Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Why Work is Essential to Happiness

Since God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden and forced them to toil, we’ve understood work as a terrible burden rather than a source of pleasure.  The common conception is labor is an onerous responsibility, a wearisome obligation to get over and done.  But philosophers throughout the ages have recognized that-despite prevailing belief- work is crucial to happiness.  “Work,” astute philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell once noted, “is desirable, first and foremost, as a preventive of boredom.”  Not only is work an antidote to ennui- it’s humanity’s most profound source of satisfaction.

Csikszentmihalyi

This vital link between labor and happiness is what ground-breaking positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi examines in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a brilliant culmination of years of scientific research that today stands as his crowning achievement.  Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as an exalted state of consciousness where you’re so completely absorbed by the task at hand that you experience the pure bliss of doing something for its own sake.  The poet who reveres language and spends hours choosing the word that precisely conveys his purpose, the painter who looks at the clock only to realize a whole day has passed since he first began at the easel, the scientist who- so engrossed in a problem-forgets to eat his regular meals: all know this magical state.  

Often called a “man obsessed by happiness,” Csikszentmihalyi and his team devoted years to uncovering what, exactly, brings about this entrancing euphoria.  What Csikszentmihalyi found was that most people experience flow while working.  Though participants surveyed reported far higher rates of engagement while working than while relaxing in leisure, most nevertheless disclosed they’d rather be “somewhere else.”  Csikszentmihalyi observed the opposite phenomenon when participants reported their feelings during leisure.  Despite the fact that they were often the least captivated while say, watching television or reading for pleasure, respondents claimed they felt most motivated while liberated from the drudgery of work.

But why is this?  Csikszentmihalyi attributes the paradox to our cultural attitudes toward work:

“When it comes to work,” he explains, “people do not heed the evidence of their senses.  They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly rooted cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like.  They think of it as an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of their freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible.”

However, it is just the nature of work-its goal-direction, its confinement to rules, its immediate feedback-that make it so conducive to flow.  Though work provides us with more opportunities for challenge and, thus, genuine gratification, the sad reality is most of us count the minutes until we can leave the office and engage in “real” pleasure.

This, I think, is why free time is so often unsatisfying, why a hard won vacation or sabbatical usually disappoints.  Unstructured time is just that: unstructured.  In order to feel fully engrossed in the moment, to feel enthralled by living, we must be engaged in the pursuit of a goal- a few leisurely hours after work offer nothing to strive for.  Yet at work we have countless things for which to aim: the doctor, to cure his patient, the teacher, to explain a difficult math problem.  Without an end in mind, life becomes pointless- we need something to direct our energies.  As New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean notes in her poetically understated prose:

“The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it.  There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go.  I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.  It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”

If the natural state of the mind is entropy, then from a purely psychological, scientific point-of-view, life is chaos.  As Orlean so beautifully articulates, work-a passion, a dream, an obsession- shrinks the world to a more “manageable” scope.  It is passion that brings law to anarchy, order to chaos.  Imagine a dazed, humid summer afternoon.  If you passed these hours unhurriedly reading whatever was at hand, I doubt the afternoon would hold any meaning for you.  But if you used your “unstructured” hours for some purpose, say, to read the great romantic poets or study Italian or read philosophy or learn French, those hours would be both more absorbing and more memorable.  

“Contrary to what we usually believe,”  Csikszentmihalyi defends, “the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” 

 

4 of the Greatest Books on Happiness

1. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

flow

The taoists called it “wu wei,” or doing without doing.  Today, we know it more casually as being “in the zone.”  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of the optimal psychology movement, officially named it flow.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness: a psychological space in which real enjoyment is possible.  In his magnum opus Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceCsikszentmihalyi outlines the nine conditions an activity must meet to bring about this energized focus: 

1. there are clear goals every step of the way (the activity is rule-bound)

2. there is immediate feedback to one’s actions

3. there is a balance between challenges and skills

4. actions and awareness are merged

5. distractions are excluded from consciousness

6. there is no worry of failure

7. self-consciousness disappears

8. the sense of time becomes distorted

9. the activity becomes autotelic

The third condition (there must be a balance between challenge & skill) has always interested me.  For an activity to produce flow, it must first be tailored to our skill level: if it’s too easy, it’s boring but if it’s too difficult, it becomes frustrating and troublesome.  We can only achieve a state of flow when our skills are perfectly matched to the task.  A beginning surfer just learning the sport, say, could reach a “flow” state of consciousness by catching a wave that was just a little tougher than usual- not by trying to ride a 20-footer at Waimea.

Though hedonists have championed the delights of sensual pleasure for centuries, Csikszentmihalyi and his team found that indulgence can only provide momentary joy- not lasting happiness.  Turns out true contentment begins will the thrill of discovery and challenge- not the passive rewards of leisure.

The irony, of course, is that most of us search for happiness in the very mindless hedonism that makes us miserable.  Exhausted from a long day at the office, most us plop down on the coach, pick up the remote and opt for yet another episode of our favorite idiotic reality show because we want to relax, we want to “zone” out after work.  Sadly, passive amusements like television fail to transport us to that magical altered state Csikszentmihalyi calls flow for this very reason.  Because watching television forces us into the passive role of spectator, it can never supply us with the genuine opportunities for challenge on which happiness so much depends.

So how can we apply Csikszentmihalyi’s findings to our own lives?  If we want to be genuinely enthralled with life, we have to locate more opportunities for flow.  Remember: flow-that blissful place where time dissipates and you both lose yourself and find yourself-depends on the right balance between challenge and skill.  In other words, painting a portrait or climbing a treacherous rock face will produce flow- watching yet another tedious hour of television will not.  We must have the discipline and diligence to choose the challenge of a meaningful activity over the ease of something leisurely and trivial.  As Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his lifetime of research, superficial merriment or purely hedonistic indulgences can’t fulfill us in the long-term.  That’s why it’s so much more gratifying to resist the chocolate cupcake and go for a run than it is to yield to the craving: resisting temptation is a challenge, it’s an obstacle we have to overcome if we want to reach our goal of losing 20 pounds.  For Csikszentmihalyi, this is where real exhilaration resides: in the hard, single-minded pursuit of one’s goals.

2. The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell 

the-conquest-of-happiness

In modern society, most of us suffer not from depression or dejection but from a general malaise-a feeling, as Thoreau so aptly phrased, of “quiet desperation.”  In his (I think) often underrated masterwork, The Conquest of Happiness, brilliant philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell suggests what he calls a “cure for ordinary day-to-day unhappiness.”  An illuminating volume, The Conquest of Happiness is divided into two parts: one on the causes of unhappiness; the other on the causes of its converse. 

Fundamentally, Russell’s thesis rests on a rather simple premise: unhappiness derives from self-centeredness, the endless absorption with oneself; happiness results from genuine interest in the outside world.  If we are to uncover our zest for life, Russell argues, we have to be engaged with all the wonder and beauty around us.  Turns out meaningful work is also an essential ingredient to contentment and happiness largely depends on one’s ability to cope with petty annoyances.

Filled with sensible advice and sound reasoning, The Conquest of Happiness– it seems-manages its ambitious aim to cure “ordinary” ennui.  Russell brings his keen scientific mind to the task, methodically investigating every factor of well-being from family and work to excitement and boredom.  Told in his characteristically lucid, astute style, Russell’s voice is wise and matter-of-fact, precise but never pretentious.  Though The Conquest of Happiness is a work of philosophy, at its heart is not theory but common sense. Clever, practical, insightful…this is the kind of book you’ll want to read with a pen in your hand.

3. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

happinessproject

Self-help sensation The Happiness Project landed on the New York Times best-seller list within minutes of being published and spent an unheard of two years topping the charts.  But does The Happiness Project really deserve all the acclaim?What’s with all the hype? 

I don’t know about you, but the moment something’s all the rage, I can’t flee it fast enough.  Game of Thrones.  Pokemon Go.  Eat Pray Love. Maybe I’m just an obnoxious contrarian at heart but the second a book’s a bestseller, I have no interest in it anymore.

I maintained this close-minded, slightly prejudiced view toward popular culture when The Happiness Project first hit the shelves.  Because I’m deeply fascinated by positive psychology and am (like most) always on a sort of quest to be happier, Rubin’s experiment naturally appealed to me.  But I protested.  Like a pretentious hipster who claims to disdain any band in the top 40, I refused to pick up The Happiness Project because of its popular appeal.

Then, in the fall of 2012, I finally succumbed. 

On a balmy day in early September as crimson and yellow leaves began drifting to the ground, I bought a copy for $15.95 from my favorite used book store.  I probably read the whole thing in 2 days.  Turns out Rubin’s The Happiness Project lived up to the hype.

When the question of how to be happy has consumed philosophers and monks since the beginning of time, how-you might wonder-can a modern writer hope to uncover anything new about the topic?

While Rubin never purports to be original, the way she presents her findings is unlike any other book I’ve ever read.  Accessible and focused on taking real, actionable steps, The Happiness Project traces Rubin’s year long odyssey to decipher the puzzle of how to be happier.  Each month, Rubin tackles a different subject from love and leisure to money and passion and, for every topic, she aims to keep a new set of resolutions.  In September, for example, Rubin’s objective is to pursue a passion.  For the month, her resolutions range from the ambitious (“write a novel”) to the simple and everyday (“make time”).

In the spirit of Enlightenment thinker, writer, and fellow studious, Type-A nut case Benjamin Franklin, Rubin develops a “resolutions chart” to assess her progress toward her goals.  And like Franklin, Rubin’s aims represent nothing short of a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” 

Though it seems absurd to condense the fundamentally incalculable goal of attaining “moral perfection” to checks and pluses on a chart, I think what makes The Happiness Project resonate with so many people is its emphasis on what can be done right now.  Rubin’s happiness project isn’t an overhauling of her life: she’s not Thoreau abandoning the hurried pace of civilization for the quiet seclusion of Walden Pond, she’s not Elizabeth Gilbert galavanting across three continents to sip wine in Italy and meditate in India.  “I didn’t want to undertake that kind of extraordinary change,” she confesses in the introduction, “I wanted to change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen.  I knew I wouldn’t discover happiness in a faraway place or in unusual circumstances; it was right here, right now.”

While not everyone can abandon their lives to join the Peace Corps, Rubin’s philosophy asserts, certainly most everyone can do simple things like fight right and clean more.  With her emphasis on taking small steps over big gigantic leaps and implementing uncomplicated systems of accountability like her handy resolutions chart, Rubin offers her readers real ways to be happier in this moment…without having to do something as crazy/terrifying as moving half way across the world.  Blending the wisdom of the ages with personal anecdote and cutting-edge scientific research, Rubin will remind you of man’s extraordinary ability, as Thoreau once observed, “to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

4. You are a Badass by Jen Sincero 

you are a badass

I’ll begin this review with three simple words: read this book.  This is one of those rare books that I can say truly changed my life…and will change yours.

The wonderful poet and diarist Anais Nin once said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  In my mid (okay, technically late) 20s, I think I’ve reached a point in my life where this observation is unsettlingly true.  If I continue to remain in the bud, if I continue refusing, as mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell once penned, to “say a hearty yes to the adventure of my life,” one thing is certain: there are many thrilling, ecstatic, exhilarating, joyful, invigorating, earth-shattering experiences I’ll miss out on!  

In a voice that’s as outrageously candid as it is hysterical, Sincero points out that the decision to embrace your inner badass is no small matter: these are our lives we’re talking about.

 So, she asks us, will we squander the miracle of living and consign ourselves to mediocrity and quiet desperation?  Or will we have the boldness to chase after our dreams with a sledge hammer?

For most people, remaining securely in the bud is safe.  There’s no potential for heart-breaking humiliation or rejection or failure.  Though our lives are as bland and unexciting as saltine crackers, we remain tight in the bud because it’s easy: it requires little to no effort.  And most of us are lazy motherfuckers. We’re lazy and we’re eager to please and we’re scared.

Scared of what might happen if we blossom into the most exceptional versions of ourselves.

Scared of the expectations we’d have to live up to.

It’s absurd how terrified most of us are of leading lives we’re excited about; we prefer the security of the familiar to the terror of the unknown, even though we know flowers weren’t meant to be confined to their petals-they were meant to bloom.

Full of practical tips and sage advice, You are a Badass is a self-help book that will actually rouse you to radically transform your life-not just inspire you to half-heartedly commit for 5 minutes.  “I’m going to lose 20 pounds!” we usually declare at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s, convinced of our unwavering commitment.  Fast forward 6 days and we’re scarfing down Haggen Daz by the bucket full while sprawled out on the coach.

Why?  What happened to our convictions?

The sad truth is that the fire to revolutionize our lives quickly burns out.  Tedious day-to-day obligations-our mortgages, our phone bills-usually snuff out the grand ambition to reinvent ourselves.

Sincero empowers you with the tools to stop believing your same old lame ass excuses and start living a life you’re crazy about (all while swearing profusely and making you laugh out loud).  In You are a Badass, Sincero will teach you how to:

  1. challenge self-limiting beliefs and harness the power of positive thinking
  2. recognize the power of your thoughts to shape what you think is possible and manifest what you want
  3. meditate so you can connect with the Source and more fully enjoy the present moment
  4. cultivate gratitude so you can appreciate all you have now
  5. reform your self-sabotaging behaviors so you can build a life you’re actually psyched about

“Whatever you desire to do with your precious life-write jokes or rock out or start a business or learn to speak Greek or quit your job or raise a bunch of kids or fall in love or lose your flab or open orphanages around the world or direct movies or save dolphins or make millions or live in a canyon in a loincloth-” Sincero implores us, “believe that it’s possible. And that it’s available to you. And that you deserve to be/do/have it. Why not?”