Happiness and Flow

Flow - “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Happiness - a temporary feeling of enjoyment that not only comes from doing something exciting, but usually involves learning something, accomplishing something, or overcoming some kind of challenge. Otherwise, the feeling of “happiness” you are experiencing is really just the feeling of having fun. Fun is great, even awesome, but it is not happiness.

A State of Flow

According to Flow author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the key to happiness consists in how we invest our psychic energy. When we focus our attention on a consciously chosen goal, our psychic energy literally “flows” in the direction of that goal, resulting in a reordering and harmony within consciousness.

Csikszentmihalyi identifies a number of different elements involved in achieving flow:
  • There are clear goals every step of the way.
  • There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  • There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  • Action and awareness are merged.
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  • There is no worry of failure.
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The sense of time becomes distorted.
  • The activity becomes an end in itself.
  • Happiness is an end-in-itself - Aristotle

When this flow event has passed we are left with a feeling of enjoyment or even excitement. That feeling is what’s called a peak experience. And that’s happiness!

Pleasure is an important component in the quality of life, but by itself does not bring happiness...[Pleasurable experiences] do not produce psychological growth....When people ponder further about what makes their lives rewarding, they tend to move beyond pleasant memories and begin to remember other events, other experiences that overlap with pleasurable ones but fall into a category that deserves a separate name: enjoyment...Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment...After an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it. -  Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The feelings we get from pleasure can feel like happiness and/or flow, but the difference is that at some point the feeling fades, and what we have left will determine just what it was. If we have grown from the experience and maybe even become a better person, then that was more than pleasure, it was enjoyment and maybe even flow. Abraham Maslow refers to peak experiences as the experience of happiness.

Peak or Optimal Experience

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like. This is what we mean by optimal experience (peak experience).

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. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. Such experiences are necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Is there a better feeling than when we have conquered some fear or accomplished something we thought we never could have. We are considered in a state of flow when we are completely focused on a task that we are capable of completing, but if we were to push a little beyond that state? What if we pushed ourselves beyond what we thought we were capable of? What if we challenged ourselves where failure was a definite possibility? Well, success could feel that much more exhilarating, and failure could be something we can learn from, or at the very least we could call it an adventure.

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