Wow! The meaning and the purpose of life? Was Aristotle exaggerating the importance of happiness? Maybe. But there’s no denying happiness is very, very important. After all, the framers of the Declaration of Independence only listed three unalienable rights: life, liberty, and well . . . the pursuit of happiness.
Everyone wants to be happy. But what exactly is happiness? And where do we find it? Over the past several decades researchers have studied thousands and thousands of subjects from around the world, and have begun to find some answers to these questions.
Basically, what these researchers have found is that we’re the happiest—not when we’re sitting mindlessly in front of the television for hours on end (even when it’s an awesome 60-inch plasma)—but when we’re making mental or physical efforts. Efforts that engage us in challenging activities that require skill. Activities that aren’t too easy, which would get boring, or too hard, which would make us frustrated and cranky. Activities for which we have clear goals and receive clear feedback, so we know how well we’re doing, and those that allow our skills to continue to improve, enabling us to grow as human beings. According to one of the key researchers in the field, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (rhymes with Bsikszentmihalyi), “Contrary to what we usually believe . . . the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable—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.” Difficult and worthwhile. Imagine that.
Why is this true? For one, humans are worriers by nature. If our minds aren’t fully occupied we find endless things to stress about. This trait allowed our early ancestors to anticipate unseen dangers, which helped us survive and become the dominant species on the planet. As far as we know, this trait is unique to us. A well-fed lion sunning himself on the savanna isn’t worried about an argument he just had with his cubs, or that he’s having a bad hair day, or that his cholesterol is too high, or that he hasn’t saved enough money for retirement. A lounging lion is perfectly content. Unfortunately, this is often not the case with human beings.
That’s what makes the activities described above so special. Because during activities such as these, we can achieve a state that Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, a state in which our attention is so utterly absorbed by what we’re doing there is no room in our thoughts for fear and worry. In fact, we forget about ourselves completely—becoming 100% unselfconscious. For once we don’t care about such trifles as how we look or what others think of us. Study the picture on the right. Okay, now try to answer the following question. Is this guy A) worried that someone watching might think his purple pants look silly, B) wondering if he left the stove on, C) stressed out about the state of the economy, or D) totally and absolutely focused on the task at hand (i.e., not plummeting to a horrible death). If you guessed D, congratulations.
So how do you know when you’ve achieved this state of flow? Well, along with being totally unselfconscious, you become so focused on what you’re doing you lose your sense of time. When I’m writing, which I love to do, five hours seems to fly by like five minutes. But when I’m at the dentist and he’s drilling on my teeth, five minutes seems like an eternity.
But you don’t have to risk your life to achieve flow. Any activity that requires energy, can be focused upon, and is challenging can do it. The list of such activities is endless and includes reading, writing, performing, playing sports, learning, playing chess, engaging in stimulating conversation, dancing, and so on. Flow is the opposite of boredom and worry.
But making sure our minds are focused enough that we don’t have room for fear or worry is just one part of the recipe for happiness. The other is growing. Achieving. Feeling a sense of accomplishment. According to Csikszentmihalyi, “Struggling to overcome challenges, and then overcoming them, are what people find to be the most enjoyable times in their lives. People typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.” And even though we aren’t thinking about ourselves at all while engaged in flow-producing activities, when our sense of self returns we realize that we’ve been enriched; that our skills have grown and so has our sense of achievement.
Many of us believe that happiness comes from money, power, material possessions, and pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pleasure, it’s just that we can experience it with little effort, and without any growth in our sense of self. But in study after study, when people think about what really makes their lives rewarding, they report it’s all about facing challenges, overcoming them, and growing as a person.
What about endless vacation time? Who wouldn’t be happy with this? Believe it or not, people report being in flow (and thus happier, more active, and more creative) far more often at work than during their free time, when they aren’t using any skills and often report feeling passive, dull, and dissatisfied. Despite these findings, it will come as no surprise that these same people long for leisure while at work, even when they’re challenged and happy. And what do they long for during their leisure time? You guessed it—more leisure!—even when they’re bored and dissatisfied at the time.
Think about your own life. Are you happier when playing your favorite sport or when watching television? Television in moderation can be a pleasurable part of our lives, but it’s passive—it doesn’t require us to do anything. Its main benefit is that it captures our attention enough that we don’t dwell on our worries and we aren’t entirely bored. Achieving flow on the other hand, by its very definition, requires effort; a requirement that can often make low energy alternatives seem more appealing. But think about it—don’t activities that require effort end up making you happier than couch potato activities? I’ve played tennis all my life, and there are nights I feel sure I can’t possibly pry my carcass from the couch to play a scheduled match, but there has never been a time I wasn’t glad I did. I come back feeling energized and satisfied, far beyond what the couch and television could have offered.
This is the kind of insight that I believe can have a positive impact on all of our lives. When I speak at schools, along with a discussion of my books, I spend considerable time on the subject of happiness. I review the signposts of happiness for my audience and explain how they can achieve this state by reading books, playing chess, performing, taking dance classes, and playing soccer—but not by sitting around staring at the ceiling. Happiness requires effort—but it is well worth it in the end. And the kids get it. They can all remember when they were fully engaged and time seemed to fly, or when they turned off the television to do something active and were glad they did. If all of us could be schooled in these findings, made to understand that effort, rather than passivity, is the true secret to happiness, perhaps there would be fewer people in pursuit of happiness—and more people who actually catch it.
Douglas E. Richards is the author of the The Prometheus Project books, fast-paced science fiction thrillers for kids 9-14 that have been widely praised by both kids and adults. This year, he was invited to be a “special guest” at Comic-Con International, along with such icons as Spider-Man creator Stan Lee. Douglas has also written extensively for National Geographic KIDS and American Fencing magazines. The third book in his Prometheus Project series, Stranded, will be available on July 15, 2010. To learn more about Douglas, please visit www.douglaserichards.com