26 May 2007

Flow & The Pursuit of Happiness

My daughter recently wrote a paper for her humanities class, a paper about Freud, Kafka, and Happiness. This seemed to me rather like writing a paper on Stephen Hawking and athletic prowess. But as I tried to explain what little I knew of Freud and modern psychology, it made me aware that my favorite psychologist may actually be my favorite philosopher.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi popularized the notion of flow - the mental absorption that both makes us the happiest and the most productive. I've found this notion immensely helpful and still see his ideas as a starting point for making daily life happy.

Freud argued that much of our behavior is motivated by subconscious desires that we little understand. For him, sublimination of the sex drive explains the desire to paint, play guitar, or write poetry.

Skinner argued that we do things for hope of reward, or to avoid pain. By controlling rewards and punishment, we can control behavior, this behaviorist argued. Sadly, his philosophy of human behavior is still the most influential in the definition of businesses and schools.

Freud and Skinner's explanations of motivation seem so clumsy, like Rube Goldberg devices. It's hard to believe that Freud and Skinner are completely wrong. Motivations are complex. But these explanations seem more convoluted than complete.

Csikszentmihalyi observed that people engaged in tasks as varied as painting, rock climbing, novel reading, chess playing, and motorcycle riding didn't seem to be subverting sexual impulses into more socially acceptable behavior. Nor did the painters, for instance, seem motivated by the prospect of rewards: by a particular point in their career most had lost illusions about finding fame and fortune. Rather, he learned that the absorption in the task was, itself, the motivation.

We seem to be happiest when we lose self consciousness and are so absorbed in a task that we lose track of time. Additionally, this full engagement in an act that requires our complete attention generally leaves us more able, better equipped to face the next challenge. Flow is a path to development and improvement.

So, what makes Csikszentmihalyi a philosopher? The implications of his psychology suggest a different society. Rather than teach children to learn only as a means to rewards, we would coach children on how to find flow, how to find meaning. That is, we'd coach them in becoming absorbed in tasks that make a difference, that gives the tasks (and by extension their lives) meaning. Rather than focus on outside control - doing what leaders reward - we'd focus on internal control - doing what brings us flow.

This suggests a very different society, a place where the locus of control is with the individual and not outside of the individual in leaders or institutions who control or influence behavior.

Centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote about the pursuit of happiness. The notion that individual happiness might be a valid basis for governance was a revolutionary idea. Csikszentmihalyi has done as much as anyone to help us to better understand happiness. I find it fascinating that fully realizing this happiness ultimately rests on creating a society where the individual is the locus of control over the individual life. As it turns out, happiness and liberty really are intertwined. How we pursue happiness is our philosophy put into action. Offer a new psychology and you have effectively offered a new philosophy.

8 comments:

Dave said...

"We seem to be happiest when we lose self consciousness and are so absorbed in a task that we lose track of time. Additionally, this full engagement in an act that requires our complete attention generally leaves us more able, better equipped to face the next challenge. Flow is a path to development and improvement."

I think this is your best post. If not, it still is for me. I resonated, do people do that, with each paragraph I read. Thanks.

Ron Davison said...

Dave,
thanks for that. I'm always happy to advertise for Csikszentmihalyi's ideas.

ThomasLB said...

I don't have anything to add, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this post. It's one of your best.

So did you help your daughter with her homework, or did she help you with your blog? (I guess it doesn't matter, as long as it made you both happy.)

Chrlane said...

So I checked up on you today after a pleasant week of ignoring you.

Please tell me when you are finished parroting all of my thoughts here, and expounding on them as though I never existed.

Adrian Monck said...

I always think the pursuit of happiness is one of the most malevolent of coinages.

So glad schoolkids are reading Kafka.

Chrlane said...

Shut up.

Ron Davison said...

Thomas,
Thanks. I think my daughter offered me more inspiration than I was able to ofer her.

Chrlane,
I'll try to keep it down.

Adrian,
Thanks for swinging by. I'm with your Richard Layard on this one - it seems to me that its hard to offer a good alternative happiness as a goal for policy.

Chrlane said...

Maybe if you offer what you _have_ to offer, and just be yourself, you'll get farther.