A book landed in our post-office box last month, a birthday present that my wife chose for me for reasons that remain obscure, though I have my suspicions.
She is well aware that my general outlook on life tends toward the gloomy. I love the melancholy of autumn and the slant light of October.
Contemplating the vastness of the universe, in which the stars are like grains of sand and we are like nits in a flea’s ear, gives me a sense of mordant delight. I tend to distrust the perpetually cheerful, the optimists and true believers of all sorts.
So, a book on the science of happiness could be considered a hint. And since I opened it, I have, uncharacteristically, been thinking about what it means to be happy, and what it might be like to pursue happiness.
The book is “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, sometimes called the father of positive psychology.
The field of positive psychology is quite new, originating in the late 1990s, but it builds on insights from the early Greeks, including the Epicureans, Zen Buddhism and modern psychology, such as the well-known hierarchy of needs created by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s.
Instead of focusing on curing mental illness, positive psychology tries to understand what constitutes mental health and well-being.
“Flow” is a very practical book. It is based on surveys the author and his co-workers took from thousands of individuals in which they were asked to write down their emotional states at various random times throughout the day whenever a beeper they carried went off.
Those surveyed included athletes and dancers, musicians and surgeons, practitioners of yoga and martial arts and mountain climbers, as well as visual and literary artists. From the surveys they discovered common themes that tend to indicate a path to a heightened sense of life satisfaction.
They found that people who were deeply engaged with a task that required concentrated effort, but that was within their abilities to perform, reported a profound sense of satisfaction.
On the other hand, sitting in front of the television or computer screen added little or negative long-term satisfaction, though it might seem pleasurable in the moment.
One commonly reported effect of intense concentration was a kind of time distortion. For athletes and martial artists, time might seem to slow down.
For a painter at her easel, hours might pass without notice. I’ve experienced the same lapse of time when concentrating on an enjoyable piece of writing. The minutes slip by while the shadows lengthen. I step out of the stream of time, floating above ordinary existence in a bubble, cut off from self-consciousness or physical sensation.
It is just the opposite of being so caught up in the petty irritations of day-to-day existence that minor troubles loom like insurmountable boulders and the mind spins in circles. The boulders are less than pebbles; the mind is calm.
The author calls it flow, because when a person is in that state his skills are matched to the task and the movements of the mind and the body are in harmony. We are not fighting ourselves; the dancer and the dance are one.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to pursue happiness in this forest of gloom, and I see that there was a path, only I had forgotten to take it.