For many years I have wanted to read the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience but think I have subconsciously put it off because of the author’s unpronounceable name (at least to me) for fear if someone asked me who wrote it I wouldn’t be able to say his name. In case you’re interested his name is Mihaly Csikszentmihali. Hopefully, you now understand my trepidation. Yet, this should never have stopped me as his vast research has shown that happiness is often a byproduct of being in “the flow” which often requires stretching our capabilities by taking on new challenges. He says that “[t]he 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.” I shied away from it and as a result prevented myself from growing more than I could have.
Like many psychologists and wise people over the ages, the author asserts that happiness can never come from external events, but from how we interpret them. He says that “[h]appiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person.” The universe was not created to serve our needs but actually often results in frustrating us if that is what we think it was designed for. If we can accept this important insight then we can go a long way towards controlling the content of our lives and corresponding happiness. As Joseph Campbell said, we must “participate in the sorrows of the world joyfully.”
I remember during the darkest days of the recession when we were faced with some monumental challenges I kept thinking of the Oasis song “All Around the World” and the lyric that Liam Gallagher belts out repeatedly, “These are crazy days, but they make me shine.” That is where I found my flow was fully with me. We were faced with a clear and present danger, plans needed to be devised, resources allocated, performance monitored, and failure was not an option. While those were difficult days, I was able to grow significantly from them and I’m stronger and more capable by having gone through them and so is CWS as a whole.
So how do we cultivate habits that can foster happiness? According to the author, attention is the best tool for us to improve the quality of our experience. Of course, this is easier said than done as often times our disorders such as fear, anger, jealousy, pain, or rage can divert our attention to undesirable objects, thereby resulting in the loss of freedom to direct our attention according to our preferences. Quite simply a new piece of information will either create disorder in our consciousness by agitating us to face the perceived threat or reinforce our goals, which serves to free up psychic energy. The latter is what the author calls optimal experience which results in the present being enjoyable. The heart of the battle is for control over one’s attention and whoever wins the battle, and ultimately the war wins control over the self.
Focusing on pleasure results in only temporary enjoyment because it does not produce psychological growth due to a lack of complexity being added to the self. Enjoyable events come from an individual going beyond what he is programmed to do to achieve something unexpected, or even unimagined before. There is forward movement generated by a sense of novelty or accomplishment. After an enjoyable event, we know we have stretched, grown, and changed to some degree. This can only result from unusual investments of our attention.
Flow and the Elements of Enjoyment
What are the elements of enjoyment? According to the author, there are eight of them.
- Requires tasks we have a reasonable chance of completing.
- We must be able to concentrate on what we’re doing.
- We have clear goals (allows for #2)
- We receive immediate feedback (allows for #2)
- One acts with a deep and effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
- Enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.
- Concern for the self-disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self-emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.
- The sense of time duration is altered. Hours can pass by in minutes and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.
When all is said and done it is critically important to be motivated by intrinsic rewards and challenges versus external ones because dissatisfaction will result if the latter is the focus. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing and focusing on continuous improvement, growth, and challenges versus seeking external recognition or beating someone is not the way to keep on flowing.
I will end this post with an interesting observation that has great application to investing. From an outsider’s perspective, it would appear that certain people are danger seekers. Mountain climbers are a good example. Yet, upon further analysis,
“what is most striking when one actually speaks to specialists in risk, is how their enjoyment derives not from the danger itself, but from their ability to minimize it. So rather than a psychological thrill from courting disaster, the positive emotion they enjoy is the perfectly healthy feeling of being able to potentially control dangerous forces.”
This has such great application to how I feel about investing. While I’m always happy to make money, I derive the most gratification of not falling into some of the same traps others do (often at the same time), thereby avoiding material losses and then allowing us to be in a position to take advantage of the resulting opportunities. That’s why it is very important when evaluating money managers or oneself when it comes to making financial decisions to find people that derive more satisfaction from outperforming during a downturn than doing so in an up cycle. This shows that they put risk management first and if they can manage the downside than the upside should take care of itself.
Over to You:
Look at the eight characteristics of enjoyment above and ask yourself what is it that you do that brings those out in you. Here’s to finding your flow and once you do, keep on flowing.