Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Want To Be Happy? - Finding The Flow

November 8, 1999

Most of us believe that if we only had a little more money, our lives would improve. Is that right?

Not so, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from Claremont Graduate University. His summary of money and happiness appeared in an October 1999 American Psychologist article, "If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy?" For purposes of brevity, I’ll refer to the author as Dr. C.

A study of wealthy individuals in the United States showed their levels of happiness to be just barely above people with average incomes. Despite the doubling of adjusted after tax income in the United States between 1960 and 1990, the percentage of people describing themselves as "very happy," remained unchanged at 30 percent.

People are plagued with addictions, and drugs for falling asleep, waking up, staying slim, and escaping boredom and depression. National statistics show a doubling and tripling of violent crime, family breakdown, and psychosomatic complaints since the 1950s. Dr. C’s research with 1000 American adolescents showed that upper middle class children describe themselves as significantly less happy than teens from the most poor homes.

Why doesn’t money bring happiness? Dr. C. cites four main reasons.

1. When we reach a certain level of affluence, we quickly get used to it and then adjust our goals and expectations upward. Our escalating expectations mean that few people are satisfied with what they possess or with what they achieved. After we reach a certain minimal threshold of stable income, which varies with the society we live in, money becomes irrelevant to happiness.

2. We look around and compare ourselves to those who have the most. This feeling of relative deprivation makes us unhappy. The media sees to it that we are intimately acquainted with the lives of the rich and famous.

3. The amount of time, rather the attention we give over time, and psychic energy spent in pursuing material rewards crowd out other values. Time is the ultimate scarce resource that poses dilemmas for business and professional people trying to sort through the conflicting demands of work and a satisfying family life, intimate friendships, time for reflection and diverse interests.

4. People don’t translate their money into social and emotional benefits. If income and consequently the value of time increases, it becomes less and less "rational" to spend it on playing with one’s child, reading poetry, or attending a family reunion. As money becomes the primary criteria for evaluating success, people are no longer admired for being a saint, a good craftsman, a good parent, a wise person, a brave patriot, or an upright citizen. Eventually people lose their ability to derive pleasure from other sources.

Finding flow, or "going with the flow." Dr. C’s research describes how being engrossed in experiences for their own sake brings pleasure and happiness. These activities are usually creative such as music, sports, games, and religious rituals.

When people are involved in their tasks, they don’t have surplus attention left over to monitor how they are feeling. They are too involved. After the experience is over, they report feeling happy and that their lives have purpose and are meaningful.

This intense experience isn’t just confined to creative endeavors. It can happen with teenagers studying, by reading a good book, by workers who like their jobs, by drivers who enjoy driving, by mothers being absorbed with their child or by a teacher caught up with a teaching moment. A "flow" experience requires skills, concentration, and perseverance.

To go with the flow means to abandon oneself to a situation that feels good, natural and spontaneous. Research also shows that this leads to a pleasurable state. Being busy contributes to happiness.

Dr. C believes the flow experience explains why there are so many routes to happiness. Happiness can come through wealth and power or by giving up wealth and power, by cherishing solitude or by close relationships, by ambition or by contentment, by pursuit of science or through religion. People are happy not because of what they do, but because of how they do it. People can be happy on an assembly line and unhappy lounging at a luxury resort.

His research shows that children from affluent families find it more difficult to be in flow because they are more bored, less involved, less enthusiastic, and less excited. Even though they have more material possessions, they spend less time with parents and do fewer interesting things with them. Teenage trouble comes out of boredom or frustration. They look for flow experiences that are easy, exciting, cheap and transitory such as drugs and alcohol, promiscuous sex, fights, or vandalism.

Activities that count. Flow by itself doesn’t mean a happy life. Dr. C. feels the best activities are those that allow for growth over a lifetime, create new opportunities for action, and stimulate the development of new skills. It is through active and sustained involvement with work, sports, hobbies, spiritual reflection, and interpersonal relationships that we have our best chances for happiness.

Dr. C. believes our obligation to the young is to help them distinguish between activities that bring imaginary happiness and real happiness and to take pleasure in the right things. For adults, the challenge is in being able to resist the blandishments of our culture that encourage us to be passive consumers of products, ideas or mind-altering substances. Happiness that is not earned isn’t happiness. Happiness is not something that happens to us but something we make happen.