Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
The legendary book about how skill-appropriate activities lead to the sensation of flow.
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves. Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmer’s muscles might have ached during his most memorable race, his lungs might have felt like exploding, and he might have been dizzy with fatigue — yet these could have been the best moments of his life. Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery — or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life — that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.
I shall argue that the primary reason it is so difficult to achieve happiness centers on the fact that, contrary to the myths mankind has developed to reassure itself, the universe was not created to answer our needs. Frustration is deeply woven into the fabric of life. And whenever some of our needs are temporarily met, we immediately start wishing for more. This chronic dissatisfaction is the second obstacle that stands in the way of contentment. To deal with these obstacles, every culture develops with time protective devices — religions, philosophies, arts, and comforts — that help shield us from chaos. They help us believe that we are in control of what is happening and give reasons for being satisfied with our lot. But these shields are effective only for a while; after a few centuries, sometimes after only a few decades, a religion or belief wears out and no longer provides the spiritual sustenance it once did.
Each of us has a picture, however vague, of what we would like to accomplish before we die. How close we get to attaining this goal becomes the measure for the quality of our lives. If it remains beyond reach, we grow resentful or resigned; if it is at least in part achieved, we experience a sense of happiness and satisfaction. For the majority of people on this earth, life goals are simple: to survive, to leave children who will in turn survive, and, if possible, to do so with a certain amount of comfort and dignity. In the favelas spreading around South American cities, in the drought-stricken regions of Africa, among the millions of Asians who have to solve the problem of hunger day after day, there is not much else to hope for. But as soon as these basic problems of survival are solved, merely having enough food and a comfortable shelter is no longer sufficient to make people content. New needs are felt, new desires arise. With affluence and power come escalating expectations, and as our level of wealth and comforts keeps increasing, the sense of well-being we hoped to achieve keeps receding into the distance.
Daunted by the futility of trying to keep up with all the demands they cannot possibly meet, some will just surrender and retire gracefully into relative oblivion. Following Candide’s advice, they will give up on the world and cultivate their little gardens. They might dabble in genteel forms of escape such as developing a harmless hobby or accumulating a collection of abstract paintings or porcelain figurines. Or they might lose themselves in alcohol or the dreamworld of drugs. While exotic pleasures and expensive recreations temporarily take the mind off the basic question Is this all there is? few claim to have ever found an answer that way.
Why is it that, despite having achieved previously undreamed-of miracles of progress, we seem more helpless in facing life than our less privileged ancestors were? The answer seems clear: while humankind collectively has increased its material powers a thousandfold, it has not advanced very far in terms of improving the content of experience.
To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. This challenge is both easier and more difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within each persons hands; difficult because it requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present. And before all else, achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not. We grow up believing that what counts most in our lives is that which will occur in the future. Parents teach children that if they learn good habits now, they will be better off as adults. Teachers assure pupils that the boring classes will benefit them later, when the students are going to be looking for jobs. The company vice president tells junior employees to have patience and work hard, because one of these days they will be promoted to the executive ranks. At the end of the long struggle for advancement, the golden years of retirement beckon. We are always getting to live, as Ralph Waldo Emerson used to say, but never living. Or as poor Frances learned in the children’s story, it is always bread and jam tomorrow, never bread and jam today.
A thoroughly socialized person is one who desires only the rewards that others around him have agreed he should long for — rewards often grafted onto genetically programmed desires. He may encounter thousands of potentially fulfilling experiences, but he fails to notice them because they are not the things he desires. What matters is not what he has now, but what he might obtain if he does as others want him to do. Caught in the treadmill of social controls, that person keeps reaching for a prize that always dissolves in his hands.
The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from ones shoulders. Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces. It is no longer necessary to struggle for goals that always seem to recede into the future, to end each boring day with the hope that tomorrow, perhaps, something good will happen. Instead of forever straining for the tantalizing prize dangled just out of reach, one begins to harvest the genuine rewards of living. But it is not by abandoning ourselves to instinctual desires that we become free of social controls. We must also become independent from the dictates of the body, and learn to take charge of what happens in the mind. Pain and pleasure occur in consciousness and exist only there. As long as we obey the socially conditioned stimulus-response patterns that exploit our biological inclinations, we are controlled from the outside. To the extent that a glamorous ad makes us salivate for the product sold or that a frown from the boss spoils the day, we are not free to determine the content of experience. Since what we experience is reality, as far as we are concerned, we can transform reality to the extent that we influence what happens in consciousness and thus free ourselves from the threats and blandishments of the outside world.
Control over consciousness is not simply a cognitive skill. At least as much as intelligence, it requires the commitment of emotions and will. It is not enough to know how to do it; one must do it, consistently, in the same way as athletes or musicians who must keep practicing what they know in theory. And this is never easy. Progress is relatively fast in fields that apply knowledge to the material world, such as physics or genetics. But it is painfully slow when knowledge is to be applied to modify our own habits and desires.
In each new epoch — perhaps every generation, or even every few years, if the conditions in which we live change that rapidly-it becomes necessary to rethink and reformulate what it takes to establish autonomy in consciousness. Early Christianity helped the masses free themselves from the power of the ossified imperial regime and from an ideology that could give meaning only to the lives of the rich and the powerful. The Reformation liberated great numbers of people from their political and ideological exploitation by the Roman Church. The philosophes and later the statesmen who drafted the American Constitution resisted the controls established by kings, popes, and aristocracy. When the inhuman conditions of factory labor became the most obvious obstacles to the workers freedom to order their own experience, as they were in nineteenth-century industrial Europe, Marx’s message turned out to be especially relevant. The much more subtle but equally coercive social controls of bourgeois Vienna made Freud’s road to liberation pertinent to those whose minds had been warped by such conditions. The insights of the Gospels, of Martin Luther, of the framers of the Constitution, of Marx and Freud — just to mention a very few of those attempts that have been made in the West to increase happiness by enhancing freedom — will always be valid and useful, even though some of them have been perverted in their application. But they certainly do not exhaust either the problems or the solutions.
The remarkable accomplishments of Hindu fakirs and other practitioners of mental disciplines are often presented as examples of the unlimited powers of the mind, and with more justification. But even many of these claims do not hold up under investigation, and the ones that do can be explained in terms of the extremely specialized training of a normal mind. After all, mystical explanations are not necessary to account for the performance of a great violinist, or a great athlete, even though most of us could not even begin to approach their powers. The yogi, similarly, is a virtuoso of the control of consciousness. Like all virtuosi, he must spend many years learning, and he must keep constantly in training. Being a specialist, he cannot afford the time or the mental energy to do anything other than fine-tune his skill at manipulating inner experiences. The skills the yogi gains are at the expense of the more mundane abilities that other people learn to develop and take for granted. What an individual yogi can do is amazing — but so is what a plumber can do, or a good mechanic.
At this point in our scientific knowledge we are on the verge of being able to estimate how much information the central nervous system is capable of processing. It seems we can manage at most seven bits of information — such as differentiated sounds, or visual stimuli, or recognizable nuances of emotion or thought — at any one time, and that the shortest time it takes to discriminate between one set of bits and another is about 1/18 of a second. By using these figures one concludes that it is possible to process at most 126 bits of information per second, or 7,560 per minute, or almost half a million per hour. Over a lifetime of seventy years, and counting sixteen hours of waking time each day, this amounts to about 185 billion bits of information. It is out of this total that everything in our life must come — every thought, memory, feeling, or action. It seems like a huge amount, but in reality it does not go that far.
The requirements of life still dictate that we spend about 8 percent of waking time eating, and almost the same amount taking care of personal bodily needs such as washing, dressing, shaving, and going to the bathroom. These two activities alone take up 15 percent of consciousness, and while engaged in them we can’t do much else that requires serious concentration. But even when there is nothing else pressing occupying their minds, most people fall far below the peak capacity for processing information. In the roughly one-third of the day that is free of obligations, in their precious leisure time, most people in fact seem to use their minds as little as possible. The largest part of free time — almost half of it for American adults — is spent in front of the television set. The plots and characters of the popular shows are so repetitive that although watching TV requires the processing of visual images, very little else in the way of memory, thinking, or volition is required. Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television. The other leisure activities people usually do at home are only a little more demanding. Reading most newspapers and magazines, talking to other people, and gazing out the window also involve processing very little new information, and thus require little concentration.
All these complex mental operations must be completed in a few seconds, sometimes in a fraction of a second. While forming such a judgment seems to be a lightning-fast reaction, it does take place in real time. And it does not happen automatically: there is a distinct process that makes such reactions possible, a process called attention. It is attention that selects the relevant bits of information from the potential millions of bits available. It takes attention to retrieve the appropriate references from memory, to evaluate the event, and then to choose the right thing to do. Despite its great powers, attention cannot step beyond the limits already described. It cannot notice or hold in focus more information than can be processed simultaneously. Retrieving information from memory storage and bringing it into the focus of awareness, comparing information, evaluating, deciding — all make demands on the minds limited processing capacity. For example, the driver who notices the swerving car will have to stop talking on his cellular phone if he wants to avoid an accident.
Each person allocates his or her limited attention either by focusing it intentionally like a beam of energy — as do E. and R. in the previous examples — or by diffusing it in desultory, random movements. The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used. Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested.
Of course my own self exists solely in my own consciousness; in that of others who know me there will be versions of it, most of them probably unrecognizable likenesses of the “original” — myself as I see me.
The outside event appears in consciousness purely as information, without necessarily having a positive or negative value attached to it. It is the self that interprets that raw information in the context of its own interests, and determines whether it is harmful or not.
A self that is only differentiated — not integrated — may attain great individual accomplishments, but risks being mired in self-centered egotism. By the same token, a person whose self is based exclusively on integration will be connected and secure, but lack autonomous individuality. Only when a person invests equal amounts of psychic energy in these two processes and avoids both selfishness and conformity is the self likely to reflect complexity.
Paradoxically, it is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.
the reality is that the quality of life does not depend directly on what others think of us or on what we own. The bottom line is, rather, how we feel about ourselves and about what happens to us. To improve life one must improve the quality of experience.
As our studies have suggested, the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following. First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.
Any activity contains a bundle of opportunities for action, or challenges, that require appropriate skills to realize. For those who don’t have the right skills, the activity is not challenging; it is simply meaningless. Setting up a chessboard gets the juices of a chess player flowing, but leaves cold anyone who does not know the rules of the game. To most people, the sheer wall of El Capitan in Yosemite valley is just a huge chunk of featureless rock. But to the climber it is an arena offering an endlessly complex symphony of mental and physical challenges.
Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, the famous German experimental physicist and a descendant of the eighteenth-century philosopher and mathematician, provides an intriguing example of how one can take control of a boring situation and turn it into a mildly enjoyable one. Professor Maier-Leibnitz suffers from an occupational handicap common to academicians: having to sit through endless, often boring conferences. To alleviate this burden he invented a private activity that provides just enough challenges for him not to be completely bored during a dull lecture, but is so automated that it leaves enough attention free so that if something interesting is being said, it will register in his awareness. What he does is this: Whenever a speaker begins to get tedious, he starts to tap his right thumb once, then the third finger of the right hand, then the index, then the fourth finger, then the third finger again, then the little finger of the right hand. Then he moves to the left hand and taps the little finger, the middle finger, the fourth finger, the index, and the middle finger again, and ends with the thumb of the left hand. Then the right hand reverses the sequence of fingering, followed by the reverse of the left hands sequence. It turns out that by introducing full and half stops at regular intervals, there are 888 combinations one can move through without repeating the same pattern. By interspersing pauses among the taps at regular intervals, the pattern acquires an almost musical harmony, and in fact it is easily represented on a musical staff. After inventing this innocent game, Professor Maier-Leibnitz found an interesting use for it: as a way of measuring the length of trains of thought. The pattern of 888 taps, repeated three times, provides a set of 2,664 taps that, with practice, takes almost exactly twelve minutes to perform. As soon as he starts tapping, by shifting attention to his fingers, Professor Maier-Leibnitz can tell exactly at what point he is in the sequence. So suppose that a thought concerning one of his physics experiments appears in his consciousness while he is tapping during a boring lecture. He immediately shifts attention to his fingers, and registers the fact that he is at the 300th tap of the second series; then in the same split second he returns to the train of thought about the experiment. At a certain point the thought is completed, and he has figured out the problem. How long did it take him to solve the problem? By shifting attention back to his fingers, he notices that he is about to finish the second series — the thought process has taken approximately two and a quarter minutes to play itself out.
Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the persons capacity to act. The golden ratio between challenges and skills does not only hold true for human activities. Whenever I took our hunting dog, Hussar, for a walk in the open fields he liked to play a very simple game — the prototype of the most culturally widespread game of human children, escape and pursuit. He would run circles around me at top speed, with his tongue hanging out and his eyes warily watching every move I made, daring me to catch him. Occasionally I would take a lunge, and if I was lucky I got to touch him. Now the interesting part is that whenever I was tired, and moved halfheartedly, Hussar would run much tighter circles, making it relatively easy for me to catch him; on the other hand, if I was in good shape and willing to extend myself, he would enlarge the diameter of his circle. In this way, the difficulty of the game was kept constant. With an uncanny sense for the fine balancing of challenges and skills, he would make sure that the game would yield the maximum of enjoyment for us both.
The goals of an activity are not always as clear as those of tennis, and the feedback is often more ambiguous than the simple I am not falling information processed by the climber. A composer of music, for instance, may know that he wishes to write a song, or a flute concerto, but other than that, his goals are usually quite vague. And how does he know whether the notes he is writing down are right or wrong? The same situation holds true for the artist painting a picture, and for all activities that are creative or open-ended in nature. But these are all exceptions that prove the rule: unless a person learns to set goals and to recognize and gauge feedback in such activities, she will not enjoy them.
The important thing to realize here is that activities that produce flow experiences, even the seemingly most risky ones, are so constructed as to allow the practitioner to develop sufficient skills to reduce the margin of error to as close to zero as possible.
Many people feel that the time they spend at work is essentially wasted — they are alienated from it, and the psychic energy invested in the job does nothing to strengthen their self. For quite a few people free time is also wasted. Leisure provides a relaxing respite from work, but it generally consists of passively absorbing information, without using any skills or exploring new opportunities for action. As a result life passes in a sequence of boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control.
Veterans from Vietnam or other wars sometimes speak with nostalgia about front-line action, describing it as a flow experience. When you sit in a trench next to a rocket launcher, life is focused very clearly: the goal is to destroy the enemy before he destroys you; good and bad become self-evident; the means of control are at hand; distractions are eliminated. Even if one hates war, the experience can be more exhilarating than anything encountered in civilian life. Criminals often say things such as, If you showed me something I can do that’s as much fun as breaking into a house at night, and lifting the jewelry without waking anyone up, I would do it. Much of what we label juvenile delinquency — car theft, vandalism, rowdy behavior in general — is motivated by the same need to have flow experiences not available in ordinary life. As long as a significant segment of society has few opportunities to encounter meaningful challenges, and few chances to develop the skills necessary to benefit from them, we must expect that violence and crime will attract those who cannot find their way to more complex autotelic experiences.
When describing optimal experience in this book, we have given as examples such activities as making music, rock climbing, dancing, sailing, chess, and so forth. What makes these activities conducive to flow is that they were designed to make optimal experience easier to achieve. They have rules that require the learning of skills, they set up goals, they provide feedback, they make control possible. They facilitate concentration and involvement by making the activity as distinct as possible from the so-called paramount reality of everyday existence.
Roger Caillois, the French psychological anthropologist, has divided the worlds games (using that word in its broadest sense to include every form of pleasurable activity) into four broad classes, depending on the kind of experiences they provide. Agon includes games that have competition as their main feature, such as most sports and athletic events; alea is the class that includes all games of chance, from dice to bingo; ilinx, or vertigo, is the name he gives to activities that alter consciousness by scrambling ordinary perception, such as riding a merry-go-round or skydiving; and mimicry is the group of activities in which alternative realities are created, such as dance, theater, and the arts in general.
Another good example of how a culture can build flow into its life-style is given by the Canadian ethnographer Richard Kool, describing one of the Indian tribes of British Columbia: The Shushwap region was and is considered by the Indian people to be a rich place: rich in salmon and game, rich in below-ground food resources such as tubers and roots — a plentiful land. In this region, the people would live in permanent village sites and exploit the environs for needed resources. They had elaborate technologies for very effectively using the resources of the environment, and perceived their lives as being good and rich. Yet, the elders said, at times the world became too predictable and the challenge began to go out of life. Without challenge, life had no meaning. So the elders, in their wisdom, would decide that the entire village should move, those moves occurring every 25 to 30 years. The entire population would move to a different part of the Shushwap land and there, they found challenge. There were new streams to figure out, new game trails to learn, new areas where the balsamroot would be plentiful. Now life would regain its meaning and be worth living. Everyone would feel rejuvenated and healthy. Incidentally, it also allowed exploited resources in one area to recover after years of harvesting.
It is in this respect that games provide a compelling analogy to cultures. Both consist of more or less arbitrary goals and rules that allow people to become involved in a process and act with a minimum of doubts and distractions. The difference is mainly one of scale. Cultures are all-embracing: they specify how a person should be born, how she should grow up, marry, have children, and die. Games fill out the interludes of the cultural script. They enhance action and concentration during free time, when cultural instructions offer little guidance, and a persons attention threatens to wander into the uncharted realms of chaos.
Richard Logan, who has studied the accounts of many people in difficult situations, concludes that they survived by finding ways to turn the bleak objective conditions into subjectively controllable experience. They followed the blueprint of flow activities. First, they paid close attention to the most minute details of their environment, discovering in it hidden opportunities for action that matched what little they were capable of doing, given the circumstances. Then they set goals appropriate to their precarious situation, and closely monitored progress through the feedback they received. Whenever they reached their goal, they upped the ante, setting increasingly complex challenges for themselves.
Christopher Burney, a prisoner of the Nazis who had spent a long time in solitary confinement during World War II, gives a fairly typical example of this process: If the reach of experience is suddenly confined, and we are left with only a little food for thought or feeling, we are apt to take the few objects that offer themselves and ask a whole catalogue of often absurd questions about them. Does it work? How? Who made it and of what? And, in parallel, when and where did I last see something like it and what else does it remind me of?. . . So we set in train a wonderful flow of combinations and associations in our minds, the length and complexity of which soon obscures its humble starting-point. . . . My bed, for example, could be measured and roughly classified with school beds or army beds…. When I had done with the bed, which was too simple to intrigue me long, I felt the blankets, estimated their warmth, examined the precise mechanics of the window, the discomfort of the toilet. .. computed the length and breadth, the orientation and elevation of the cell [italics added].
Tollas Tibor, a poet who spent several years in solitary confinement during the most repressive phases of the Hungarian communist regime, says that in the Visegrad jail, where hundreds of intellectuals were imprisoned, the inmates kept themselves occupied for more than a year by devising a poetry translation contest. First, they had to decide on the poem to translate. It took months to pass the nominations around from cell to cell, and several more months of ingenious secret messages before the votes were tallied. Finally it was agreed that Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! was to be the poem to translate into Hungarian, partly because it was the one that most of the prisoners could recall from memory in the original English. Now began the serious work: everyone sat down to make his own version of the poem. Since no paper or writing tool was available, Tollas spread a film of soap on the soles of his shoe, and carved the letters into it with a toothpick. When a line was learned by heart, he covered his shoe with a new coating of soap. As the various stanzas were written, they were memorized by the translator and passed on to the next cell. After a while, a dozen versions of the poem were circulating in the jail, and each was evaluated and voted on by all the inmates. After the Whitman translation was adjudicated, the prisoners went on to tackle a poem by Schiller.
Without interest in the world, a desire to be actively related to it, a person becomes isolated into himself. Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers of our century, described how he achieved personal happiness: Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection. There could be no better short description of how to build for oneself an autotelic personality.
Everything the body can do is potentially enjoyable. Yet many people ignore this capacity, and use their physical equipment as little as possible, leaving its ability to provide flow unexploited. When left undeveloped, the senses give us chaotic information: an untrained body moves in random and clumsy ways, an insensitive eye presents ugly or uninteresting sights, the unmusical ear mainly hears jarring noises, the coarse palate knows only insipid tastes. If the functions of the body are left to atrophy, the quality of life becomes merely adequate, and for some even dismal. But if one takes control of what the body can do, and learns to impose order on physical sensations, entropy yields to a sense of enjoyable harmony in consciousness.
Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is transformed so as to produce flow. The essential steps in this process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.
What we found was that when people were pursuing leisure activities that were expensive in terms of the outside resources required activities that demanded expensive equipment, or electricity, or other forms of energy measured in BTUs, such as power boating, driving, or watching television — they were significantly less happy than when involved in inexpensive leisure. People were happiest when they were just talking to one another, when they gardened, knitted, or were involved in a hobby; all of these activities require few material resources, but they demand a relatively high investment of psychic energy. Leisure that uses up external resources, however, often requires less attention, and as a consequence it generally provides less memorable rewards.
We don’t usually notice how little control we have over the mind, because habits channel psychic energy so well that thoughts seem to follow each other by themselves without a hitch. After sleeping we regain consciousness in the morning when the alarm rings, and then walk to the bathroom and brush our teeth. The social roles culture prescribes then take care of shaping our minds for us, and we generally place ourselves on automatic pilot till the end of the day, when it is time again to lose consciousness in sleep. But when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness — a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable.
To avoid this condition, people are naturally eager to fill their minds with whatever information is readily available, as long as it distracts attention from turning inward and dwelling on negative feelings. This explains why such a huge proportion of time is invested in watching television, despite the fact that it is very rarely enjoyed. Compared to other sources of stimulation-like reading, talking to other people, or working on a hobby — TV can provide continuous and easily accessible information that will structure the viewers attention, at a very low cost in terms of the psychic energy that needs to be invested. While people watch television, they need not fear that their drifting minds will force them to face disturbing personal problems. It is understandable that, once one develops this strategy for overcoming psychic entropy, to give up the habit becomes almost impossible.
A person who cannot remember is cut off from the knowledge of prior experiences, unable to build patterns of consciousness that bring order to the mind. As Bunuel has said, “Life without memory is no life at all. […] our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.”
According to Johann Huizinga, the great Dutch cultural historian, among the most important precursors of systematic knowledge were riddling games. In the most ancient cultures, the elders of the tribe would challenge each other to contests in which one person sang a text filled with hidden references, and the other person had to interpret the meaning encoded in the song. A competition between expert riddlers was often the most stimulating intellectual event the local community could witness. The forms of the riddle anticipated the rules of logic, and its content was used to transmit factual knowledge our ancestors needed to preserve.
With a good grasp of the subject will come the knowledge of what is worth remembering and what is not. The important thing to recognize here is that you should not feel that you have to absorb a string of facts, that there is a right list you must memorize.
It has been claimed, for instance, that the reason there are more poets per capita in Iceland than in any other country of the world is that reciting the sagas became a way for the Icelanders to keep their consciousness ordered in an environment exceedingly hostile to human existence. For centuries the Icelanders have not only preserved in memory but also added new verses to the epics chronicling the deeds of their ancestors. Isolated in the freezing night, they used to chant their poems huddled around fires in precarious huts, while outside the winds of the interminable arctic winters howled. If the Icelanders had spent all those nights in silence listening to the mocking wind, their minds would have soon filled with dread and despair. By mastering the orderly cadence of meter and rhyme, and encasing the events of their own lives in verbal images, they succeeded instead in taking control of their experiences. In the face of chaotic snowstorms they created songs with form and meaning.
Erik Erikson has held that the last stage of the human life cycle involves the task of achieving integrity, or bringing together what one has accomplished and what one has failed to accomplish in the course of ones life into a meaningful story that can be claimed as ones own.
Having a record of the past can make a great contribution to the quality of life. It frees us from the tyranny of the present, and makes it possible for consciousness to revisit former times. It makes it possible to select and preserve in memory events that are especially pleasant and meaningful, and so to create a past that will help us deal with the future.
There are two words whose meanings reflect our somewhat warped attitudes toward levels of commitment to physical or mental activities. These are the terms amateur and dilettante. Nowadays these labels are slightly derogatory. An amateur or a dilettante is someone not quite up to par, a person not to be taken very seriously, one whose performance falls short of professional standards. But originally, amateur, from the Latin verb amare, to love, referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly a dilettante, from the Latin delectare, to find delight in, was someone who enjoyed a given activity. The earliest meanings of these words therefore drew attention to experiences rather than accomplishments; they described the subjective rewards individuals gained from doing things, instead of focusing on how well they were achieving. Nothing illustrates as clearly our changing attitudes toward the value of experience as the fate of these two words.
There is an old Italian saying: II lavoro nobilita Vuomo, e lo rende simile alle bestie; or, Work gives man nobility, and turns him into an animal. This ironic trope may be a comment on the nature of all work, but it can also be interpreted to mean that work requiring great skills and that is done freely refines the complexity of the self; and, on the other hand, that there are few things as entropic as unskilled work done under compulsion. The brain surgeon operating in a shining hospital and the slave laborer who staggers under a heavy load as he wades through the mud are both working. But the surgeon has a chance to learn new things every day, and every day he learns that he is in control and that he can perform difficult tasks. The laborer is forced to repeat the same exhausting motions, and what he learns is mostly about his own helplessness.
For Karl Marx, men and women constructed their being through productive activities; there is no human nature, he held, except that which we create through work. Work not only transforms the environment by building bridges across rivers and cultivating barren plains; it also transforms the worker from an animal guided by instincts into a conscious, goal-directed, skillful person.
Mass leisure, mass culture, and even high culture when only attended to passively and for extrinsic reasons — such as the wish to flaunt ones status — are parasites of the mind. They absorb psychic energy without providing substantive strength in return. They leave us more exhausted, more disheartened than we were before.
Although watching TV is far from being a positive experience generally people report feeling passive, weak, rather irritable, and sad when doing it — at least the flickering screen brings a certain amount of order to consciousness. The predictable plots, familiar characters, and even the redundant commercials provide a reassuring pattern of stimulation. The screen invites attention to itself as a manageable, restricted aspect of the environment. While interacting with television, the mind is protected from personal worries. The information passing across the screen keeps unpleasant concerns out of the mind. Of course, avoiding depression this way is rather spendthrift, because one expends a great deal of attention without having much to show for it afterward.
A friend who likes to cross oceans alone on a sailboat once told an anecdote that illustrates the lengths to which solitary cruisers sometimes have to go in order to keep their minds focused. Approaching the Azores on an eastward crossing of the Atlantic, about eight hundred miles short of the Portuguese coast, and after many days without sighting a sail, he saw another small craft heading the opposite way. It was a welcome opportunity to visit with a fellow cruiser, and the two boats set course to meet in the open sea, side by side. The man in the other boat had been scrubbing his deck, which was partly covered by a foul-smelling, sticky yellow substance. “How did you get your boat so dirty?” asked my friend to break the ice. “Well, you see,” shrugged the other, “it’s just a mess of rotten eggs.” My friend admitted that it wasn’t obvious to him how so many rotten eggs happened to get smeared over a boat in the middle of the ocean. “Well,” said the man, “the fridge gave out, and the eggs spoiled. There hasn’t been any wind for days, and I was getting really bored. So I thought that instead of tossing the eggs overboard, I would break them over the deck, so that I would get to clean them off afterward. I let them set for a while so it would be harder to clean them off, but I didn’t figure on them smelling so bad.” In ordinary circumstances, solo sailors have plenty to keep their minds occupied. Their survival depends on being ever alert to the conditions of the boat and of the sea. It is this constant concentration on a workable goal that makes sailing so enjoyable. But when the doldrums set in, they might have to go to heroic lengths to find any challenge at all.
There have been endless discussions about whether humans are naturally promiscuous, polygamous, or monogamous; and whether in terms of cultural evolution monogamy is the highest form of family organization. It is important to realize that these questions deal only with the extrinsic conditions shaping marriage relationships. And on that count, the bottom line seems to be that marriages will take the form that most efficiently ensures survival. Even members of the same animal species will vary their patterns of relationship so as to adapt best in a given environment. For instance the male long-billed marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris) is polygamous in Washington, where swamps vary in quality and females are attracted to those few males who have rich territories, leaving the less lucky ones to a life of enforced bachelorhood. The same wrens are monogamous in Georgia, not so much because that state is part of the Bible Belt, but because the marshes all have roughly the same amount of food and cover, and so each male can attract a doting spouse to an equally comfortable nesting site. The form the human family takes is a response to similar kinds of environmental pressures. In terms of extrinsic reasons, we are monogamous because in technological societies based on a money economy, time has proven this to be a more convenient arrangement. But the issue we have to confront as individuals is not whether humans are naturally monogamous or not, but whether we want to be monogamous or not. And in answering that question, we need to weigh all the consequences of our choice.
Teenagers are physiologically mature beings, ripe for sexual reproduction; in most societies (and in ours too, a century or so ago) they are considered ready for adult responsibilities and appropriate recognition. Because our present social arrangements, however, do not provide adequate challenges for the skills teenagers have, they must discover opportunities for action outside those sanctioned by adults. The only outlets they find, all too often, are vandalism, delinquency, drugs, and recreational sex. Under existing conditions, it is very difficult for parents to compensate for the poverty of opportunities in the culture at large. In this respect, families living in the richest suburbs are barely better off than families living in the slums. What can a strong, vital, intelligent fifteen-year-old do in your typical suburb? If you consider that question you will probably conclude that what is available is either too artificial, or too simple, or not exciting enough to catch a teenager’s imagination.
Just as with the family, people believe that friendships happen naturally, and if they fail, there is nothing to be done about it but feel sorry for oneself. In adolescence, when so many interests are shared with others and one has great stretches of free time to invest in a relationship, making friends might seem like a spontaneous process. But later in life friendships rarely happen by chance: one must cultivate them as assiduously as one must cultivate a job or a family.
Rather incredible examples of how people achieve flow despite extreme handicaps have been collected by Professor Fausto Massimini of the psychology department of the University of Milan. One group he and his team studied was composed of paraplegics, generally young people who at some point in the past, usually as a result of an accident, have lost the use of their limbs. The unexpected finding of this study was that a large proportion of the victims mentioned the accident that caused paraplegia as both one of the most negative and one of the most positive events in their lives. The reason tragic events were seen as positive was that they presented the victim with very clear goals while reducing contradictory and inessential choices. The patients who learned to master the new challenges of their impaired situation felt a clarity of purpose they had lacked before. Learning to live again was in itself a matter of enjoyment and pride, and they were able to turn the accident from a source of entropy into an occasion of inner order.
A former colleague of mine, G., used to tell a gruesome story from his air force years that illustrates how dangerous excessive concern with safety can be, when it demands so much attention that it makes us oblivious to the rest of reality. During the Korean War, G.s unit was involved in routine parachute training. One day, as the group was preparing for a drop, it was discovered that there were not enough regular parachutes to go around, and one of the right-handed men was forced to take a left-handed chute. It is the same as the others, the ordnance sergeant assured him, but the rip cord hangs on the left side of the harness. You can release the chute with either hand, but it is easier to do it with the left. The team boarded the plane, went up to eight thousand feet, and over the target area one after the other they jumped out. Everything went well, except for one of the men: his parachute never opened, and he fell straight to his death on the desert below. G. was part of the investigating team sent to determine why the chute didn’t open. The dead soldier was the one who had been given the left-handed release latch. The uniform on the right side of his chest, where the rip cord for a regular parachute would have been, had been completely torn off; even the flesh of his chest had been gouged out in long gashes by his bloody right hand. A few inches to the left was the actual rip cord, apparently untouched. There had been nothing wrong with the parachute. The problem had been that, while falling through that awful eternity, the man had become fixated on the idea that to open the chute he had to find the release in the accustomed place. His fear was so intense that it blinded him to the fact that safety was literally at his fingertips.
It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual. But it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning. Much of what we call culture and civilization consists in efforts people have made, generally against overwhelming odds, to create a sense of purpose for themselves and their descendants. It is one thing to recognize that life is, by itself, meaningless. It is another thing entirely to accept this with resignation. The first fact does not entail the second any more than the fact that we lack wings prevents us from flying.
Billions of parents, in every age and in every culture, have sacrificed themselves for their children, and thereby made life more meaningful for themselves. Probably as many have devoted all their energies to preserving their fields and their flocks. Millions more have surrendered everything for the sake of their religion, their country, or their art. For those who have done so consistently, despite pain and failure, life as a whole had a chance to become like an extended episode of flow: a focused, concentrated, internally coherent, logically ordered set of experiences, which, because of its inner order, was felt to be meaningful and enjoyable.
[…] the Jesuits test of conscience, which involves reviewing ones actions one or more times each day to check whether what one has been doing in the past few hours has been consistent with long-term goals […]
Activity and reflection should ideally complement and support each other. Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent. Before investing great amounts of energy in a goal, it pays to raise the fundamental questions: Is this something I really want to do? Is it something I enjoy doing? Am I likely to enjoy it in the foreseeable future? Is the price that I — and others — will have to pay worth it? Will I be able to live with myself if I accomplish it?
The inner harmony of technologically less advanced people is the positive side of their limited choices and of their stable repertory of skills, just as the confusion in our soul is the necessary consequence of unlimited opportunities and constant perfectibility.
People who as adults develop coherent life themes often recall that when they were very young, their parents told them stories and read from books. When told by a loving adult whom one trusts, fairy tales, biblical stories, heroic historical deeds, and poignant family events are often the first intimations of meaningful order a person gleans from the experience of the past. In contrast, we found in our studies that individuals who never focus on any goal, or accept one unquestioningly from the society around them, tend not to remember their parents having read or told stories to them as children. Saturday morning kiddie shows on television, with their pointless sensationalism, are unlikely to achieve the same purpose.