For six or seven weeks we have been focusing on the topic of happiness. You might say this is a sort of remedial class, being that we are all true scholars of misery. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, is changing that. Hence the considerable attention here to his 2002 book, "Authentic Happiness."
So far we have noted that happiness is more about lasting gratification than fleeting pleasure, and that gratification requires effort. Popping something in the microwave, for instance, may be quick and easy, but making a meal from scratch is going to be a lot more satisfying.
We also touched on critical differences in thinking between optimists and pessimists. Optimists tend to take credit for good things happening and write off their inevitable setbacks as bad luck. Pessimists are just the opposite: If something happened to go right, they were just lucky that day. If something went wrong, it was obviously due to a major fundamental character defect. Fortunately, says Dr Seligman, optimism is a skill that can be learned.
There are many more avenues in Dr Seligman's book to explore, and I'll restrict myself to just one (okay, maybe one more next week).
"Flow" is when time stops for you, when you find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing and never wanting it to end. Of all things, flow involves the absence of emotion. As Dr Seligman describes it:
It is the total absorption, the suspension of consciousness, and the flow that defines liking these activities - not the presence of pleasure. Total immersion, in fact, blocks consciousness, and emotions are completely absent.
We can all relate to the experience, even if we don't have a name or explanation for it. In my 2006 book, "Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder," I conclude with:
Writing is what helped bring me back from the dead. For me, it is a healing activity. If I were a basketball player, I would be shooting hoops; if I were a gardener, I would be out with the petunias. Healing is about finding something that makes you feel alive and doing it. When I am in full flight, there is no time and space. The sun takes it's leave, booming music falls mute, and the steaming hot cup of tea by my side is stone cold when I pick it up a minute later. ...
I was obviously in the flow when I wrote that, and I'm just getting into one now writing this. In fact, it is booting me out of the heat-induced summer lethargy I've been struggling with all day.
Dr Seligman draws from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont University, who has interviewed thousands of people worldwide on their high gratifications, from motorcycle club riders to chess players to sculptors to assembly line workers to ballerinas. The task may not be fun, per se, but it is challenging, with clear goals and immediate feedback. There is a sense of deep effortless involvement and control. Sense of self vanishes. Time stops.
In one study, Dr Csikszentmihalyi tracked two populations of "high-flow" and "low-flow" teenagers. The high-flow kids had hobbies, engaged in sports, and spent a lot of time on their homework. The low-flow kids hung out at malls and watched TV a lot. On all measures of psychological well-being but one, the high-flow kids did better. The exception? The high-flow kids thought their low-flow peers were having more fun.
Being in the flow, contends Dr Seligman, is what helps produce gratification, not just fleeting pleasure. The catch is you have to put in the effort. As Dr Seligmn describes it:
The gratifications produce flow, but they require skill and effort; even more deterring is the fact that because they meet challenges, they offer the possibility of failing. Playing three sets of tennis ... takes work - at least to start. The pleasures do not; watching a sitcom, masturbating, and inhaling perfume are not challenging.
Quoting Dr Csikszentmihalyi:
Pleasure is a powerful source of motivation, but it does not produce change; it is a conservative force that makes us want to satisfy existing needs, achieve comfort, and relaxation. [Gratification] on the other hand is not always pleasant ...
It may not be easy to make the effort in the midst of a force-nine depression, but I do know that writing helped boot me out of a severe depression many years ago and that it is lifting me out of a minor one, right now. I wasn't trying to consciously get back in the flow way back then, but now that I'm aware of the principle I will make it a part of my wellness strategy. Writing, of course, happens to be my key strength (and obsession). What's yours?
Next week: Dr Seligman discusses capitalizing on our strengths.
Published On: August 20, 2010
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