Being in a state of flow

Deep Flow

A book I need to read sometime soon is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (that’s sick-cent-mihalie – thanks to Daniel Kahneman for the pronunciation tip). Csikszentmihalyi looks at how time seems to behave differently when we are deeply engaged in what we are doing versus when every second of boredom drags by at the end of a workday. Flow is how he describes the state we are in when we are concentrated and focused, when an hour seems to blink by.

 

It’s the state where we are so engaged with our work that time seems to bend around us. Rather than looking at the clock every few minutes, and rather than experiencing time, we are absorbed by what we are doing, and when we finally pause, we can’t believe how much time has passed. It is a complete feeling of commitment and purpose with what  we are doing, and we all find different ways to be in a state of flow.

 

For me, my morning writing and editing work is a brief flow state. My running is usually a flow state, and sometimes other work that I have ranging from spreadsheets, to building training slides, to report writing can actually be flow work.

 

I know others who find flow from riding motorcycles, drawing, and even from being part of a band. The commonality between everything is a sense of presence and focus specifically on the task, work, or activity of the moment. Flow, in many ways, is the fulfillment we live for, even if it is found in report writing rather than singing in a garage band.

 

Cal Newport highlights this reality in his book Deep Work. He writes, “Most people assumed (and still do) that relaxation makes them happy. We want to work less and spend more time in the hammock. But the results from Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM studies reveal that most people have this wrong.” What we actually want, and what actually brings us the most happiness is being able to be in flow states. Free time and leisure can be meandering, purposeless, and even boring. Work that provides us with flow feels good, even if it is difficult and is still work. I believe this is part of why some people find it hard to retire or stay retired. Unstructured free time doesn’t always give us something that we can be absorbed and engaged in, and we don’t find the same level of happiness as we find when we can tackle a project and get into a state of flow.

 

This suggest that when we are considering our weekend plans, considering our career choices, and considering hobbies, we should be looking for things that provide flow states. We should find ways to set up a space and environment where we can focus deeply on a specific task, and find our flow. Rather than only chasing promotions and money, we should consider whether a new job or promotion will provide more or less flow time. Rather than seeking a beach retirement, we should seek a retirement that opens more flow opportunities. We will be focused, engaged, and find more fulfillment in both work and retirement if we can ensure we have an opportunity for focused flow.

Build Relationships by Thinking of Others First

I have noticed in my own life that I become upset, frustrated, and anxious when I think first and foremost about my wants. Despite having a house, being in a good marriage, and being fit from getting to do a lot of running, I am always able to see more in my life that I want (or to see things in my life that I don’t want). I have noticed that I can become fixated on these likes or dislikes to the point where I cannot appreciate what I have. I start to look at what I have accomplished and rationalize why the things I want should fall into my lap, and why I should never have to deal with the things I don’t want.

 

This is not a helpful nor healthy way to view the world, and especially when it comes to our relationships, this can be a harmful way of thinking. When I fixate on my own wants I forget the value of the people in my life. Others become tools, objects to be used to obtain what it is I want, or to take on the burden of things that I do not want. For a person feeling discontent, this is the exact opposite way to view relationships in order to find a sense of stillness and happiness.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Let’s cease thinking of our accomplishments, our wants. Let’s try to figure out the other person’s good points. Then forget flattery. Give honest, sincere appreciation.”

 

An interesting reality about humans is that our lives become more fulfilling and meaningful when we do things for others. It is not accomplishing things, it is not gaining more material possessions, and it is not obtaining fame which makes us the most happy. It is cultivating deep relationships and finding ways to help serve others which gives us the sense of contentedness that we seek.

 

Carnegie’s quote captures that essence. Focusing inward on our own desires and justifying the things we want and the possessions we have based on our achievements leaves us feeling hollow, and leaves us always desiring more. It pushes us to use people as means to our selfish ends. However, if we can turn this thinking around, we can see other people as valuable in their own right, and we can develop meaningful relationships with them. We can appreciate people for the things they do and find ways to be helpful to them, and this mindset will ultimately make us more fulfilled than a mindset focused on getting purely what we want out of life.

When Are We Happy?

“During any given day people are typically least happy while commuting and most happy while canoodling,” writes Dan Pink in his book When. I currently have a long commute, and I have found that a long drive makes me more irritable, makes me feel more rushed in general, and really does lower the quality of my day. I’m working to make changes so that my commute is reduced, and it has me thinking about how I spend my time in general.

 

I like to be busy and active, but often end up working on things individually. I spend a good amount of time listening to podcasts by myself while doing dishes, cleaning my car, and putting away laundry. These things beat TV, but still don’t bring me a lot of deep value.

 

As Pink’s quote above suggests, we are more happy when doing things with other people. We like to do social things, to interact with friends and family, and to be around others. The time when we are by ourselves – isolated from the world, not engaging in deep ways with other people – is when we are at our lowest. In our daily lives we should consider what we are doing in isolation and what we are doing as a social group, and shift toward the latter.

 

I remember hearing Tyler Cowen on a podcast say that joining a social group that meets once a month is equivalent in terms of happiness production as doubling one’s income. If this is accurate, then we should shift our jobs so that we don’t take careers (or stay in careers) where we are pushed toward isolation (in terms of commute or other factors) and ultimately have our time wasted instead. We should try to find ways to open more time for ourselves, and then we should try to fill that time by participating in social endeavors. If Cowen is correct, starting new clubs and participating in groups will not just increase our happiness, but the happiness of others who can join in.

 

We shouldn’t necessarily just pursue a life of continuous canoodling, but we can pursue a life of real world connections by limiting our isolationism. It is hard, especially if one lives in a sprawling suburb, to maintain good connections, but by being intentional about our time and lifestyle, we can slowly shift ourselves back to a more communal lifestyle. Some of us are lucky enough to decide we don’t want to keep the job that forces us into a miserable commute, and some of us are lucky enough to be able to move to different cities or parts of town where the traffic isn’t so bad. The research from Pink on happiness, and Cowen’s thoughts on social connection suggest that a cut in pay may make us much more happy if it frees our time and allows us to connect with others. Prioritizing social connections over cash might be the best thing for our happiness.

Helping Others and Getting Beyond Selfishness

The selfish mind wants everything for itself. It pursues pleasures, seeks more material goods, more food, more attention, and more recognition for its own gain. Happiness, the selfish mind tells itself, is having more and enjoying more. Easy leisure is the number one desire, especially when combined with plush and fancy material possessions that signal our success and value to others.

 

The selfish mind errors. Happiness and real pleasure do not come from simple material possessions. Happiness comes from our interactions with others, particularly when we do something for others that makes them better off, not when we do something that only makes ourselves better off.

 

Seneca recognized this in Rome during the first century. In Letters from a Stoic he writes, “Happy is he man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts!”

 

We are social creatures who evolved and grew to take over the planet in groups. We started out in small social tribes, and from there have built massive metropolises. We survive and are dominant because of our social nature, and within that social nature we have evolved to be altruistic toward at least our closest family members and friends. Individually we are vulnerable and limited, but when we come together, we can quite literally move mountains.

 

Cultures across the planet vary in the degree to which they recognize the importance of our social connectedness. Some cultures hold self sacrifices for the greater good at the heart of society, and some cultures hold the family unit as central, while only really recognizing social cohesion on special holidays. Nevertheless, anyplace we look we can see that selfish accumulation does not lead to happiness the way that helping others does.

 

It is interesting that we can derive so much happiness from helping other people and trying to be a role model and someone that brings out the best in others. We seem to get a stronger, more deep, and more lasting sense of happiness and accomplishment when we know that we are doing something meaningful for other people rather than when we just pursue our own self-interest. For two thousand years, and surely before Seneca wrote them down, his words have remained true, and we would benefit in the United States if we remembered to do as much for others as we try to do for ourselves.

On Our Relationship With Things

I have written quite a bit about minimalism in the way that The Minimalists approach the idea of having less stuff. The more things you have, the more time you have to spend organizing, maintaining, and working with your stuff. It takes time to earn enough money to make purchases, to afford the storage space for items, and to fix parts of things that break, or to keep them clean and up to date. Once we have lots of things, we have to think about where we are going put them, we have to move them around if we need something else at any given time, and we need to pack them up and move them if we ever need to move where we live in the future, and we may have to pay to have someone else store them for us.

 

Despite the difficulties that can come from having lots of stuff, it is hard to get out of the mindset that says you should buy more things and always try to acquire bigger and better things. Sometimes, we need some clear thinking to help us remember what is important and what is not when it comes to our stuff. Seneca writes, “understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold. Despise everything that useless toil creates as an ornament and an object of beauty. And reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.”

 

In Seneca’s quote we find the idea that what makes us great people, what makes us interesting, and what drives us in interesting and meaningful ways comes from within us. It is our mindset, our worldview, and our goals that determine what value we see and pursue in the world. Effort to obtain lots of things and to have impressive shiny stuff for showing off amount to nothing more than useless toil. The time we spend working so that we can have the bigger and better thing is time that is effectively wasted.

 

The more we feel compelled to have a newer and more expensive car, the more we feel we need a bigger house which will bring a bigger mortgage payment, and the more we feel that we need expensive things in general, the more we will have to work and potentially spend our time doing things we don’t enjoy. We make a trade off, our time (and sometimes our well being, stress, anxiety, and healthy) in exchange for a thing that we think will make us impressive. Sometimes we obtain so many of those things that we end up in a continual cycle of anxiety and stress from the work that we take something more important away from our lives. We risk a point where the things we own occupy all our mental energy and it is fair to question whether we own our stuff or whether it owns us. We may find that life can be more simple and all our needs can be provided without the material possessions we seek, which gives us back time and energy to focus on things that we enjoy and that interest us.

Getting Beyond Economic Success

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be author Colin Wright examines the way we think about and operate as a society around money. He suggests that money has grown in importance and engulfed every aspect and function of our lives in ways that are damaging but often hidden from us. He writes, “As we grow into adults who care about things like self-actualization and happiness defined in ways other than the color-within-the-lines manuals we’ve been provided, we still often limit ourselves to defining happiness in economic terms. If I can make this much money each month, I can leave this soul-sucking job I hate. If I can reduce my expenses, I won’t need to work so much and can free up time to spend on that hobby I’ve been neglecting. If I invest properly now, I may be able to not work at all at some point in the distant future.”

 

Wright argues that money has become our default measurement of success and happiness.  The idea that we can be both happy or successful without large amounts of money does not align with the ways we actually live our lives. We see the story of people getting away from this mode of thinking in movies all the time, but we rarely live our lives with something other than money at the center of all that we do. As a result, our goals, daily routines, and attention are all focused on helping us make more money or use our money.

 

Money itself will not make us happy, but it does provide us with new opportunities. I recently listened (I think to an episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast but I can’t remember) to an economist suggest that money does not make us more happy above a certain level, but that our level of life satisfaction does continue to increase as we have more money. Our overall happiness may not continue to increase as we have more money, but having more money seems to open up new possibilities in our lives and give us more ability to engage in the world in a satisfying manner.

 

A question we should think about, is whether there is a way to change how we approach life so that we can have a high level of satisfaction without needing ever more money. Does our satisfaction come from distinguishing ourselves from others by purchasing court side tickets to the game? Do we get satisfaction from displaying our status with a large RV? Is our satisfaction contingent upon fancy trips and traveling to exotic places? I don’t know if there is specific research around this idea, but perhaps we can shift what we use on an individual level as our default for success away from money and begin to find more satisfaction in our lives in things that are more meaningful than purchasing expensive and fancy items that show off to our Facebook friends and broadcast our status. Exactly what the alternate version of success will be for us will likely vary from person to person, but it will probably favor relationships and connections with others over material possessions and purchases.

Continuing on The One

In my previous post I wrote about the common story we tell ourselves about romantic relationships and marriages that focuses on a single person fulfilling us and make us happy. Author Colin Wright calls this idea the Policy of The One in his book, Some Thoughts on Relationships. Wright thinks the idea is not just wrong, but it is potentially harmful for how we view ourselves in the world, and how we view ourselves in relationships. A better approach, he suggests, is to recognize that we are full people on our own and that we have choice in relationships and can rationally structure our relationships rather than simply hoping to find someone who is a magical fit. In his book he writes, “You are The One. You are the only person in the world who can complete and fulfill you, and ensure your happiness. You are born complete, you die complete, and you decide whom you spend your time with between.”

I am particularly fond of Wrights quote because it reflects what I have seen in successful relationships personally and in those around me. It is great to be in a dependable marriage where you have another person who can provide love, support, and stability, but Wright (and I) would argue that you cannot reciprocate those qualities without first being comfortable and confident in yourself, in knowing that you are a complete human being. Understanding yourself and knowing who you are on your own will make you a better partner in any relationship. Not understanding yourself and not being complete on your own makes it hard for you to truly be honest and connect with another person.

This is where Wright argues that the policy of The One breaks down in an unfavorable way. Believing that you are not complete on your own or without another person in some ways limits your ability to be your true self. Failing to be your true self takes away from what you can provide to another person in not just a romantic relationship but in any relationship. This view limits your possibilities and can lead to poor decisions in relationships as you begin to think out of fear and not out of confidence.

Self reflection can help us see who we are, and understanding that relationships can help us grow, adopt new perspectives, and learn more about ourselves should encourage us to seek strong relationships with others. But seeking out relationships to fulfill ourselves or to make ourselves whole takes away from who we are, and limits what we can be in a relationship. Assuming we are not whole without another person means that we cannot learn, grow, and adjust, in relationships, and that we are dependent on another person to fulfill ourselves and our potential on this planet. Turning this perspective around we can see that on our own we can be complete, and that in relationships we can find new areas of growth to be more for ourselves and for those around us.

Understanding Yourself

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor during the years 161 to 180, kept a journal that he continually returned to with all of his thoughts and values. His journal was published after his death as a collection called Meditations, and in his journal he makes constant references to the importance of self-control, self-reflection, and rational thought.  He combines these ideas with social challenges and presents a view of he world that resonates with people to this day.  Regarding how we should think about ourselves relative to others and how we should think about our own joy Aurelius wrote the following.

 

“He who loves fame considers another man’s activity to be his own good; and he who loves pleasure, his own sensations; but he who has understanding, considers his own acts to be his own good.”

 

Aurelius constantly focuses on the idea that we are independent from the actions, thoughts, and judgements of those around us. In his mind we may all be connected, but we choose how to allow others to move and shape our lives.  It is the way that we decide to think about the world and interpret the actions of others that determines how the actions of those around us impact us.

 

In the first part of the quote Aurelius is showing that those who desire fame and popularity depend on the thoughts of other people to find their happiness. To them, their own thoughts about themselves matter less than the thoughts that other people have of them.
In the second part, the Emperor explains that people who live for nothing other than their own pleasure have submitted their own independence to material things or physical pleasures. Their enjoyment and life’s meaning comes from what they can obtain as opposed to a recognition of who they are.  They have made the world around them more important than themselves, and their value and happiness is based not on the person who they are, but on the items in their lives that make them happy.

 

Lastly, Aurelius argues that those who bring rational thought into all aspects of their lives are the most fulfilled. Since we all determine through out own thoughts what is good in our lives and what is bad, what is going to help us and what will harm us, and what is important and what is not, we have the power to determine how we see the world.  The people who base their lives on rational thought are able to reflect on what happens around them and rely on their own decisions and actions to find happiness. They may find some level of fame and material well being, but rather than finding inspiration in things and popularity, they are inspired and moved by the things that they can do to better themselves and others.  They are not dependent on others for their own happiness because they understand who they are, and have an ability to determine how they react to the world around them.

All of Our Stuff

The Most Good You Can Do is a book written by Peter Singer about a philosophy known as effective altruism.  Those who follow the philosophy are characterized by making large donations and directing greater than 10% of their income to charities and organizations that make meaningful changes in the lives of those who are the most disadvantaged.  Effective altruists are focused on making sure that the good they do by making financial donations is maximized. In this pursuit, they look for new ways to save their money for donations, and for charities that direct almost 100% of the donations they receive toward their cause as opposed to administration, fundraising, or lobbying.

 

Singer argues that more Americans should move toward the lifestyle of effective altruism even though it would mean we would have more people moving away from the standard focus of capitalism which is buying more goods with the money we have for our own happiness.  Throughout his book he shares the stories of effective altruists who make large scale donations despite having modest or average incomes.  He shows that a life focused on helping others builds a sense of purpose that is greater than the joy we receive by owning things.  He advocates that Americans should better budget their money and make more stringent decisions about what they choose to purchase if they want to live happier and more fulfilling lives.

 

“An in-depth study of thirty-two families in Los Angeles found that three-quarters of them could not park their cars in their garages because the garages were too full of stuff. The volume of possessions was so great that managing them elevated levels of stress hormones in mothers.  Despite the fact that the growth in size of the typical American home means that americans today have three times the amount of space, per person, that they had in 1950, they still pay a total of $22 billion a year to rent extra storage space.”

 

Singer uses this example to show that our spending and purchasing is getting in the way of our true happiness.  By having so much stuff we are building more stress in our lives, and repurposing space to better accommodate all of our possessions. Rather than enjoying our space and having leisure time, many Americans are crammed into cluttered spaces and must spend a large amount of time organizing, cleaning, and managing their stuff.

 

“Perhaps we imagine that money is important to our well-being because we need money to buy consumer goods, and buying things has become an obsession that beckons us away from what really advances our well-being.” Singer writes this passage to explain that our purchasing power and habits have not helped us have richer lives, even though our lifestyles may be richer.  What he would advocate for, I believe, is a better use of our financial resources, stricter uses of our money, and a refocused interest in helping others.

Sacrifices: Money & Well-being

Peter Singer provides us with an alternative way of looking at money and the sacrifices we make in his book The Most Good We Can Do. He suggests that we change the way we look at money and begin to better understand our relationships with money.  Ultimately, what is suggested is that we begin to devalue money and it’s importance in our lives relative to other finite resources that we may give up in exchange for the opportunity or the ability to make more money. Singer writes,

 

“Money, however, is not an intrinsic good. Rather than saying that something is a sacrifice if it will cause you to have less money, it would be more reasonable to say that something is a sacrifice if it causes you to have a lower level of well-being, or in a word, be less happy.”

 

What he first establishes in his quote is the idea that money is not a given and set construct of the human experience. It is a social measurement used to organize people into an economic system, and it is a byproduct of many social factors including, hard work, luck, creativity, and progress.  Singer explains money as something separate from our own happiness and our true experience. This has the effect of moving money to a secondary tier in our lives rather than a primary goal.  By seeking out a lifestyle that provides us with more well-being, flexibility, and happiness, as Singer’s quote suggests, we can adopt a lifestyle where our money is a secondary goal that follows in line with our efforts.

 

His quote does not seem to suggest that money is not important or that we should adopt vagabond lifestyles that don’t require us to work or earn money, but it simply makes money less of an important factor.  If we focus on what will help us be more happy we can move in a direction that may not be as lucrative in the long run, but may provide us with greater flexibility and comfort, which will have a positive impact on our well-being and that of our families.  He is almost suggesting a direct approach to well-being with an oblique approach to wealth building, which is more or less the opposite of the way most of us think. We often set out on a direct path to earn more and make more, which we believe will make us happier. Happiness is sought after in an oblique manner because our primary goals are greater wealth and greater consumerism with the hopes of building happiness. Singer would argue that we should seek well-being and understand sacrifices in terms of values outside of money to reach a lifestyle that is comfortable and productive. In this view, once we reach that level, the money will suffice and our lives will be more enjoyable and based around things that add more value to our lives than stress.