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  • Bill Petrie

What Makes You Happy? Exploring Pleasure and Flow

Numerous thought leaders ranging from Aristotle to the Dalai Lama agree that happiness is the main aim of life but what exactly is happiness?

Here are two aspects of this elusive phenomenon:

1. The Pursuit of Pleasure

At the most primitive level, happiness is the sense of pleasure that we feel:

  • When we achieve something we’d aimed for

  • When we eat our favourite food

  • When we have fun

  • When we’re delighted by something new

  • When we laugh with a deep belly laugh

  • When we listen to music that puts us in a great mood

  • When we spend time with someone we love

  • When we make love

This kind of happiness is a hormonal high and it works for a bit but, as with all highs, if we go up we have to come down. We eat a delicious meal and, an hour later, the pleasure has subsided. We buy a new car – a car that we really love. Three months later, it’s just the car. We have a great night out and, the next day, it’s back to work.

So, surely the solution is to have as many pleasurable experiences as possible? The interesting answer from numerous careful psychological studies is that: “increasing the number of bursts of momentary positive feelings will not increase your level of enduring happiness.” That is not to say that we shouldn’t have pleasurable experiences. They add colour to our lives. But, if we try to build enduring happiness on this basis, we’re doomed to fail.

2. Engagement and Flow

If we look a little deeper, we will find that a more profound sort of happiness comes from being utterly engaged in life. When we are fully engaged, we have the possibility of getting into what an American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, called a state of ‘flow.’Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high) realized that flow has several components:

  • Flow describes those experiences in which we are so engaged – so caught by the present moment – that we are unaware of ourselves. We all know this experience. We all get totally engrossed in activities from time to time. Time seems to stop and all that is happening is the process that we’re involved in.

  • Now, when you are in flow, you are not only engaged in an activity that is engrossing, you are also being challenged to the right degree. In some way the activity is stretching you. If you are rock-climbing, for example, and finding yourself in flow, that means that you are climbing a gradient that has the right level of challenge for you. Too much challenge and you will be anxious. Too little, and you will be bored.

  • All flow activities are intrinsically rewarding. People do or would do them just for the sake of doing them. Interestingly, though, flow experiences are not necessarily pleasurable. Csikszentmihalyi’s original study group were artists would often be so absorbed in painting, that they would ignore hunger and fatigue. Michelangelo is a famous example of this. This happens not only to artists but to all of us. Most of us, for example, know the deep satisfaction of engagement in a physical challenge that is tough. It may be painful but it can be deeply rewarding.

  • With flow experiences, it is the process itself – not the goal – that is intrinsically rewarding. With artists, for example, Csikszentmihalyi noticed that, when they were finished painting, they would typically lose interest in the work. So, flow is utterly different from being goal-driven – meeting deadlines, getting that report out, and so on. Flow experiences are taken up because of their intrinsic worth.

So, flow experiences are deeply engaging experiences in which we are focused, present, stretched and in which we lose ourselves and Csikszentmihalyi argues that flow is the secret to a happy life. There is perhaps more to it than this but it’s certainly true to say that, the more we experience flow in our lives, the happier we will be. Flow encourages us to be involved in work and the rest of life (rather than alienated from it), to enjoy activities as much as we can (rather than being afraid or getting bored), to have a sense of control (rather than of being overwhelmed), and to feel a strong sense of self (rather than a sense of unworthiness).

So, ask yourself:

• What have been experiences that have taken you into a state of flow?

• What are important flow experiences for you in your present life?

• What can you do to increase the time you spend in flow?

Incidentally, one of the factors that dramatically increases our ability to be in flow is regular meditation. Meditation helps us to focus on the present, enables us to take our attention off the end goal and helps us to put our attention on the task at hand. All of these factors are vital components of flow. Numerous research studies have shown that meditation significantly increases our ability to be happy.

There are other aspects to happiness including the pursuit of meaning, a sense of moral fulfillment, and a transcendent happiness - all to be written about in future blogs.

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