Why happiness is active.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on July 14th, 2010

An influential book that drew me from swimming-to-be-faster, toward swimming-to-be-happier is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ”Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”

While the Dalai Lama said the purpose of life is to pursue happiness, Csikszentmihalyi says our world is not designed to make us happy, but to help us grow by facing challenges.

Csikszentmihalyi describes a defining distinction between pleasure and enjoyment. Pleasure is passive, from things like a massage or warm bath, a glass of wine or a dish of ice cream.

Enjoyment requires an active contribution to the result. In the 250,000 surveys he conducted while developing Flow Theory, people reported their happiest moments came when absorbed in a mindful and exacting challenge — like improving your swimming.

This leads me to ponder the vast amount of time devoted by Americans to watching TV, the quintessential passive activity. We (along with the UK) lead the world in watching an average 28 hours weekly, a staggering 8.4 billion hours each week of lost opportunity to be doing something that could bring true and deep happiness.

Ingredients for Flow

Clear  Goals – reset goals each time one is achieved.

Focus – keen and targeted concentration

Feedback – Direct and immediate to adjust your intention or effort

Balance – between your ability level and the difficulty of your challenge

Autonomy – A sense of personal control.

Intrinsically Rewarding – you needn’t push yourself or be pushed to do it.

5 Responses to “Why happiness is active.”

  1. Gords says:

    Agreed. Well said.

  2. Katie says:

    Swimming definitely increases my happiness. I feel grateful to be alive every time I get in the water. When I’m swimming, I get a powerful sense that life is beautiful, whether or not things are going my way at the moment.

    Practicing TI gives me just the right balance between autonomy and humility. I have the tools I need to improve, and I control the amount of effort I put in. On any given day, though, the results are out of my hands. I can make great strides one day and have an off day the next. I just have to keep trying and trust the process. I need to find satisfaction in the attempt, not just the outcome.

    I’ve been practicing TI for about a year now. A friend told me the other day she thought I was a natural-born athlete. HA! Natural-born Mathlete, maybe. People are always telling me how disciplined I am to swim so much. It *does* take discipline to maintain my concentration while I’m swimming, but it doesn’t take any discipline to get myself to the pool. As you say, it’s intrinsically rewarding. The minute I get out of the pool, I’m thinking about when I can go back.

    My goals have gradually gotten more ambitious as I’ve progressed. My initial goal was to swim a few continuous lengths of freestyle without looking or feeling like I was struggling. My current goal is to swim 1K, 2K, and 4K events with a few minutes of rest in between this September. My current goal sounds very ambitious (crazy?) to friends and family. To me, though, it seems much easier and more attainable than my initial goal did at the time.

  3. Katie Your phrase about finding a balance between autonomy and humiilty is wonderful. And your note about your goals gradually becoming more ambitious as you progress is very instructive. Have you considered becoming a TI Coach?

  4. bkjagadish says:

    Katie , I like your line : “Practicing TI gives me just the right balance between autonomy and humility.”….Thank You !

  5. Dee Psarros says:

    Hi Katie,
    Thank you for sharing this blog with me. Although I don’t swim, I do hike our AZ mountains regularly and find the activity of climbing brings me joy and happiness too.

    I appreciated reading Terry’s insights and your experience as well. Great advice to find ‘satisfaction in the attempt, not just the outcome.’

    Thank you!

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