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  • Brendan Stec

All About Happiness

What makes us happy? That's a pretty broad question, right? It may seem so broad and imposing, that we're afraid of answering it without calling into question our own happiness - and possibly challenging whether we're truly happy at all. As J.S. Mill reminds us, "ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so."

But it's an important question, because happiness - including life fulfillment, joy, and meaning - is what life is all about. Sure, we may pursue other goals, such as fame, money, power, or love, but we pursue these goals not for what they are, but for what we expect them to bring us: happiness. Howard Hughes, one of the wealthiest and famous men in American history, is known to have told one of his servants, "if you had ever swapped places in life with me, I would be willing to bet that you would have demanded to swap back before the passage of the first week." On his deathbed, even Hughes realized his goals of "being the richest man in the world" didn't align with living a truly fulfilling life.

How to solve the problem? According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a well-known psychologist, being in "flow" is when we're most happy. Think about times where we gave a big presentation, scored a winning goal, or solved a difficult problem. These are "flow" situations that challenged us to accomplish something worthwhile and ultimately bring meaning to our life. As a runner, I experience flow while running a mile race; in the minutes of excruciating pain, I crush feelings of doubt to experience a deserved sense of mastery and achievement. Other people may experience flow while writing music, hiking a mountain, or successfully teaching their child to speak her first words.

Flow is different from passively absorbing Netflix or laying out on the beach. While these may be pleasurable activities, they don't test our abilities and skills as a human being. Archimedes shouted "Eureka!" when he at last discovered the buoyant force after days of agonizing over a method for finding the volume of his king's crown. This was a moment where Archimedes' skills prevailed over a great challenge, and he was so happy he sprinted through the streets of Syracuse completely naked.

Now, all of this may sound a bit too idealistic to you. After all, Kanye West preaches of money, fame, women, and all of the exotic fishes, furs, and Ferrari's you can buy. With Kanye, "money isn't everything, but having it is." Without doing your homework, it can be easy to believe Kanye (or other cultural pressures) that a larger house, a more prestigious career, or more Instagram followers is the key to more happiness. In reality, these things only bring us fleeting senses of pleasure. Of course it feels amazing to show off a new suit or watch. But after a few days, the rush wears thin. Only flow, created intrinsically, can create lasting meaning in our lives.

Moments of flow, where our energy is invested in realistic goals, may be the answer to achieving happiness, but it certainly isn't always easy to do so. As humans, we still need to satisfy our basic needs of food, water, clothing, and shelter. Many of us also hope to start a family and maintain lifelong friendships. Furthermore, social, cultural (i.e. Kanye), and even religious pressures may place us at odds with achieving flow in everyday life. But Csikszentmihalyi ensures us that everyone, as difficult as it may be, can achieve flow in their lives. The first step can be simply acknowledging its importance.


1 Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

2 Ego is the Enemy (page 152) by Ryan Holiday

3 Drive by Daniel Pink

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