Science Articles

Don't Worry, be Happy!

Tue, 29th Dec 2009

The Science of Happiness

Douglas Richards

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. — Aristotle

...life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. — Unalienable Rights Listed in the US Declaration of Independence

While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal — health, beauty, money, or power — is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy. — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [Rhymes with Dsikszentmihalyi]

Okay! We get it. Happiness is important. But what exactly is happiness? And how would we know where to even look for it? Does money make one happy? Not necessarily. There are plenty of miserable millionaires. In my own case I have often found an inverse correlation between my happiness and the state of my wealth. TrampoliningWhen I had nothing, I had few responsibilities and wasn’t in constant fear of a falling stock market. I lived in an apartment at which the landlord fixed broken appliances and mowed the lawn. Life was great.

But if money isn’t the key to true happiness, what is?

In 1990, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“MC”), then Chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago (a school I graduated from the year before), came out with a book entitled, “Flow: the psychology of optimal experience.” MC was a pioneer in developing the science of happiness, and this book is a great place to start looking for answers. MC and numerous others have expanded this field over decades, studying thousands and thousands of subjects around the world. And, like the study of human facial expressions, their findings seem to be universally applicable across every culture they have yet examined.

Basically, what MC and others have found is that people are the happiest — not when they’re sitting mindlessly in front of the television for hours on end (even when it’s a 60-inch plasma set) — but when they’re making mental or physical efforts that engage them in a challenging activity that requires skill. An activity that isn’t too easy (which would get boring) or too difficult (which would cause anxiety and frustration). An activity for which you have clear goals and receive clear feedback, and one for which your skills can continue to improve, allowing you to grow as a person. According to MC, “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.”

During activities such as these, you achieve a state of what MC calls “flow”, a state in which your attention is so totally absorbed by what you’re doing there is no room in your consciousness for fear or worry. In fact, you become completely unselfconscious; for once not caring about such trifles as your appearance or what others think of you. Your hair could be standing on end as though you’d just stuck your fingers in power socket but you’re far too engrossed to notice — or care. You’re so focused on the task at hand that you even lose your sense of time. For example, when I’m writing, which I love to do, five hours can fly by like five minutes. On the other hand, when I’m with my wife while she’s shopping for shoes, five minutes can seem like an eternity. In the words of MC, “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 while it is true that we relinquish our sense of self 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.

Any activity that requires energy, can be focused upon, and is challenging can create flow. 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. Let’s use tennis as a specific example. It is challenging, but not impossible, offers clear goals, immediate feedback and the chance to improve. While playing you can feel good about your mastery of the game, and you’re so absorbed you have no time to worry about your mother-in-law’s upcoming visit, your high cholesterol, or the ex-inmate named Slasher who’s dating your daughter. Surgeons are in flow during surgery and shop keeps are in flow when they are artfully closing a sale. In many ways, flow is the opposite of boredom and anxiety.

Although these findings now seem obvious to me, when I first learned of them they came as a bit of an epiphany. Like most people in our society, I had thought the secret to happiness involved great food, wine, sex, cars and gadgets; that the fastest way to happiness was the maximization of status, wealth, and pleasure. And while pleasure is undeniably something to be valued, research has shown that equating pleasure with happiness is a fallacy. Pleasure can be experienced with little effort on our parts, and does not result in any growth in our sense of self. But in study after study, when people contemplate what really makes their lives rewarding, they report it is the process of making focused efforts; efforts that add complexity to the self and lead to psychological growth. In short, our greatest enjoyment and satisfaction comes from a sense of accomplishment. A New York Times review of “Flow” summed it up best, “The way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful challenge.”

So if the above are signposts for happiness, what are the signposts of the opposite condition? After all, Dancingunhappiness is on the rise. The average person today lives better in many ways than the kings of old, given the availability of air-conditioning, nearly unlimited entertainment and food choices, hot showers, speedy transportation, undreamed of methods of communication, and so on. Despite this vast increase in comforts, many of us lead lives of anxiety and frequent depression. “With affluence and power come escalating expectations,” writes MC. “And as our level of wealth and comforts keep increasing, the sense of well-being we hoped to achieve keeps receding into the distance. There is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present. When that happens they forfeit their chance of contentment.” Activities that are truly enjoyable are those that we do for their own sake; because they are intrinsically, not extrinsically, rewarding. Unfortunately, striving for the trappings of success can cause us to turn solely to extrinsically rewarding activities at the expense of those with a far greater ability to foster joy within us, causing us to completely miss thousands of potentially fulfilling experiences. According to MC, the best way to avoid this is to learn how to “find rewards in the events of each moment . . . to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself.”

I would argue that given how vitally important the quest for happiness is to all of us, this is a subject that we, as a society, should be introducing to our children at a young age (perhaps 5th or 6th grade). Surely schools can spare a few hours to make our kids aware of concepts that could have a profound impact on their lives. And a general knowledge of the subjects of flow and happiness among our educators might lead them to consider curricula and homework in a different light, improving how both are handled, how both can be modified to enhance their potential to create flow in students. Before they reach school age, our children are little sponges, soaking in information at a fantastic rate. Their delight as they learn an entire language from scratch is clear to see, as are their expressions of joy whenever they master new skills or knowledge. But as we all know about human nature, when an activity is imposed externally we often rebel against it. Kids will happily pore over a book of puzzles for hours in rapt attention, but label these same puzzles “homework” and what could have been joy can transform into drudgery.

Those of you Fencingreading this article are (hopefully) enjoying it, but would this enjoyment be diminished if your boss forced you to do so? Probably so. People report being in flow (and thus happier, more active, more creative and more satisfied) far more often at work — even those on assembly lines — 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. In this same way, I’m convinced that most kids are happier, on average, during the school year — constantly surrounded by friends in a structured, challenging environment — than during the summer, when they often whine of being bored. Yet many of these same kids wish their summer break would never end; that school would never begin. Perhaps members of a society schooled in the science of happiness and alerted to this phenomenon would be better able to embrace the challenging, flow-producing activities encountered at work or school, even when these activities have been selected by others.

Teaching even the rudiments of the science of flow might encourage kids to be introspective; to consider if they are happier when mindfully challenged than when watching television. This is not to say that television and other entertainment can’t be worthwhile, or that a certain amount of time relaxing in front of the television can’t be an important, pleasurable part of our lives. But television is a low energy, passive medium, whose main benefit stems from occupying our consciousness enough that we don’t dwell on our anxieties 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 by teaching our kids about happiness, perhaps we can help them recognize that the exertion of energy required to read or write or play sports, rather than sit in front of the TV, offers disproportionate rewards. 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 sort of insight we may be able to help our kids achieve.

Many of today’s kids are pampered, praised, and made to believe that the universe revolves around them — that their happiness is the ultimate priority — without having any understanding of the true nature of happiness. To them, happiness is about leisure, and pleasure, and the minimization of effort, when the truth is that working hard, finding ways to bring flow to this work, learning, perfecting skills, growing and achieving are far better avenues to happiness than endless free time.

My friends in the business world have reported that many of those just entering the workforce, particularly those who are college educated, feel a sense of entitlement (at least this was the case prior to the current economic downturn), asking for extra vacation days and unwilling to work if they can’t start in an exciting role far higher in the organization than their skills merit. But people have found flow in prison-camps and assembly lines, so flow is not about stature in an organization. Perhaps being exposed to the teachings of flow at a young age can help point them in the right direction, helping them see that they can be happier in positions presenting challenges that test their abilities than in positions in which they’ll be out of their depth.

In tennis, Swimming Poola beginner matched against another beginner can achieve flow and contentment. A beginner matched against Andy Murray can only achieve frustration, hopelessness, and a swift and sure thrashing. Perhaps tomorrow’s generation will better understand that when they begin their careers there may be greater opportunity for them to find flow — and happiness — in the mail room than in the board room. But if they can find happiness in the challenges present at whichever level they find themselves, it won’t be long before they earn their way to the boardroom, with skills now commensurate to the challenges they will find there.

All this being said, as with everything else in life, happiness requires a balance. Educators will need to stress the importance of not selfishly pursuing flow at the expense of responsibility. Flow can be addicting, and can be brought on by activities our society considers negative as well as positive, such as war, theft, juvenile delinquency and the like. But if this subject is taught correctly, I believe we can have quite a positive impact on our kids. Not all of them, certainly, but at least some of them. I firmly believe this because I have practiced what I am preaching here. When I speak at schools, I invariably discuss my books (of course) and encourage kids to appreciate and use the power of the Web (see “Once a Knight is Not Enough” on this website), but the majority of my time is spent on the science of happiness. I review the signposts of happiness for my young audience and explain how they can achieve this state by reading books, playing chess, performing, taking dance classes, and playing soccer — but not sitting around staring at the ceiling. Happiness requires effort — but it is well worth it in the end. And kids get it. Maybe not fully, but they can all relate to engaging in activities for which time seems to fly, or remember when they turned off the television to good result. If we can help our children see the connection between happiness and effort, and get them to question the link between happiness and passivity, than I believe we will have truly done them a service — and perhaps even inspired some of them on to greatness.

If you agree, why not drop Douglas a line and tell him via his website where you can also find out more about some of the books he's written: http://www.douglaserichards.com

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I agree with this entirely It's taken a long time for science to try to study happiness, though, considering it's such an intrinsic part of the human experience! glovesforfoxes, Wed, 30th Dec 2009

Happiness seems to be closely associated with certain centers in the brain. And drugs stimulate them too if I'm not wrong, as well as electricity. I'm not sure it's locked to doing 'worthwhile' things only but when involving your body your mind will feel better that when just sedating, you release a lot of chemicals rewarding you, well as soon as you passed that first laziness thresh hold. yor_on, Mon, 4th Jan 2010

Right! its the doing thats important.

I've always thought of happiness as persuing a goal, which is difficult enough to keep you interested but easy enough so you don't give up.  Once the goal is achieved you get a few moments of satisfaction before looking for something else to do.  So you don't achieve happiness and that it - now you are happy - you have make your happiness by continually persuing interesting things to do.
GrumpyShedMonster, Thu, 7th Jan 2010

Douglas, I have to say I truly enjoyed reading this article.  I share your views on this one all the way!  Especially the part where time seems to stand still for you on shopping trips with your wife.    In all sincerity, your approach here is what our world could use more of in these troubled times.  Thank you.

Best Regards,
mrkirkpatrick, Mon, 1st Mar 2010

I generally agree with the article but would like to offer a slight criticism regarding the often repeated statement that there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. This is usually accompanied by the examples of unhappy millionaires and recollections of being happy when having "nothing". I think this is an observation reserved mostly for the privileged and comfortable, and, perhaps, the term "having nothing" requires some qualification.

Whilst I would agree money does not buy happiness, it is a fact that not having sufficient to cover one's basic requirements in life definitely results in depression. For those in the comfort of modern societies, a position of not having as much as their peers, even if having enough for their needs, can suffer from feelings of inferiority or depression as a result. It may be good therapy to tell these people that they shouldn't feel this way, but this is merely a palliative, perhaps in a way that Karl Marx thought of as religion as providing.



graham.d, Mon, 1st Mar 2010

IMHO, the Buddha had a lot psychological insight into happiness. A man who is happy worries about not being happy later. Paradoxically, happiness leads to unhappiness. For example, I'm happy that I have a job and believe I will be unhappy if I lost it. So I overwork (which begets more work) and have no time for my family or friends and consequently am unhappy. I think instead of pursuing happiness we should pursue contentment and equanimity (easier said) rgkwustl, Fri, 7th Jan 2011

I couldn't read the article because I am not happy enough! Although this is my centenary post, nope still didn't perk me up! Aaron_Thomas, Fri, 7th Jan 2011

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