“It’s weird” his friend shouted (it was very hip and very loud), “all week at work I look forward to my days off, but when they come I don’t do anything. I have big plans, I want to work on my music and do stuff, but I just sit around and get depressed. It’s weird, but I’m actually happier when I’m at work.”
“Amazing that you’ve observed that about yourself!” I yelled back.
“That’s a thing, actually,” I hollered.
I was excited about his insight, so I kept shouting: “This researcher called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied optimal experience and found that people think they’ll enjoy their time off, but actually they’re happier when their activities are structured around goals that are set at an appropriate level of challenge and they can get concrete feedback from their environment…”
I figured I was probably out of bounds by that point.
I’m not adept at discerning where the boundaries of normal social discourse are, but I know they generally end right about where my interest in things begins, so as soon as I start to feel really enthusiastic, I know it’s usually time to stop talking.
Just then, our food arrived.
I had the lettuce wraps.
After supper, the lads headed off into the city and I retired early. To think.
What I Thought About…
Here’s a 20-year old who has been observing himself, and in the process has unearthed a fundamental truth about human nature.
He hasn’t yet found out what to do about the fact that his days off suck, but he has identified some powerful information about himself.
And humans generally.
James Garfield (US president in 1881) nailed it: “We may divide the whole struggle of the human race into two chapters; first, the fight to get leisure, and then the second fight of civilization– what shall we do with our leisure when we get it?”
We are pulled toward entropy–everything is–and therefore think that formlessness (free time) rather than structure or discipline will create pleasure, but the opposite is true. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it is through disciplined deployment of attention that we feel happy.
Self-knowledge (& happiness)
Through his astute self-awareness, my son’s friend was halfway to solving one of the primary problems of modern life: what to do with his leisure time.
Csikszentmihalyi agrees with Garfield: we are blessed and cursed with so many options for recreational activities that we’re all adrift and miserable in a sea of choice.
Just deciding how to spend our free time is a major source of stress.
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi explains that it’s the structure we impose on life that determines our level of happiness. He suggests that self-knowledge is key.
The ancient philosophers agree.
“Know Thyself” was inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and was already ageless wisdom when Plato added it to his dialogues.
Then there’s Lao Tzu: “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”
And Pythagoras, who, like Csikszentmihalyi suggests that self-knowledge isn’t enough. It needs to be coupled with self-discipline: “No one is free who has not obtained the empire of the self. No one is free who cannot command the self.”
Self-knowledge and Mindfulness
Everyone is prescribing mindfulness these days. It’s the new panacea.
In mindfulness, self-observation is the practice.
In The Trauma of Everyday Life, Buddhist scholar Mark Epstein explains that mindfulness involves setting up “spy consciousness in the corner of the mind, watching and feeling everything that unfolds in the theater of the mind and body.”
Watching and feeling everything. Noticing that, wow, it’s my weekend, and I’m totally not enjoying myself. Instead, I’m just feeling really lonely and bereft.
The Buddhist approach would be to observe that. Dispassionately.
The Biohacking approach would be to observe that. Dispassionately. Or passionately. Because self-knowledge is at the core of n=1 experimentation. And then do something to change it.
How do you change it?
That’s pretty much what this whole blog is about.
But the quick version, using Csikszentmihalyi’s advice, is start with self-knowledge. And then, to increase happiness, structure activities around goals that are set at an appropriate level of challenge in such a way that you can get concrete feedback from the environment.
Because, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “a relaxed laissez-faire attitude is not a sufficient defense against chaos.”
But this particular post is about happiness. And the first step to achieving it: self-knowledge.
Epstein assures us that “the troubling aspects of the self are a lot less troubling when held in the forgiving arms of one’s own awareness.”
Forgiving is the key word. In your pursuit of happiness and self-knowledge, practice compassion and dispassion, equally.
Through disciplined deployment of attention. Employ spy consciousness.