02 November 2005

More on Happiness

Several readers made interesting comments on my earlier post about happiness and money. This inspires Mr Wang to pen further thoughts on the nature of happiness.

The studies that I had cited rely on people to report their own happiness level. For example, the survey asks you to indicate how happy you are (on a scale of 1 to 5), and then asks you to state your annual income, monthly salary, personal net worth etc. The same is then done to thousands of individuals living in different countries, and then the numbers are crunched to generate the conclusions that follow logically.

Other kinds of studies study more directly the nature of happpiness itself - what is it? How does it come about? - and the world's leading researcher in this field is Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I hate to oversimplify Mihaly's ideas - because he is a lot more profound than a quick browsing of Internet materials on him might suggest, and also because in recent years, he has expanded the scope of his research into new territority - but for the purposes of this post, oversimplification is necessary.

The man himself. I hope he wins the Nobel Prize
some day, because he deserves it!

To put it very simply, happiness comes from having order in consciousness. What does that mean? It is a state of optimal experience. It is about control over your own attention. It is a situation when the information that keeps coming into your awareness is congruent with your goals, leading to an effortless flow of psychic energy. That's what Mihaly calls flow.

Flow is the kind of experience where you are totally engaged in what you're doing. Time passes without you being aware of it. You are pushed into higher levels of performance and a different state of consciousness. Flow experiences lead to the growth of the self.

There are certain typical elements which facilitate the flow experience. There is usually a challenge, a clear objective - you know what you want to do. Then there is instant, constant feedback on whether you're on the right track. The level of skill that you need to employ is high (for you) and the activity consumes your total concentration. At the same time, the challenge is just right - it is not too great (which leads to anxiety) nor too small (which leads to boredom).

Flow can come from a wide range of activities. In fact, it could come from any kind of activity, as long as the necessary elements are present. Mr Wang will offer you some situations from his life, during which he has experienced flow:

PLAYING THE GUITAR: Reaching that magical point when voice and fingers and emotion all come together and Mr Wang disappears into his own music, becoming pure soul.

COURTROOM DRAMA: Cross-examining a key defence witness in a tense, exciting case, and moving in for the kill. Reaching that magical point when suddenly your mind can read his mind and inexplicably you know, before he says a word, every word that he's going to say.

WRITING POETRY: Those rare moments when words cascade into your head as if some Divine Person is pouring them in and it's all you can do to get them out, get them out, typing as fast as you can.

RUNNING: Those rare occasions running on cool, dark evenings when mind and body become one, and pain becomes an object that you can shift away from your self, and it's as if you can fly. Sometimes known as runner's high. (Alas, nowadays when Mr Wang goes running, it's mostly aches and pains he gets).

SEX: The ecstatic kind. No further details.

Well, you get the idea. As I mentioned, flow can come from a wide range of different experiences. And flow is pure happiness. That's what it is.

Of course, there are more-intense and less-intense flow experiences. One of Mihaly's most important contributions (in my view) is the idea that you can manufacture a flow experience out of almost anything (which means that almost everyone has the potential to find happiness in their lives).

For example, he gives an example of a factory worker, Rico Medellin, who has to perform the same task on each factory item that comes to his station (600 identical factory items per day). Despite the apparent crushing boredom of such a job, Rico enjoys it tremendously because he has made a game out of it - he challenges himself to set and break his records in the number of seconds needed to finish one unit; the number of units he can finish in a day; and so on. He finds happiness in his job because he has created the elements of a flow experience - there is a challenge (to break his last record); there is immediate feedback (30 seconds to finish this unit!); and the task absorbs all his attention (because he's trying to break the record). It fully absorbs him the whole working day.

Back to our original discussion. Does money buy happiness? Well, possibly, it can. If your high in life comes from challenging yourself in the game of golf, then money obviously facilitates your happiness by purchasing the golf clubs and the club membership. On the other hand, Mihaly demonstrates that happiness can be found in an extremely wide range of circumstances, many of which have nothing to do with money. Small children are constantly happy, for instance, because they are curious about the world. Even small, simple things - a bird, a flower, the shapes of clouds in the sky - can totally absorb their attention.

I have a couple of wealthy friends who are in the hobby of collecting art. They spend thousands of dollars on just one piece of art. I also have a brother who paints in his free time - although an amateur, he has held several exhibitions in Singapore. My brother is deeply in love with art - creating it, not buying it - and the only costs he incurs are the cost of his oils and brushes. Yet I am quite sure that the happiness he derives from painting runs a lot deeper than the happiness of my friends who collect paintings.

One of my brother's paintings,
of his pet cat.


malc said...

Personally, I think that happiness is relative and subjective. Happiness comes in many forms and there simply are not enough words to describe its different facets.

As for a continuation of the discussion of the previous post. There are experts out there who specialise in a field called 'happiness studies' and I believe that what many are experiencing is what they term to be the 'hedonistic treadmill'. They believe that it is a mechanism inbuilt into the human psyche so as to bring about progress through a feeling of continual dissatisfaction. Some believe that humans are not built to be happy, and that we will experience an entire lifetime of depression punctuated by the fleeting dophamine-induced ecstacies that follows after an accomplished goal (as a form of reward for progress) or a novel experience (as a form of prep for acceptance of change as a good thing).

How different is this kind of happiness from the 'flow' that is mentioned? Personally, 'flow' makes me high and content, but not inanely ecstatic and happy. 'Flow' seems more controlled.

Whatever it is, judging from the things that induce both kinds of happiness it seems that it is all about the 'rewards mechanism' in our brain.

If being happy means that we all have to be like a hamster in a threadmill, I guess many of us will still choose so. But I believe that it is important that we know that we are all hamsters. =P (If you get what I mean)

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

We are all looking at the same territory, except that we notice different things and describe different aspects.

Some other researchers postulate the existence of a "set point" of happiness, which varies from individual to individual. Depending on mood and circumstances, a person's happiness may fluctuate around the set point, but because there is a set point, individuals will generally be about as happy or unhappy as their set point indicates. That would also explain why some individuals just tend to have a more cheerful disposition than others. Meanwhile some people seem perpetually grumpy for no good reason. The set point is said to be primarily biochemical/genetic in nature.

On your "continual dissatisfaction" point, it's interesting to revisit something as classic as Abraham Maslow's hierarcy of needs (even though it is about motivation than about happiness) The lower-level needs are known as "deficiency needs" and can be satisfied. Eg you are hungry (lacking food), and therefore you are motivated to seek food - however, once you eat enough, your deficiency need is satisfied, and you are no longer motivated to seek food.

In contrast, Maslow indicates the higher-level needs (the "being" needs) can never be satisfied. The more you provide for these needs, the more you want. Eg Maslow says that the self-actualising person desires truth, beauty, honesty etc, but upon finding truth, beauty, honesty, he is never satisfied - he is simply motivated to seek out even more truth, beauty and honesty. So this may be another description of the "continual dissatisfaction" you've mentioned.

Moving on - are we all doomed to be hamsters on the treadmill? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Theoretically, there are a couple of ways to step off the treadmill and still be happy, but I will probably touch on these in future posts.