Tag Archives: Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

Runner’s high

A man possesses nothing certainly save a brief loan of his own body, yet the body of man is capable of much curious pleasure.

James Branch Cabell, American author, 1879-1958

As I’ve written here before, ‘flow’ is one of my favourite experiences. ‘Flow’ or ‘optimal experience’ is a term used by positive psychologist Mihaly Csiskszentmihalyi, the most boring hero I have. With the concept, he describes the feeling you have when you’re so engaged in an activity that you lose track of time and place. Concentration is intense. Your activity challenges all your skills. Your self-consciousness disappears.

Very briefly, I experience such a feeling of flow when I was running the 20 kilometers of Brussels yesterday. It was close to the half-way point in the Bois de la Cambre. I had trained in this park before, and exactly knew where the curves of the road would take me. On a bridge above the street, a DJ was playing music. I didn’t actively notice which song it was, but it fitted the rhythm of my steps. And though I already had suffered the heat before – and would still suffer it a lot more afterwards – at this point close to the 10k mark, I entered my flow and ran effortless. A large smile appeared on my face. I was euphoric.

I experienced, I like to think, a runner’s high.

A runner’s high, tells Wikipedia, occurs when people exercise so strenuously that their bodies reach a certain threshold. A switch is turned, flow is achieved. In chemical terms, it’s created by the release of endorphins during intense workouts. Endorphins reduce the sensation of anxiety and pain and cause feelings of euphoria.

Running 20k on a warm day, like yesterday, is not fun. With a temperature above 20 degrees and a burning sun, I had to take regular breaks to get my body temperature  down (I had gotten sun burnt the day before, and still felt a bit light in my head). But when I crossed the finish line after 2 hours, 12 minutes and 19 seconds, nothing of this mattered. All suffering disappeared. I was proud. I was happy.

The body of man, Cabell said, is capable of much ‘curious pleasure’.

Crossing the finish (to the left side, in a Dutch orange shirt). Screenshot taken from a video from the site of the 20k of Brussels.

Crossing the finish (to the left side, in a Dutch orange shirt). Screenshot taken from a video from the site of the 20k of Brussels.

Csikszentmihalyi, for a flow of happiness

This post was first published on the blog of TEDxAmsterdam. TED’s library contains about fifty talks on happiness. In a new monthly series under the title TED & Happiness, I’ll be sharing the insights of TED speakers about happiness.

When are we happy? TED speaker Csikszentmihalyi has a surprising answer. According to his research, maybe we do better to find pleasure in difficulties activities, even hard work, than those activities that seem relaxing in themselves.

Of all the TED and TEDx talks on happiness, my favourite is the one by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow. His talk is not spectacular. Do not expect flying robots, emotive music or a call for revolution here. But behind his old-fashioned slides (a no fear for using a graph), Csikszentmihalyi shows his passion for passions. In his talk, the psychologist explores where our moments of happiness lie. His examples show that we experiences happiness when we are fully absorbed by an activity that challenges all our skills.

Mountain climbing

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the challenges we face and the skills we can use are the key to flow. Think of a mountain climber that is using all his forces to get around a challenging rock in a difficult climb. He is high on a mountain, fully concentrated and using all his energy to get grip. This is clearly not a relaxing or pleasing activity. The climber does not enjoy the cold wind or the difficulty of the situation he is facing.

Yet, when the climb is going well, it’s likely that he’ll experience flow. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow, or ‘optimal experience’, as an intense moment of concentration where you are fully focused on your present activity. Your self-consciousness disappears. Sense of time becomes distorted. Your hands and feet automatically find their path over the cold rocks. And when you make it to the top, there is a great sense of achievement. All these experiences are so gratifying that you want to climb the rock even if it’s difficult, dangerous, or without a real purpose.

The flow of music, sex… and work!

Thus it is moments of flow, or optimal experience, where happiness lies. The pretext is that if we want to be happy, it is not about being relaxed, but bored, for instance when we are watching TV. Instead, flow-inducing activities are those that require us to be active and to use our skills. Flow can be achieved by sports, by creative activities like music or writing, by sex… and even by work!

The interesting thing is that flow is something different for everybody. Even if I can’t climb mountains or compose music, I can experience it in another way. For me writing is such an area. Sometimes writing my blog articles is a pain. At times, I don’t know exactly what I want to say about the topic I choose. I might be anxious that my ideas aren’t original. But when I get in a good flow, my hands fly over the keyboard. Sentences appear magically on the screen, as if they wrote themselves. And I have the gratifying feeling of having created something that didn’t exist before.

The model of flow - and all other emotions experienced at various combinations of challenge and skill. Image: Wikipedia.

The model of flow – and all other emotions experienced at various combinations of challenge and skill. Image: Wikipedia.

Challenge your skills

The lesson from Csikszentmihalyi is simple. Be active. Work on your passion. Keep discovering and developing your talents. Challenge your skills. That is how you create the conditions that foster your flow.

A happiness bookshelf

I’ve spent most of last weekend moving houses: carrying boxes with all my material needs up to the second floor, assembling my new friendly Swedish couch/bed/chaise longue combination, and wondering what to pick amongst the antique gems of Les Petits Riens.

When most of the work was done and my helper had left, I had an important decision to make. With so many boxes and bags spread over my apartment, and so many things to sort out, where would I start? I chose that my first priority would be to organise about a dozen of boxes with books.

Books can be organised in many ways. I started separating fiction from non-fiction, and after that by language and by author. For the novels, this was fine, but how do you this for non-fiction? Can a language course or travel guide be next to my scientific books from university? Can I mix the category history with popular scientific books?

DSC02736

Anyway, at some point during the categorising process, a great idea sprung into my mind. Why wouldn’t I dedicate one shelf to books that are in one way or another related to happiness? So far there are seven (from Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness to Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Flow, and from the Lonely Planet for Bhutan to Dan Ariely’s books on irrationality; also see our page For a read of happiness, grouping all reading material). Despite a general surplus of books, this is the one part in my collection I should be allowed to expand. Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a new science and the biography of Robert F. Kennedy  are next on my list.

This is just a story of how I spent my Saturday evening, but there is also a broader meaning. The way you structure your life, affects the way you looks around and behave in the world. We shape our own lives through the shape we give through our environment. Ever since I started working on finance, I start seeing banks everywhere (occasionally, I wonder about their balance sheets, too).

In the same way, my hope is that having this happiness bookshelf helps to make my apartment a happy place.