It’s easy to tell ourselves that if we just had a little bit more money, and little bit nicer house, bought a new car, or went on a vacation, we’d be happy. This seems to make sense, and the marketing we face every day helps to continually assert that it’s true.
Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on your outlook) it’s not.
In his newest book about hope, Mark Manson writes that living well does not mean avoiding suffering; it means suffering for the right reasons. Manson is not the first writer to bring this up, it’s part of a fundamental theme in Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning as well, and surely many others.
Yet it can be a challenge to remember this. It feels counter-intuitive to examine our suffering and look for the meaning – it’s so much easier to go buy a new pair of shoes and surf the internet planning a fancy dinner or an island vacation. (Or maybe that’s just me.)
We can certainly derive some good feelings from material things and experiences for which money is required, don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to tell you that you ought to skip your beach vacation. What I’m saying is that this one guy from Hungary with a really long last name has done actual studies about happiness and found that:
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. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.
He called this experience flow, and you’ve undoubtedly heard of it before. Getting into a flow-state. This is where you are so focused on something that is worthwhile to you, time becomes irrelevant, and you are immersed.
Sports and exercise are particularly conducive to flow states, as are reading, writing, and working on challenging problems of various kinds. All of which, interestingly, tend to also yield suffering.
It’s not something you’d necessarily think of when you’re feeling a little off, right? Oh, I’m feeling slightly less than happy today, let me go and work on some calculus to get my brain into flow and generate some gratification.
Yet this is such a critical part of a satisfying life overall, and sometimes we actually suffer more because this flow is missing. This the story of the person who is working at a job that doesn’t challenge them, or for that matter, the kid in school where the material isn’t interesting. They might have some pleasant times on weekends evenings with family and friends, yet without opportunity to get into flow and experience some meaningful challenge, life is dull and hollow.
When we think about happiness, our tendency is often to look outside of ourselves, and to consider how we are being acted upon by external forces. It’s raining outside, so I’ll get wet if I do my gardening and I don’t like to get wet, therefore I can’t be happy. Joe down the block just bought a Tesla, and I don’t have one and I feel less-than now, so I’m unhappy. If only it was sunny outside, I had a Tesla, my hair looked great, and my kid didn’t whine, I’d be perfectly happy.
We all get into this thinking pattern sometimes. Even those who achieve at a high level in their area of concern, who do get into flow, they still suffer around that flow.
Yet there is meaning to be found there – one suffers in training for a sporting event, in practicing for a presentation, in preparing a landscape to become a garden. It is the purpose which carries us through.
So what gets you into a flow state?