Central to the United States Declaration of Independence and the American Dream is the pursuit of happiness. Truth be told, I think what the founding fathers were really talking about is the pursuit of meaning. While happiness is ephemeral, dependent on external forces, meaning is perennial, cultivated by internal forces. But why should meaning be prized over happiness? After all, living a life of purpose may be in conflict with living a life of happiness, and isn’t happiness easier to attain? Think of the herculean efforts of uncompromising personalities like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein or Pablo Picasso, who while achieving greatness, caused others, and themselves, a tremendous deal of pain.
So if there’s a proverbial fork in the road, which way should one go? Towards meaning, or towards happiness? And more importantly, how does one go about achieving either goal? Let’s begin by understanding what each of these terms allude to. In my world, happiness is something that happens to you, but meaning is something you make happen. I hear the skeptics already. Isn’t bagging that promotion, buying that car, or marrying that person, all a fruit of one’s efforts, and all paths leading towards happiness? You are probably right. But why then does one often feel unsatisfied after they’ve attained their goal? Is it perhaps because these goals are extrinsically motivated — driven by rewards — rather than intrinsically motivated — driven by passion? Very often, they are.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s a difference between reaching the goal without paying heed to the process, and having a goal while enjoying the process. The latter requires more resources, but also pays more dividends. It’s called making meaning or pursuing purpose because you are seeking something larger than yourself. While it’s hard, it’s worth it. Here’s why.
When a goal is extrinsically motivated, it is very often tied to the ego. If you don’t achieve said goal, the ego comes under threat, inviting doubt, stress, fear and guilt. And if you do achieve said goal, the pleasure is often fleeting. But if a goal is intrinsically motivated, you are freed from your ego. The goal simply exists to direct your focus, and provide you with feedback. But what you are truly deriving joy from is formulating the process and applying skills to overcome a challenge. If you are lucky, you will be in flow, “a state of complete immersion in an activity” — a state in which you are intensely concentrated, yet devoid of a stream of consciousness.
So how does one go about pursuing a life of meaning? According to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, one needs to follow a series of flow-producing steps that have an overarching goal. He says chaos is the the natural state of the world, and of our minds. To make order out of chaos, we need to formulate a goal and direct our attention towards it. But simply doing this won’t do the trick. We also need to be careful to pick an activity that matches our level of skills. Otherwise, we will give up, frustrated and forlorn. What’s unique about Mihály’s presentation is that he says one doesn’t need extraordinary activities to experience flow; flow can be found in the most ordinary of activities.
So what do you need to obtain flow? And what can you learn from people who seem to attain flow more often than others? Let’s start with the tenets of flow, and where it can be achieved. To experience flow, we must select an activity that has the following characteristics:
1. There’s a chance of completing the activity; it’s challenging and requires skills we possess. In fact, flow continues so long as the level of challenge is continuously matched with the level of skills.
2. We are able to concentrate on what we are doing to the extent that we act with “a deep and effortless involvement that removes from our awareness, the worries and frustrations of everyday life”.
3. Such concentration is possible because the activity has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.
4. The activity is enjoyable because we can exercise a sense of control over our actions.
We know we are in a state of flow when 1)“concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over”, and 2) “the sense of duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.”
Now that we’ve described the characteristics of flow, let’s discuss where it can be found. The answer is, anywhere, so long as you craft an experience that imbibes the tenets described above. Flow can be found on a chessboard, on a trek, in a book, on a canvas, in an Excel, in a debate, in composing a poem, in gardening. It can also be found in relationships, in viewing a painting, in listening to a song, in sex, in tasting food. Yes, that’s right. It can be found in all these activities and more. While the first set of activities I described probably seems more intuitive, the second set does not. Let’s have a look at how the second set of activities can also produce flow, taking relationships as our example. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi purports that relationships are malleable. That is, how we define and interpret a social situation makes a great difference to how people will treat one another, feel during the interaction, and perceive one another later. Knowing this, the challenge then is modifying a relationship to align with our goals, using skills at our disposal while taking into consideration rules of social proprietary. Take for instance a bad relation with a horrible boss, an angry parent or an insensitive child — are there things we can do to evolve the relationship, even a little bit? Usually, there is, and that’s why relationships, if given the chance, can produce flow.
So flow can be experienced almost anywhere? Then why do some people seem to experience it more than others do? Let’s learn from the characteristics of these people that set them apart, so we may inculcate these qualities and habits in ourselves. These people:
1. Possess the innate belief that their destiny is in their own hands, and importantly, find a way to function with their environment harmoniously.
a. To arrive at this level of self-assurance, “one must trust oneself, one’s environment, and one’s place in it”. In other words, “this attitude occurs when a person no longer sees himself in opposition to the environment, as an individual who insists that his goals, his intentions take precedence over everything else. Instead, he feels a part of whatever goes on around him, and tries to do his best within the system in which he must operate.”
b. “Paradoxically, this sense of humility — the recognition that one’s goals may have to be subordinated to a greater entity, and to succeed one may have to play by a different set of rules from what one would prefer — is a hallmark of strong people.” This is because such people learn to succeed despite the limits within themselves and their environment.
2. Focus attention on the world. To navigate one’s environment deftly, one must be able to notice it, and it’s difficult to do this if attention is mainly focused inward, consumed by “the concerns and desires of the ego”. In other words, “people who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenges spend very little time thinking about themselves.” This allows them to adapt their actions to what is happening in their environment so that they may accomplish their goal.
3. Usually discover new solutions to old problems. You may either remove obstacles in your way to achieve your goal or pay attention to the situation and your place in it to discover “whether alternative goals may not be appropriate, and thus different solutions possible.” While there’s nothing wrong with the first approach, people who experience flow often do not restrict themselves to it; they also actively consider and adopt the second approach.
4. Take their goals seriously, and have the resolve to pursue and track them.
If you’d like to look at the surest way to weave meaning into your life, I suggest you start with your work and your relationships. After all, numerous studies have found that, “more than anything else, the quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people”. This is because “the most detailed information about who we are as individuals comes from those we communicate with, and from the way we accomplish our jobs.” Just make sure that to obtain meaning that is continuous, resilient and engaging, you find an underlying life goal tying together the series flow-producing activities you chose. Don’t expect this to be easy because it’s not. It requires a lot of pro-active trial and error, reflection and periods of doubt. Usually a good place to start is to reflect on what matters most to you and why (for instance, by reflecting on the underlying principles you used to make the key decisions in your life), and what you genuinely derive joy from.
Alas, finding your purpose is the subject of another blog altogether, but at least we’ve covered its principles! All I can leave you with is the only way to find purpose that is resilient, long-lasting and enriching is to find an end larger than yourself. This way we achieve a healthy sense of detachment from ourselves, and can do the work necessary to obtain our goal with a focus that’s unfazed.