Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's research shows that happiness and feeling the flow state of optimal experience isn’t something that just happens. It’s not random or just “luck”. It’s not passive. It’s an active pursuit.
This desired state is not outside of ourselves, it occurs from within, in how we interpret events, our perceptions, and what we do to create circumstances for optimal experiences. It’s something that we work towards, prepare for and learn to cultivate.
Once this discipline is harnessed, we become more aware of information and opportunities that are congruent with our goals and desires. Energy flows more easily. Each time we achieve an optimal experience, a positive feedback loop is created and it can be more frequent. “The positive feedback strengthens the self, and more attention is freed to deal with the outer and inner environment” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 39). The quality of one’s life inevitably improves. “People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 2).
To overcome external experiences that can produce anxieties and depressions, a person must develop the ability to find enjoyment, meaning and purpose regardless of external circumstances. “…It requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare…achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 16). Actively participating in creating a flow of optimal experience will create a sense of personal power and an ability to enjoy ongoing experiences. We actively construct how we invest our energy. We can’t consciously reach for a state of happiness. Rather it has to be a by-product of the many details of how we are living and what we are giving our attention to.
Csikszentmihalyi (1990) cited Viktor Frankl’s definition from his book Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Don’t aim at success-the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued: it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course great than oneself” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 2). It happens when your busy doing life.
Working towards this inner (optimal) experience requires acceptance of situations and experiences that are beyond our control. Once we chose acceptance, we begin from there. We can choose to use our unique abilities and traits to create an environment that works for us. Happiness and optimal experiences are not a passive act. “The bests 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 that we make happen” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 3). (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 3).
Creating ongoing optimal experiences doesn't start out as a pleasant experience. Getting control of our inner experience and perceptions doesn’t come easily. It requires a consistent effort, an active participation in spending time perfecting a craft, tediously working towards a mindset, goal or activity. “…Optimal experience depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own personal efforts and creativity” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 5). It requires leading a vigorous life, pursuing a variety of interests and continuous learning and striving. It’s about learning to enjoy the journey.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.
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