A Trio of Happiness

Without setting out to do so, I have recently finished my third book in a row which dealt with the subject of happiness. Each one targeted the subject from a completely different angle, and any of them would be on my “highly recommend” list.

The first aimed at the subject by answering the question “What is the fundamental psychological foundation of happiness?”

FLOW by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Of all the books I have ever read on the subject of self help/psychology/and man’s spirit, nothing has impressed me more nor made such original insights into my own understanding of myself as this. It referenced, more than once, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which was a book that started me on a more spiritual way of living in my twenties. Since reading “Flow,” I had the experience of reading a wonderful new book, “Emotional Equations,” which references not only that book but “Flow” a number of times. Someone is guiding my reading list!

But “Flow” is not your usual self help book, and the author does not wish you to construe it as such. It is a book on human psychology, and specifically the psychology of happiness. I do not intend to broach all the subjects that Mihaly brings up in his book but I hope what I’ve written below may peak your interest.

First, What is Flow?

Flow is a state of mind, which he calls “optimal experience,” where a person is completely immersed in their current activity; their concentration is focused on something narrowly requiring their attention. They may lose track of time, lose a sense of self consciousness (even bodily needs),  and feel a strong sense of control over their situation. They are living completely in the present moment and feeling a strong sense of contentment and purpose.

A state of Flow requires at least the following:

1. There are clear goals and some level of rules which govern the activity. This keeps a person well directed and feeling little confusion as they proceed.

2. There must be a good balance between a person’s perceived skill level and the perceived challenges of the activity. If for example. If one is learning tennis and is playing with a pro, neither person is likely to feel flow; the beginner is overwhelmed and discouraged and the pro is bored. As one proceeds in the activity over time, and the skill level increases, the challenge must also increase.

3. There has to be feedback that is constant and clear. A person must be able to judge how they are doing. Without it, there is no way to adjust their behavior and increase their skill. To use the above example again, when learning tennis there is obvious feedback: did the ball go over the net and land in the proper place? How does the ball react to the different levels of force I put on the racket? How is my current level of physical fitness?

While different people may glean different bits of wisdom from this book, here is one that struck me when reading it and that has remained with me since:

The author makes a difference between what he calls “pleasurable” and “enjoyable” activities. While this choice of words seems a bit arbitrary to me (close in normal meaning), the conceptual difference he describes is profound.

“Pleasurable” activities are those that attempt to meet biological or “socially conditioned” needs. These are things like eating when one is hungry, sleeping when one is tired, drinking alcohol or relaxing in front of the TV set when one is stressed,  even drinking water when one is thirsty, and engaging in sex when one’s libido revs up.  In each of  these activities the body expresses a need which we then attempt to fulfill. There is nothing wrong with this and it keeps the body in a state of homeostasis (unchanging internal conditions) where it can continue to function normally. A homeostatic state, though, is one in which conditions remain the same. There is neither degeneration nor growth. A person who engages in only pleasurable activities (in extreme cases often called a hedonist) will eventually stagnate in their personal growth.

“Enjoyable” activities on the other hand, require some sort of challenge to the person’s skill set and generally follow the parameters set in the requirements for “flow” explained above.  There is a sense of accomplishment and the self grows in complexity. To quote the author in one of my favorite passages: “Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration  refers to its opposite: a union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond the self.  A complex self is one that succeeds in combining these opposite tendencies…flow helps the process of differentiation…but without integration, a differentiated system would be a confusing mess”.

Emotional Equations by Chip Conley

This book was not strictly about “happiness;” it was a new way of analyzing the full spectrum of human emotions. It employed math equations, as the title suggests, to think about the relationship we have between emotions and aspects of human experience. It is subtitled “Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success,” so I guess happiness is indeed one of his aims.  It also referenced “Man’s Search for Meaning” and “Flow” liberally, which for me, is a good sign. Here are the equations he analyzes in his book and separates by chapter:

Despair = Suffering – Meaning

Disappointment = Expectation – Reality

Regret = Disappointment + Responsibility

Jealousy = Mistrust/Self-Esteem

Envy = (Pride + Vanity)/Kindness

Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness

Calling = Pleasure/Pain

Workaholism = What You Are Running From/What Are You Living For?

Flow = Skill/Challenge

Curiosity = Wonder + Awe

Authenticity = Self Awareness x Courage

Narcissism = (Self-Esteem)^2 x Entitlement

Integrity = Authenticity x Invisibility x Reliability

Happiness = Wanting What You Have/Having What You Want

Joy = Love – Fear

Thriving = Frequency of Positive/Frequency of Negative

Faith = Belief/Intellect

Wisdom = (Experience)^(1/2)

As a reader of this blog might suspect, my favorite chapter was on Curiosity, but I’m prejudiced. The entire book is very accessible, told in an anecdotal way, as if the author was speaking directly to you, and math phobic people need not fear. Actually, being the geek I am, I was a little dispappointed to see some of the equations did not hold up under algebraic scrutiny. In any event he will have you thinking about these relationships in your own life, and he encourages you to make up your own emotional equations and share them on his website: http://emotionalequations.com/ where you can even read a chapter.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin had it all…a great husband and two healthy vital girls, financial security, had worked for the Supreme Court, and more…yet she wondered why she didn’t feel more happy. Was this it? Was she doing something wrong? So she decided to take an entire year and find  out.

As the title implies, this is not just a book, it is a project. And like Emotional Equations, Gretchen Rubin applies a gimmick, except that the gimmick is not used  to just write a book, but how to live her life for an entire year. She researched and planned (something she obviously loves to do) for six months, and then began on January 1 to study, and practice, happiness from different aspects during each of the following twelve months. Here’s how her year was laid out:

  • January: Vitality–Boost Energy
  • February: Marriage–Remember Love
  • March: Work–Aim Higher
  • April: Parenthood–Lighten Up
  • May: Leisure–Be Serious About Play
  • June: Friendship–Make Time for Friends
  • July: Money–Buy Some Happiness
  • August: Eternity–Contemplate the Heavens
  • September: Books–Pursue a Passion
  • October: Mindfulness–Pay Attention
  • November: Attitude–Keep a Contented Heart
  • December: Happiness–Boot Camp Perfect

As she tackles each month, I was amazed at the gumption with which she threw herself into her task. Resolutions and lists were made galore, books were read and thousands of quotes were studied, all to be practically applied to her busy life. She seemed to only get deeper and more resolute as she went along and I especially like the last six months, with October being my favorite.

A reader will get the most from this book if they use it as a manual for their own “happiness project,” which she heartily encourages. She advocates setting aside time to plan your own project too, for no one’s should look exactly alike. To this end she has created a website: http://happiness-project.com/  I have begun to participate in this site myself. There is such a treasure trove of happiness information there that almost anyone could find perusing her site interesting and useful.

Gretchen Rubin is obviously someone who has found a passion and calling, and her increasing fame in both the book and blog world, shows what can happen if you follow yours.

Posted on April 21, 2012, in Book Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Flow is precisely what I feel when I am doing my art. It is a feeling of such utter and complete giving myself up to what I am doing. The old me would have not even attempted to do any sort of painting, I didn’t take any art classes in school because I felt I had no talent. Now, I get completely lost in the act of creating. The colors flow and I just guide them to where I think they might want to be. I don’t think of mistakes, there are none. Everything moves together, hands, mind, emotions, all focused on moving those colors around. It is more than enjoyable, I am mesmerized and in a world of one. And, not once do I chastize myself for not doing something else. I don’t even think of the “somethings”. It’s pure joy.

  2. “proyecto de la felicidad” I love it, now, I am reading this book, in english of course, I am at the first chapter and full in love with this idea, actually this quote for me is a must: “how happy I used to be then, if only I´d realized it”

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