Consciousness is a mystery. Nobody really understands the mechanisms that explain how non-conscious beings somehow became conscious. Nobody really understands what influences our consciousness. Why is it, for example, that when some people read something, they are entirely focused on what they are reading and enjoy the process so much that time seems to “fly by,” while others can read the exact same material and find that their attention drifts and they feel that time “drags?” Although most equate the desire for an “altered state of consciousness” with the desire for illegal chemical substances, I can’t help but notice that almost everyone seeks altered states of consciousness regularly in their everyday lives – for example, being “addicted” to activities such as running, gambling, worship, reading, Facebook, sex, and television. Why is it that most people seek altered states of consciousness in some form so frequently? How is it that the addictions we pursue determine the quality of our lives?
To help answer some of these questions, I long have been intrigued by a psychological state called “flow.” The idea of flow was first advanced by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Chick-SENT-Me-High”). Csikszentmihalyi has studied many different kinds of people (for example, artists, athletes, martial artists, musicians, rock climbers, various kinds of spiritual practitioners) and found that the best experiences of life often come with certain characteristics, including a loss of self-consciousness, the quick passage of time, high enjoyment, and sometimes exceptional performance. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow tends to occur when there is an intersection of high perceived challenge and high perceived competence. This combination of high perceived challenge and high perceived competence seems most likely to occur when an individual is pursuing something that they find particularly meaningful or interesting. In contrast, boredom results when perceived competence is greater than perceived challenge and anxiety results when perceived challenge is greater than perceived competence. For more information on “flow,” check out Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk here:
For example, then, the student who is able to read a reflection such as this with great concentration and enjoyment likely is able to do so because it challenges them to do something that they find meaningful or interesting that they also believe they are capable of doing. However, the student who has a difficult time reading a reflection such as this because they are bored may find that it does not challenge them enough, make enough use of their perceived skill, or connect with what they find meaningful or interesting. Finally, the student who finds material such as this anxiety-provoking may find that it challenges them beyond a level of their perceived competence for whatever reason.
To me, flow theory suggests that all of us have a certain need for “optimal experience.” Of course, this kind of desired state can be pursued in ways that are personally fulfilling and socially productive or in ways that are not. The person who is able to follow a passion at work, for instance, is likely to excel in many ways; for instance, they are likely to enjoy themselves as they work and achieve much as they continually challenge themselves and develop greater abilities. In contrast, people who have a more difficult time finding flow in healthy ways may find themselves drawn to unhealthy, and ultimately unsatisfactory, ways to alter their consciousness.
As Csikszentmihalyi writes in one of Psychology’s most prestigious journals, American Psychologist, in an article entitled “If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy?:”
“When a person finds few meaningful opportunities for action in the environment, he or she will often resort to finding flow in activities that are destructive, addictive, or at the very least wasteful. . . Juvenile crime is rarely a direct consequence of deprivation but rather is caused by boredom or the frustration teenagers experience when other opportunities for flow are blocked. Vandalism, gang fights, promiscuous sex, and experimenting with psychotropic drugs might provide flow at first, but such experiences are rarely enjoyable for long.”
This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a colleague who worked with people struggling with powerful problems with addiction. I asked him what he found to be most helpful in this kind of work and he remarked that, ultimately, people who overcome addiction problems typically exchange one addiction for another. One might say that this does not reflect true change, but he added that we all have addictions; the question is what kind of addiction we have and the results these addictions have on our lives.
In this context, it is interesting to note how often society does not encourage individuals to follow their interests, challenge themselves, or develop their abilities. Often times, individuals are encouraged, rather, to seek external markers of success such as wealth, status, or other markers of achievement (such as college degrees), but to do so while putting forth as little effort as possible. Rather than finding optimal experience in the ordinary tasks of everyday life (such as work), individuals are encouraged to find it in leisure-time pursuits that typically are too passive to really result in such a state or that lead to self-destruction.
All of this suggests that rather than seeking happiness through some external marker, or hoping to find happiness at some later date, true happiness that fulfills and that produces good fruit must be experienced in the present. As Csikszentmihalyi notes, “the [only] prerequisite for happiness is the ability to get fully involved in life.”