind is truly our own and we ignore those who claim to have the answers. If it does not provide its own information, chaos reigns in the mind. It is up to us whether order comes from outside of us, from what we have no control over, or organically from within, through our own skills and knowledge.
Conversation can improve our quality of experience provided we invest enough energy into engaging fully. It also confirms our sense of the universe to us as we understand ourselves and the world around us through comments made during small talk, about the weather for example, which tell us that reality is as it seems.
Writing is a rich source of enjoyment which gives order to consciousness when used to create information. It gives the mind a disciplined means of expression that helps us to record our experiences, which can then be recalled in the future with the memories of the feelings we had at the time we took our thoughts down coming back to us. It is then also a way of understanding our experiences which, through introspection, are given order.
Of course, writing to escape reality has been the task of many novelists. It helped them to ameliorate the feelings of depression and anxiety which they struggled with so that some semblance of order was imposed among their confusion of feelings. If however, these proved too painful the worlds they created may have been a refuge in which to escape a troubling reality. Of course, such an obsession denies us fulfilment if we close ourselves to the world, as our range of experience becomes limited and there may be other ways to deal with events. All the same, when writing is used to control experience rather than our minds it leads to great rewards.
Clio, the patroness of History, was the eldest daughter of Mnemosyne. Her role was to keep orderly accounts of past events. This process can be satisfying because the events we remember, or which we choose to focus on most, are usually pleasant ones and we can order our own histories. Personal identity itself is then tied up with the past so that we are historians of our own existence. Making sense of the past by ordering a sequence of events consequently brings order to consciousness. Indeed, in the closing stages of our lives we may set ourselves the task of achieving ‘integrity’, bringing together a meaningful story encompassing what we accomplished and what was left undone.
Leaving aside our own identities, remembering is enjoyable because it improves the quality of life. We can leave the present moment to revisit the past, not necessarily to escape its tyranny, but to think about pleasant times. Arranging moments into a sequence is also a necessary part of being a conscious being. Keeping a journal is a great way to achieve flow and order the events of our own personal histories.
In order to think scientifically all that is required is an objective outlook which pays attention to the facts, takes into account past observations, and aims to find regularities underlying these. It is not necessary to be a scientist to enjoy a way of thinking. Rather, we need only have opens minds and humility so that we can reject beliefs unsupported by facts and remain sceptical until we find an answer.
The difficulty of the problems raised also mean we have to use all our faculties in order to understand phenomena. In physics the theory of general relativity is ingenious, even paradoxical, but it is this puzzling aspect which makes it so interesting to learn. Through taking up these thought experiments and ideas we stretch our mind to its limits, resulting in flow, and improving the quality of our lives through considering a new worldview.
Philosophy means ‘love of wisdom’, and in ancient Greece this was the sole reason philosophers undertook its study. Presently, however academics specialise in order to find work in the discipline. They begin with what interests them and gradually come to their niche. As with anything else we can only motivate ourselves to learn what interests us and by reading more widely we can more quickly chance upon it.
It is essential to make our own way through the philosophers at the forefront of the various sub-disciplines we are interested by. We could look to the ethics of Spinoza, the metaphysics of Kant, and Wittgenstein’s language. The point is to make whatever path we take truly our own by being particular about what we would like to know the most about. Of course, the goal of philosophy is to think rightly, rather than to specialise so that we know more and more about less and less. All the same, once we have found something that holds our attention, the process of learning becomes enjoyable and effortless.
To be called an amateur or dilettante in a given activity is usually derogatory, and at the very least suggests the person’s performances are not up to professional standards. Both words used to mean that the person loved or enjoyed what they were doing. Nowadays, the focus is no longer on the quality of experience but on the quality of performance. However, the former should take precedence because our enjoyment improves the quality of our lives.
As with the scholar, the amateur may focus more on extrinsic than intrinsic goals. Just as the academic that wants to be well known cares more about a desire for recognition and applause than their interest in learning, a dilettante may try to advance their own interests and boost their egos. Material rewards become more important than using a symbolic discipline to extend mental skills and create order in consciousness. For any mental activity to bring enjoyment the goal must be to improve experience through increasing the complexity of our own minds.
After leaving school most stop learning as there is no longer any necessity to do so. Nevertheless, if we require extrinsic goals such as a grade or job to encourage us to learn our lives will be guided by others, ‘experts’ laying claim to a truth they never possessed. Consequently, it is important for the end of university to be the start of intrinsically motivated learning which helps us to find meaning in our experience and relate to what is happening around us better. Only then can we experience the joy of the thinker, who lets the flow of their mind take them where it will.
Work as Flow
Doing something we love every day which requires great skill will add complexity to the self because we learn new things that bring us enjoyment. On the other hand, working a 9-5 under compulsion to make ends meet is entropic because these jobs will usually be unskilled and uninteresting to us. In the one case we have a chance to find fulfillment through realising our ability and exerting control over the difficult tasks before us. In the other we must repeat the same dreaded routine to be able to afford our expenses, without being remotely interested by it.
This is a mistake that many people make and for lack of imagination they waste their lives doing the same job because it is comfortable and covers their bills. Yet our work is what we will spend the majority of our lives doing. It is then essential to our contentment that what we do for a living is enjoyable. Even if this means starting a career in a field which we love but have little experience in, it will be worth the effort because we will spend our lives doing something that will make us happy. In any case, it is better to be at the bottom of a ladder that you want to climb than halfway up one you don’t. If we listen to friends and family only taking into account the material rewards we may end up doing something that we hate years later, when a mid-life crisis might point out that we should have chosen for ourselves. It is our life after all.
The more attention we pay to material goals, and the harder these are, the more effort we will have to put in to achieve them. That is, the more we desire the more we will have to give up, to reach our aim. However, if work is at best a means to an end we will spend most of our lives wishing we were somewhere else, and the days will drag on. We have to enjoy what we do. While the majority of people find work boring and repetitive there are those who find new opportunities for action which bring them enjoyment by improving their complexity. Work as a flow activity is the best way to fulfil human potentialities. ‘Human nature’ can be created through work so that we go from animals guided by instinct to skilled and conscious beings with goals to achieve.
Yu, in Chinese Philosophy, is the right way of following the path, Tao. It is the way to live, spontaneously, without concern for external rewards. Once a skill has been learnt the state depends on finding new opportunities for action in our environment, which leads to a gradual mastery that makes it seem effortless. Even seemingly meaningless tasks can be made enjoyable if they are transformed into complex activities. Individuals can do this by paying full attention to the task at hand, losing themselves in the process so that they can develop skills, and emerge more complex people afterward as a result of the investment of psychic energy. Enjoyable work feels like it is freely chosen and improves the quality of experience and our lives.
While developing an autotelic personality will allow one to find opportunities for action in even menial work another option is to pick a job that is conducive to flow. The more it resembles a game, with variety, challenges and goals, and clear feedback, the greater the enjoyment. Football is an example of such a job as the skills of the individual are challenged by the opponent. More generally, the quality of our experience during work can be transformed by making it conform to the conditions of flow. This can be achieved by constantly setting ourselves challenges and expanding our skills to meet these.
Nevertheless, it is prudent to consider both sides so that our work is redesigned to be like a flow activity and we also develop an autotelic personality that helps us to recognise the opportunities for action, to hone our skills and set goals. Combined, these two strategies will make work enjoyable and lead to optimal experience.
Perhaps surprisingly, studies show that individuals enjoy time working more than they do time spent at home, that they are more likely to experience flow because they must use their skills to meet challenges. Why then, does work feel like a chore? The obvious reason is that we have come to regard it as wider society does, as something we have to do whether or not we would like to. Indeed, many work to further someone else’s goal rather than their own. The apathy we have toward working is then the result of our feeling that attention is being invested in something outside our own aims against our will, and that time to achieve our own goals is being wasted. People see jobs as a burden imposed from the outside, which distracts from their long-term plans and takes away a part of their lives. Even if some moments are enjoyable, overall, we are not fulfilling our aspirations.
Our satisfaction at work is prevented by three common complaints. Firstly, there might be a lack of variety and challenge, especially in low-skilled or routine work. Overcoming this may necessitate perceiving new opportunities and taking a better perspective on our jobs as they usually do involve challenges which we must be skilled to meet, hence the pay. Secondly, other people may come in the way of our goals so that conflict occurs, but here it must be understood that everyone has their own agenda but is aiming toward the same overall goal in the workplace. This would then mean working more closely so that we understand our colleagues’ roles as they do ours and progress can be made. Thirdly, stress and a lack of time to spend with family or to enjoy our hobbies comes in the way of our contentment. It is however the most amenable to the control of consciousness as stress depends on a subjective view of objective conditions and we can do a lot to alleviate it. Some may find the same situation overwhelming while others enjoy the challenge it presents. In order to be more like the latter we can choose leisure activities that help to calm us, such as meditation. Generally, overcoming stress will mean focusing our psychic energy on personally forged goals, while ignoring distractions.
While work is structured with challenges and clear goals and feedback our free time is usually unstructured and an effort must be made to fill it with pastimes that make it enjoyable. Hobbies that demand skill, habits that set goals and limits, as well as personal interests, and especially inner discipline will make our free time what it should be, a chance to create ourselves.
Yet, instead of using our mental and physical resources to experience flow we spend most of our time going to football games instead of playing in them, listening to music rather than learning an instrument, or paying to see paintings without even thinking to create our own art. These are inferior substitutes for investing our attention in real challenges; where the flow experience resulting from the use of skills leads to growth, passive entertainment leads nowhere. The energy that could be used for complex goals that bring enjoyment is instead wasted on patterns of stimulation that mimic reality. Watching tv absorbs psychic energy while providing little in return.
Unless we take charge of our work and free time, both are likely to be unfulfilling. We must appropriate them for our needs by learning to enjoy our work and never wasting our free time, so that our lives become enjoyable. This means educating ourselves to use our leisure wisely.
Enjoying Solitude and Other People
Studies show that the quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work and our relations with other people. Our self is defined by what happens in our relationships with others, and how we hold ourselves in ‘love and work’ is important for our happiness. Being in the company of other people can greatly improve experience if we manage our relationships well. All the same, we must also be able to stand alone, to enjoy ourselves in solitude. Indeed, most of our work has to be done by us, without anyone else around. It is then essential to be able to find enjoyment when left to our own devices. Consciousness must be controlled during solitude.
It is a fact that we are social animals as people are most happy around friends and family, in the company of others. Of course, we are biologically programmed to seek out company because cooperation as hunter-gatherers gave us an advantage. Moreover, as we gradually learned to master nature and create our own societies our survival began to depend on knowledge which was passed down the generations. Consequently, we evolved to value the people that made up our communities and felt social rejection strongly because those that were shunned and ostracized from society ended up dying without its help.
Even today a supportive social network helps to mitigate stress. Indeed, people who learn to get along with others are likely to enjoy a greater quality of life overall. Nevertheless, other people can also be a source of irritation. They can be inconsiderate, selfish, ungrateful and capricious. In such cases it should be noted that human relations are malleable so that, with the right skills, there rules can be transformed so they provide optimal experiences. The stronger a relationship the less ill feeling; we then have to invest attention in the people we like most.
A person spends around a third of their waking time alone and yet many seek to escape solitude, finding it oppressive. The worse times are when we are alone and there is nothing needful. Solitude can be negative because keeping order in the mind, focusing within, is difficult. External goals and feedback keep attention directed and without them thoughts become chaotic and psychic entropy occurs. Negative thoughts begin to seep in when we have time to ourselves, when we become bored and depressed with nothing to do. “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago’.
The ultimate test for the ability to control the quality of experience is what a person does in solitude, with no external demands structuring attention. A person who is rarely bored, who does not require external conditions to be favourable to enjoy the moment, has the creative capacities to lead a fulfilling life. Most escape their minds through tv or recreational drugs and while both go some way toward ordering consciousness, we usually have little to show for it afterward. They are regressive in that they do not lead forward; they only dull the mind. Growth involves ordering the entropy of the mind so we can enjoy life. This means we take each challenge as an opportunity for learning and improving skills. When we are able to find the enjoyment that comes from increasing opportunities for action and call upon flow activities at will, regardless of what is happening externally, then we have learned how to shape our quality of life.
Solitude becomes enjoyable if one finds ways of ordering attention that will prevent entropy from destructuring the mind. The routines we create must focus our attention on manageable tasks as often as possible, so that we can have flow experiences. If psychic entropy is avoided by taking the mind off unpleasant thoughts and feelings this should mean doing more activities we can grow from, rather than mindlessly watching or taking something. If we see being alone as a chance to accomplish goals away from others, then instead of feeling lonely, we will enjoy solitude and use it to learn new skills.
Meaningful experiences in people’s lives are the result of family relationships. Familial loyalty is proportional to the amount of genes shared between two people. Attachment toward our relatives then ensures the genes own kind will be preserved. The bond between parent and child is also strong for this reason.
Family is the social environment we spend most of our lives in, so our quality of life depends on how well we succeed in making interactions with our relatives enjoyable. Indeed, the very people that bring us the most happiness can also cause us the most pain. Which way it will tip is decided by how much psychic energy is invested into the relationship, and the goals of family members. Relationships require a reordering of attention, a repositioning of goals to accommodate the loved one. If we are unwilling to change personal goals at the start of a relationship, we are likely to experience psychic entropy when it conflicts with what we would like to do. Succeeding relationally then necessitates revising our goals to suit the circumstances.
In the past, extrinsic reasons kept families intact because it was convenient for families to stay together in their traditional roles. Men were the workers who brought food to the home while their wives looked after the children in their absence. They depended on each other to fulfil their roles and even if the relationship was falling apart, these considerations kept it together. Today, intrinsic reasons such as enjoying each other’s company is what keeps families together.
While marriage is the end of freedom, it has a set of rules that make it game-like and receptive to flow. ‘To be completely free one must become a slave to a set of rules’. In our families there must be differentiation so that each individual develops their skills and sets their owns goals. Integration will mean each member helps the other to achieve these and is affected by each other’s successes and failures.
To improve relationships with family the challenges and skills must be increased. The more you know a person the more work that will need to be done to find new challenges. In romantic relationships after getting to know the person there is usually an end to learning, yet enjoyment and flow will only come about if there is continued interest in knowing about them in all their complexity, at deeper levels than when they met.
When a family has a common purpose and open communication, with expanding opportunities for action, life in it becomes an enjoyable flow activity. Each member will focus attention on the group, forgetting their own individual goals for the moment to experience the joy of belonging to a family that is aiming toward a unified goal.
We share common goals and activities with friends that we choose, so it is no surprise that friendships are naturally enjoyable. However, if a way of escaping solitude or validating ourselves they may give pleasure, but not growth. The company of others is at the lowest level a way to ward off chaos temporarily while at the highest it provides enjoyment and flow. In order to reach the complexity of the latter we must find new challenges and learn more about the people we spend our time with.
Instrumental skills are learned to help us cope effectively with the environment, they are basic survival skills such as reading and writing. People that have not learned to find flow in these see them as extrinsic because they are used for work that they see as a chore. Expressive skills, on the other hand, are actions that externalise our subjective experiences. These are such things as dancing, singing, even telling a joke. When we are expressing ourselves we feel like our true selves and it is with friends that we feel free to do so. While at work we may not see eye to eye with our colleagues, but with the people we choose to be around we can learn who we really are. This kind of friendship is achieved if we have people with similar aspirations around us, who hold us to task and share our goal of self-realisation. While younger such relationships happen spontaneously but as we get older they rarely happen by chance, we must cultivate them as much as our work and family.
A person is part of a family or friendship insofar as they invest psychic energy in goals shared with other people. In the same way, one can belong to the community by subscribing to its aspiration and trying to realise the common good. This means taking on higher challenges rather than aiming at material rewards, looking to the welfare of those around us. Of course, no social change can come about if the consciousness of the individual is not changed first. If we are to make life better for everyone we have to learn to control our own lives.
It might be argued that only those with better material conditions are in a position to find enjoyment in their lives, that most do not have the time or money for flow activities. This is far from the truth. A person that is rich and healthy may or may not enjoy life. Conversely, people born into poverty manage to overcome adversity to live rewarding lives by creating order out of chaos. It is our subjective experience of material conditions that decides how they affect us. Without controlling psychic energy any material advantages would have little bearing. On the other hand, flow directly improves the quality of life.
It is possible to find flow in even the most difficult circumstances, enjoyment can be had in any situation. People that fall terminally ill are struck by their misfortune to find purpose in their lives because everything inessential falls away when it is a matter of life and death – their purpose becomes clear to them. Likewise, those with disabilities find ways to overcome their limitations to enjoy life by creating goals that make their day more fulfilling, they get more done because their situation leads them to reassess what matters most and they fill their time with what will help them achieve it. Even those living on the streets can turn dire living conditions into a meaningful, enjoyable existence. Some refugees have travelled throughout war-torn cities across the world to get where they are and in that time their attention was always occupied because they relied upon themselves. They knew what their goal was and when they arrive at their destination they try to enjoy each moment, focusing on controlling consciousness so they recognise that where they find themselves is amenable to their view of it in the same way that the places they passed through were seen as bearable while staying there.
People cope with stress differently because of three factors. External support allows people to share their burden with others, or lessen it by asking for help. Our psychological resources, intelligence, knowledge and personality will also determine much of our response to stress as those that are extroverted, for example, will be less likely to have problems dealing with others. The last factor is the coping strategies we use against stressors. Of these the one most in our control is the latter because any help will be useless if we do nothing ourselves and our personality traits will not change overnight.
Our coping strategy decides much of the effect adversity has on us. Accidents can lead to depression or they can set into perspective our central goal of life so that new, more clear and urgent goals are created to overcome the challenges faced. Even meditating on death will remind us to focus on what will move us forward so that we have clarity in regard what we would like to achieve in life.
Generally, a positive response to stress, what psychologists call a ‘mature response’ means thinking calmly about our adversity and finding a way though the struggle. A negative response, called a ‘regressive response’, would mean escaping consciousness and drinking or doing whatever else keeps our minds off the challenges we face. ‘Transformational coping’ is then about seeing stress as the ‘challenge response’, so that we can turn our adversity into enjoyable challenges. Indeed, no ability would be better for improving the quality of our lives. Resilience and courage will help us to make something good of misfortune, to overcome hardships by creating order out of chaos. However, both are rare and their development is elusive.
We know from nature that chaos can be changed into a more structured order as plants use the waste energy emitted by the sun in the form of light to thrive and grow. Energy is extracted out of entropy as the sun’s rays would otherwise be a useless by-product of its combustion. These ‘dissipative structures’ capture chaos and shape it into a more complex order. Humans have managed to use waste energy like fire for our purposes.
Psychological processes work in a similar way. The integrity of the self depends on turning neutral and negative events into positive ones. Yet, because there are always going to be events that conflict with our goals, and this negative feedback leads to disorder in the mind which prevents us from concentrating on necessary goals, virtues such as resilience, courage and perseverance are ever more important. The dissipative structures of the mind mean that negative events can be neutralised and used as challenges to strengthen the self by making it more complex.
The peak in the development of coping skills comes when the person has a strong sense of self forged through personally selected goals which means no external disappointment can undermine them. Many people find this source of strength by focusing on mastering a system of symbols such as music, art or maths and finding flow in the process of learning.
Therefore, while some are weakened by stress, others get stronger. The difference is that the latter knows how to transform a hopeless situation into a flow activity that can be controlled so they can enjoy themselves and emerge stronger from the struggle. There are three steps for such a transformation.
The belief that your destiny is in your hands, that you can determine your fate with what you have, helps one to survive ordeals. Self-assurance must be balanced with the environment so that our goals have to be adjusted to it. This means leaving aside our egos, trusting ourselves and our place in our surroundings. Only after we do so can we achieve our goals effectively.
Focusing attention on the world
To notice the environment, we have to stop paying attention to ourselves, using up psychic energy on our ego. Those who transform stress into meaningful challenges spend very little time thinking about themselves. Instead their attention is focused on their surroundings and this allows them to feel a part of it to so that they can adapt in order to achieve their goals. Feeling this unity with the environment not only leads to enjoyable flow experiences, it also allows us to conquer adversity. In the first instance, focus is away from the self so psychic entropy cannot disrupt consciousness because instead of paying attention to internal disorder we are absorbed by what is going on around us and stress is offset. When we draw attention inward toward psychic entropy in a threatening situation we weaken our ability to cope because the feeling of inner turmoil is focused on and augmented, while we cut ourselves off from the rest of the world.
Discovery of new solutions
There are two ways to cope with a situation that creates psychic entropy. The first is to focus attention on the obstacles in the way of our goals so they can be moved, restoring harmony to consciousness. The second is to focus on the entire situation, looking for alternative possibilities and solutions. We have to consider our overall goal and be ready to take on unexpected opportunities if they help us to achieve it.
They sees threats as challenges and opportunities for action which will be enjoyable. They set their own goals by interpreting what happens to them and transforming potentially entropic experiences into flow. They set goals they have chosen that have clear feedback which can be used to modify them and they have a feeling of ownership of their decisions so they are more dedicated to achieving whatever task they set themselves.
Becoming immersed in the activity
They become absorbed in the activity and do everything they can to meet their goals. Of course, a goal that is beyond our capacity will waste psychic energy because we will stop paying attention if our attempts lead nowhere. Conversely, doubting our potential may lead us to set trivial goals and arrest our growth by remaining at the lowest level of complexity. A fine balance is needed between our skills and the opportunities for action.
Paying attention to what is happening
Concentration leads to involvement, but we must pay attention in the first instance. In any complex system, to stay involved in the flow activity we must continue investing psychic energy. Involvement pushes self-consciousness out of awareness and vice versa, so we can focus completely on the task at hand. Paying attention to our goals rather than ourselves leads to a paradoxical result, we emerge with greater complexity after our union with the symbolic system.
Learning to enjoy immediate experience
Being in control of the mind means what happens to us can always be interpreted as a source of joy. Naturally, such control requires discipline and determination, the stretching of our capacities and an increasingly complex self. One must become more than they are by developing skills and growing. Once we control moment by moment consciousness in order to attain optimal experience we must find meaning in what we do so our whole life can become a single flow activity, with unified goals that provide constant purpose.
The Making of Meaning
Most of us go back to normal the moment after finishing something we enjoyed, become bored as soon as an activity we find flow in ends, however long we were engaged in it. Those of us who enjoy our relationships and work, who see each challenge as an opportunity for growth, would be getting more out of life than most but this would not be sufficient for optimal experience. To achieve it the activities we find enjoyment in cannot be linked haphazardly, they must follow on from each other coherently. Our lives must then become a unified flow experience in which each enjoyable activity flows into the next.
In order for this to be possible there must be an ultimate goal from which all other goals naturally follow. By investing all our energy into it and developing the skills necessary to achieve it our actions and feelings come together, and each part of our lives will make sense given our overall aim. Every activity that we enjoy will contribute to our moving closer to the ultimate goal as we become more complex. This ultimate goal can be anything that is difficult enough to require the organisation of our attention and lives. In my own case, it is to self-actualise and fulfil my potential. Naturally, this means a great number of different flow activities will be useful to me. Anything that can help me to improve a skill will be worth exploring and will have meaning insofar as it makes me a better man than I was yesterday.
Of course, life itself is objectively meaningless, there is no supreme goal built into the fabric of nature. Rather, there are impersonal forces which are indifferent to us, chance and chaos reign. However, while there is no goal valid for each individual the objective meaning of life is a different matter. The fact that life has no meaning does not mean it cannot be given one, we can find our own reasons for living. Our ultimate goal need only be compelling enough to order our psychic energy for a lifetime.
A last step in control of consciousness is needed for achieving optimal experience, namely, finding meaning in our own lives. Creating meaning involves bringing order to our minds by integrating our actions into a unified flow experience. There are different senses of ‘meaning’, purpose, intentionality and ordering information. The first regards the purpose of something, for example, the meaning of life. This will mean finding an ultimate goal we can direct all our energy toward achieving, one that has significance for us. The second concerns the intentions we have, what we ‘mean’ to do, and suggests our purposes are betrayed in our actions. Consequently, it is not enough to have a purpose in life that unifies all our goals, we must also carry through and meet the challenges it presents. The third involves ordering information and points to the identity different words have which in turn allows us to establish connections between them so that they express something. In our case, the information to be ordered are the contents of our minds, the thoughts and feelings have to be congruent for our actions to flow and for there to be no doubt or regret preventing our work.
When an ultimate goal is pursued with resolution, all activities will seamlessly blend into a unified flow experience, and there will be harmony in consciousness. That is, once we have a purpose which we feel is important and resolve to achieve it at any cost, doing all we can, there will be inner harmony. This is because there is no longer any contradiction, when we desire something our actions show that. There is inner congruence because our thoughts, feelings and actions all follow on from each other, being directed by the ultimate goal we feel compelled to pursue. Purpose, resolution and harmony then unify life by making it a seamless flow experience.
A unifying purpose justifies what we do every day because all the lesser goals we strive to achieve depend on this ultimate goal. Even as we enjoy doing these activities, we are moving closer to meaning in our lives. Different cultures in the past prized contrasting ultimate goals and ordered actions accordingly: sensate cultures focused on material conditions and satisfying the senses through pleasure while ideational cultures were more concerned with non-material and spiritual ends. Idealistic cultures bring the strengths of both together. While our culture is sensate in character, the best way to unify life into an all-embracing flow activity is through the idealistic mode. This means setting challenges to improve material conditions and pursuing spiritual ends, taking care of the body, mind and spirit through exercise, reading and meditation.
The complexity of the challenges is as important as their content in regard ordering actions – how differentiated and integrated the goals we pursue are decides how much we develop our control of consciousness. A person develops complexity across four stages. In the first their only concern is the preservation of life, survival is all that matters to them and there is no space for anything beyond that consideration. Having met this need, the second stage involves integrating with family and the community, conforming in some measure with societal norms while doing so. The third stage comes when a person has found acceptance within society and takes a step back to develop themselves through exploring their potential. Reflective individualism then means differentiation as the person finds authority within the self and is no longer blindly conforming, but develops an autonomous conscience. Their focus is improvement and growth, becoming the best they can be. This means they experiment with different skills and activities, that enjoyment becomes their source of reward. The final stage is achieved when an individualised person integrates fully into society. Universal values are of great interest and they merge with the whole to improve the lives of others.
There is then a tension between differentiation and integration as our complexity increases and we learn to control consciousness. Consequently, we must invest energy into our own individuality, into developing the skills we were born with and exploring our potential. Alongside this self-reliance and an understanding of our uniqueness we have to think about the role we play in the world at large and immerse ourselves in it.
Purpose gives direction to our efforts but it does not make life easy. Goals can be demanding and we may be tempted to give them up so that we can stay comfortable. However, such a life would be empty and devoid of meaning as every obstacle we avoid is a chance for growth which we forfeit. Each goal prescribes a set of consequences and if we fail to take these seriously, it loses meaning. In each flow activity there is a mutual relationship between goals and the effort they require. Goals justify the effort they demand at the beginning but later it is the effort that we put in to achieve it that justifies the goal.
Of course, because there are so many options many have uncertainty about their purpose, which lowers their resolution because they are unsure what to put their effort into. This begs the question of how to invest psychic energy. The best way to decide is to gain self-knowledge by following the Delphic oracle’s prescription to ‘know thyself’. Inner conflict results from competing claims on attention, so we have to tease out which ones should have sway and represent our desires best, which to ignore.
There are two ways of accomplishing this; the vita activa, a life of action, and vita contemplativa, the path of reflection. In a vita activa a person achieves flow through total involvement in external challenges. They begin to act with the unselfconscious spontaneity of children and if the activity is challenging enough they will be unlikely to notice the entropy of ordinary life. However, they may find that their options are limited, that the goals that sustained action before do not themselves give meaning to their life. This is why many go through mid-life crises, those that have sought money and power and have found it come to realise they have no plan for their use. As a result, vita contemplativa is the best course as reflection upon experience allows us to weigh up our options and their consequences so we can make the most informed choice. We can decide whether what we are going to do is consistent with our long term goals. Nevertheless, on their own action is blind and reflection is impotent. Both need to complement and build on each other so that we ask ourselves ‘Is this something I want to do, do I really enjoy it?’ before committing ourselves to action. Of course, this means being honest with ourselves and making a habit of reflecting on our experience.
Once we have found the activities we truly like to extend flow to last throughout life we must have the courage to stay with our goals despite opposition. We will then be so focused on them we cannot be made unhappy by the difficulty of the uncomfortable life we chose for our own development, to grow out of our comfort zone constantly. As ever: ‘Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a hard one’. Once we invest our energy in a goal that is so persuasive that even when we are tired we continue to pursue it we will feel a sense of harmony as every thought and feeling will be directed to the achievement of our ultimate goal.
The emergence of consciousness has meant an increase in psychic entropy because it is no longer only what is that matters to us, what could be is never far from our minds. Animals only concern themselves with their immediate needs, hunting for food or fighting to protect themselves, and revert back to a calmer state right after. They are in flow most of the time because what they think they need to do is done presently. The human mind has evolved its power to handle information so that inner conflict has become inevitable. There are many options left to us and the more we know, the less likely it is that we enjoy ourselves in this moment. The increase in our complexity means a range of different values, beliefs and choices obscure the clarity we might have had as early humans when few choices meant flow could be experienced spontaneously. However, a complex consciousness cannot give order to the mind through innocence, through not knowing what options it has.
Instead, the challenge is to create harmony in consciousness based on reason and choice. An individual’s life is given shape and meaning by a set of goals linked to an ultimate goal that gives significance to whatever a person does. A life theme identifies what will make existence enjoyable. Everything that happens will have a meaning because it will either be a step toward or away from that goal, which we have clear feedback to gauge our progress with. Our thoughts and actions are tied with a common purpose, what needs to be done is clear and whatever we do toward this end will make sense.
When our psychic energy merges into a life theme, consciousness achieves harmony. However, some life themes are more productive than others. Existential philosophers distinguish between authentic and inauthentic projects. In authentic projects a person realises that they are free to choose, that no one is coming to save them. They make a personal decision based on their experience, so that their choice is an expression of what they feel and believe. Inauthentic projects involve doing what everyone else is doing, what we think we have to do to be accepted in wider society. As such, authentic projects are intrinsically motivated while inauthentic ones are extrinsically motivated.
This distinction is similar to the one between discovered life themes, when a person writes the script for their own life through personal choice, and accepted life themes, when they follow a script written in the past by others. The latter works only if the social system is sound, if not, they lead to corrupt goals. The former are products of a personal struggle to find meaning in life. They usually involve suffering which is interpreted in a way that is conducive to negentropic life themes. That is, to find purpose in our suffering we must see it as a possible challenge for which we need to develop the appropriate skills. Dissipative structures transform the consequences of negative events into a challenge that gives meaning to life by giving us the ability to draw order from disorder. A complex negentropic life theme is also formulated as a response to the problems faced by others, not just us, so that any solutions brings harmony to the lives of many.
That people have a choice when interpreting suffering suggests that a constructive response is more normal than a neurotic response, that the latter is a failure to rise to the challenge. External disorder can lead to internal meaning if one takes the wealth of information amassed by those who came before us to bring harmony to chaos, their philosophy, literature and music will help us avoid disorder and create meaning in our own lives. We can take their prescriptions for living and build on them to develop our own set of goals which will help us to find purpose.
The past can serve as a model for our own behaviour. Literature itself contains examples of lives successfully organised around meaningful goals and we can draw hope from the knowledge that others have faced similar problems before us and have overcome them. Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ deals with mid-life crises and their resolution: ‘In the middle of the journey of my life I found myself in a dark forest, for the right way I had completely lost’. In order to escape the dark forest he must go through hell. As he does, he comes to see all the suffering of those who never chose a goal, and the sinners whose purpose in life had been to increase entropy.
Evolution itself can help us to understand why we are the way we are, the origins of our instinctual urges, social controls and cultural influences. Once we comprehend the implications these had on the formation of consciousness, we will find it easier to direct our energies to where they ought to go. Over time, we have come to differentiate as individuals but we will only become complex if we integrate into society without losing our authenticity. Taking a wider scope, it is humbling to recognise that the universe is indifferent to us, that our desires and wants have no bearing on the laws of nature. By considering the power of the human will, accepting a cooperative rather than a ruling role in the universe, the problem of meaning will be resolved as the individual’s purpose will merge with the universal flow.