The Psychology of Optimal Experience
1. Review of the concept of Happiness
I discovered that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good luck or chance. It is not something you can buy with money or power. It does not seem to depend on external events, but rather on how we interpret them. In fact, happiness is a vital condition that each person must prepare, cultivate and defend individually. People who know how to control their internal experience are able to determine the quality of their lives, that is how close we can be to being happy.
Flow: State in which people are so involved in the activity that nothing else seems to matter to them; the experience, by itself, is so pleasant that people will do it even if it has a great cost, for the pure reason of doing it.
What would really satisfy people is not losing weight or being rich, but feeling good about their life. In the pursuit of happiness, partial solutions do not work. Only the direct control of the experience and the ability to find joy moment by moment in all that we can overcome obstacles on the road to fulfillment
The most important reason why happiness is so difficult to achieve is that the universe was not designed with human comfort in mind.
How we feel, the joy of living, ultimately and directly depend on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences. Whether or not we are happy depends on our internal harmony and not on the control we are able to exercise over the great forces of the universe. We certainly must continue to learn how to master the external environment, because our survival depends on it, but this mastery is not going to add one iota to whether we feel good as individuals, or to reduce the chaos of the world as we experience it. To do this, we must learn to gain mastery over consciousness as well.
Nowadays, in the “first world” almost everyone has access to recipes from the most diverse places and can duplicate the feasts of the past. However, does this make us feel more satisfied?
The problem exists when people are so obsessed with what they want to achieve that they no longer have pleasure in the present. When this happens, they lose their chance to enjoy themselves.
From our earliest age they have conditioned us to believe that a benign destiny will take care of us. After all, everyone seems to agree that it has been a great fortune to live in this country, which is now richer than ever, in the most scientifically advanced period in history, surrounded by the most effective technology and protected by the wisest Constitution. So it makes sense to expect us to have a richer and more meaningful life than any of the previous members of the human race. If our grandparents who lived in a frighteningly primitive past could enjoy the advances of today, imagine how happy they would be! But, in spite of all these affirmations, sooner or later we wake up alone, and we see that this rich, scientific and advanced world is not going to give us happiness at all.
Why do we seem more helpless when facing life than our less privileged ancestors? The answer seems clear: while humanity has collectively increased its material powers hundreds of times, it has not advanced much in terms of improving the content of the experience.
It is important to realize that seeking pleasure is a reflex response found in our genes to ensure the conservation of the species; not for the purpose of our own and personal enjoyment. The pleasure we have in eating is an efficient way to ensure that the body is getting the food it needs. The pleasure of the sexual act is also a practical method that genes use in order to program the body to reproduce and thereby ensure the continuity of genes. There is nothing wrong with following this genetic programming and enjoying the pleasures it provides us as long as we recognize them for what they are and as long as we have some control over them when it is necessary to pursue other goals that we have decided to prioritize.
A person who cannot ignore genetic instructions when necessary is always vulnerable. Rather than deciding how to act in terms of your personal goals, you must surrender to the things your body has been programmed (or mis-programmed) for.
A fully socialized person is the one who wants only the rewards that those around him have decided he should want. You may come across thousands of experiences that could potentially fill you up, but you do not realize it because they are not the things you want. What matters is not what you have now, but what you could get if you do what others want you to do.
The most important step to emancipate yourself 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 incessant stream of experiences, in the process of living for himself, the weight of social controls automatically falls on our shoulders.
As long as we obey the socially conditioned stimulus-response habits that our biological inclinations use, we will be controlled from the outside. As long as a dazzling announcement makes us salivate over the product it advertises or a boss’s quarrel does not embitter the day, we will not be free to determine the content of the experience.
“People are not afraid of things, but of how they see them” Epictetus
Again and again we return to the central question: how to gain mastery over one’s life? And how can this dominance help a person to free himself from his anxieties and fears and thereby free himself from the controls of society, the rewards of which he can now take or leave aside? As we suggested earlier, the mode is through control over consciousness, which leads us to control over the quality of the experience. Any profit, however small, in this direction will make our lives richer, more fun, with more meaning.
2. Anatomy of consciousness
We need to know how consciousness works and how it is controlled, because only if we understand the way subjectivity is formed, then we can master it. Everything we experience -joy or pain, interest or boredom- is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our life will be like.
The optimal state of inner experience is when there is order in consciousness. This happens when the psychic energy (or attention) is used to achieve realistic goals and when the skills match the opportunities to act. The pursuit of a goal brings order to consciousness because a person must focus his attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget about everything else.
Whatever fashion dictates, it seems that those who are serious about mastering what’s going on in their conscience live a happier life.
The function of consciousness is to represent the information about what is happening inside and outside the organism so that the body can evaluate it and act accordingly.
A person can make himself happy or miserable regardless of what is really happening outside just by changing the contents of his consciousness.
What does it mean to be aware? It simply means that certain concrete conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occurring and that we are able to direct their course.
Consciousness is intentionally ordered information.
Since everything we feel, smell, hear or remember is potentially a candidate to become part of our consciousness, the experiences that really are part of it are much less than those that we leave out.
The information that we allow to enter our consciousness becomes extremely important, in fact it is what determines the content and quality of our life.
The form and content of life depend on how we use attention. Depending on how we do it, totally different realities will result. The names we use to describe personality traits -such as extrovert, successful, or paranoid- refer to the schemes that people have used to structure their attention. At the same party, the extrovert goes looking for and enjoying the interaction with others, the winner goes looking for contacts that will be useful to him and the paranoid person will be on guard looking for the danger signs to avoid. Attention can be used in countless ways, and these ways can make you enjoy or suffer in life.
The flexibility of care structures is even more obvious when we compare it across different cultures or professional classes. Eskimos, sailors, musicians, doctors, etc. all of them have trained their attention to process signals that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Since attention determines what will or will not appear in consciousness, and since it is also necessary for other mental acts to occur -such as memory, though, feeling, and decision making- it is useful to think of it as psychic energy. Attention is like the energy without which we cannot work on anything and which dissipates while we work. We are able to create ourselves according to how we invest that energy. Memories, thoughts and feelings are defined by how we use it. And it is and energy under our control, to do with it what we like; therefore, attention is the most important tool in the task of improving the quality of the experience.
Complexity is the result of two psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement towards originality, towards separation from others. Integration refers to the opposite: to union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond personality. A complex personality is one that manages to combine these opposite tendencies.
3. Enjoyment and quality of life
Wealth, social status and power have become symbols of happiness in our culture. When we see rich, famous, or handsome people, we tend to think that their lives are wonderful, even if we have evidence that this is not the case. And we thought that if we could acquire some of those symbols, we would be much happier.
If we really succeed and become richer or more powerful, we believe, for a time at least, that our lives have been completely improved. But symbols can disappoint us: they tend to distract us from the reality they are supposed to represent. And the reality is that the quality of life does not depend directly on what other people think about how we feel about ourselves and about what happens to us. To improve life you have to improve the quality of the experience. Pleasure is an important component of quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food and sex offer us restorative homeostatic experiences that reorder consciousness after the intrusion of the needs of the body has caused psychic entropy. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the personality. Pleasure helps us maintain order, but consciousness cannot create a new order by itself.
When people think about what makes their lives more enjoyable, they tend to go beyond fun memories and begin to recall other events, other experiences that overlap with pleasant experiences but fall into a category that deserves a separate name: enjoyment.
A person can feel pleasure without exerting any effort if the appropriate centers in his brain are stimulated electrically or as a result of chemical stimulation of drugs. But it is impossible to enjoy a game of tennis, a book or a conversation unless the attention is totally concentrated on that activity.
It is for this reason that pleasure is so evanescent and that personality does not grow as a consequence of pleasurable experiences. Complexity requires psychic energy to be invested in new goals that are relatively challenging. It is easy to see this process in children: during the first years of life each child is a small “learning machine”. The absorbed concentration that appears on the child’s face every time he learns a new skill is a good indication of what enjoyment is. And each example of pleasant learning adds to the increasing complexity of the child’s personality.
Without enjoyment, life can be endured and can even be pleasant. But it can only be so precariously, and it will depend on luck and the cooperation of the external environment. However, to gain personal control over the quality of the experience, one needs to learn how to find enjoyment in what happens every day.
Our studies suggest that enjoyment has 8 components:
1) Experience usually happens when we are faced with tasks that we have at least one opportunity to accomplish.
2) We must be able to focus on what we do.
3) The task has clear goals.
4) The task offers immediate feedback.
5) The person acts effortlessly, with a deep involvement that takes away the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
6) Pleasant experiences allow people to exercise a feeling of control over their actions.
7) Concern about personality disappears.
8) The sense of the duration of time is altered; hours go by in minutes and minutes can go on for hours.
An experience of enjoyment is used to be achieved with a challenging activity that requires skills.
Competition challenges can be stimulating and pleasing. But when beating the opponent has priority in the mind over doing the best you can, enjoyment tends to disappear. Competition is only enjoyable when it is a means of honing your own skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it is no longer fun.
We all workout routines to fill in the dull moments of the day, or to feel better when restlessness threatens us. Some people compulsively scribble, others nibble or smoke, others straighten their hair, hum a song, or perform more esoteric private rituals that have the same purpose: to impose order on conscientiously by performing repeated action. These are the “microflow” activities that help us overcome the bad times of the day. But how enjoyable an activity is will ultimately depend on its complexity. Small automatic entertainments woven into the fabric of everyday life help reduce boredom, but add little to the positive quality of the experience. Because what we need is to face increasingly difficult challenges and use our best skills.
Enjoyment appears on the borderline between boredom and restlessness when:
? The challenges are just in balance with the person’s ability to act.
? Opportunities for action, as perceived by the individual, are equal to his abilities.
The golden ratio between challenges and abilities is not only true for human activities. When I walk in the country with our hunting dog, Hussar, it likes to play the most widespread game among children of all cultures: the escape and the chase, the classic twerp-twerk. It runs circles around me at top speed, his tongue sticking out and his eyes watching carefully every move I make, in case I try to catch him. Occasionally I try and if I am lucky I get to touch it. Now the most interesting part is that when I get tired and move nonchalantly, Hussar runs tighter around the circle, making it relatively easy for me to catch it; on the other hand, if I am in good shape and willing to push myself, he will enlarge the diameter of his circle. In this way, the difficulty of the game is kept constant. With an unearthly sense of balance between challenges and abilities, it ensures that the game has maximum enjoyment for both of you.
When all of a person’s relevant skills are needed to deal with the challenges of a situation, their attention is fully absorbed by the activity. There is almost no psychic energy left to process other information except what the activity itself offers. All attention is focused on the relevant stimuli.
As a result, one of the most distinctive and universal aspects of the optimal experience happens: people are so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes somewhat spontaneous, almost automatic; they cease to be aware of themselves as separate beings from the actions they are performing.
A chess player tells us what it is like to play in a tournament: “concentration is like breathing: you never think about it. The roof could fall off, and if it did not fall right on top of you, you would not notice.”
The reason that justifies such complete involvement in a flow experience is that, normally, the goals are clear and the feedback is immediate.
The type of feedback we frequently seek is itself insignificant: what difference does it make if I hit the tennis ball within the area bounded by the white lines, if I pin the enemy king on the board, or if I notice a glimpse of understanding in my patient’s eyes at the end of their therapy session? What gives value to this information is the symbolic message it contains: that I have been successful in achieving my goal. Such knowledge creates order in consciousness and strengthens the structure of personality.
Almost any type of feedback can be pleasant, as long as it is logically related to the goal in which one uses his psychic energy.
One of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life. This aspect of flow is an important byproduct of the fact that enjoyable activities require a full focus of attention on the present task, and thus there is no room left in the mind for information that is not relevant.
In everyday life we are prey to thoughts and concerns that unintentionally intrude on our conscience. Since most jobs and home life generally lack urgent demands for flow experiences, concentration is seldom so intense that worries and concerns can be automatically dismissed. This is one reason why flow improves the quality of the experience: the clearly structured demands of the activity impose order and exclude the interference of disorder in consciousness.
When interviewed individuals explain their flow experiences to us, an important part of this experience is a considerable increase in their sense of control.
When a person is so dependent on the ability to control a pleasant activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, then the ultimate control is lost: the freedom to determine the content of consciousness. So the pleasant activities that produce flow have a potential negative aspect: while they are able to improve the quality of existence by the order they create in the mind, they can end up producing addiction if the personality becomes a prisoner of a certain kind of order, and then you do not want to face life’s ambiguities.
In flow, a person is challenged to do their best and must constantly improve their skills. At this point you do not have a chance to reflect on what this means in terms of your personality. But later, when the activity has finished and the self-consciousness has the opportunity to return, the personality of this individual who is now reflecting is not the same that existed before the flow experience; it is now enriched by new skills and achievements. This is the paradoxical relationship between losing the personality in a flow experience and feeling that it emerges more strongly after having lived the experience.
The key element of an optimal experience is that it has an end in itself. Even if we initially carry it out for other reasons, the activity at hand becomes intrinsically rewarding. The experience becomes autotelic, that is, it is carried out not because of the hope of any future benefit, but simply because doing so is in itself the reward.
For example, teaching children to become good citizens is not autotelic, while teaching them because you have fun interacting with them is. What happens in both situations is basically the same; what differentiates them is that, when the experience is autotelic, the person is paying attention to the activity for himself and when it is not, the attention is focused on the consequences.
How many children have come to hate an activity because their parents forced them to do it? Often children -also adults- need external incentives to take the first steps in an activity that requires a difficult restructuring of attention. Most enjoyment activities are not natural, they require an initial effort that is difficult for us to carry out. But once the interaction begins to provide feedback to the person’s abilities, it begins to be intrinsically rewarding.
We must accept the fact that nothing in the world is entirely positive; all power can be misused. Love can lead to cruelty, science can create destruction, uncontrolled technology produces pollution. The optimal experience is a form of energy, and energy can be used to both create and destroy. Fire heats or burns, atomic energy can generate electricity and can destroy the world. Energy is power but power is only a means. The goals toward which you are heading can make life richer or more painful.
Many things that we call juvenile delinquency -car theft, vandalism, provocative behaviour in general- are motivated by the same need to have flow experiences that cannot be achieved in ordinary life. As long as a significant sector of society has few opportunities to encounter significant challenges and few opportunities to develop the skills necessary to benefit from these challenges, we must wait for violence and crime to attract those who cannot find their way to more complex autotelic experiences.
The flow experience, like everything in life, is not good or bad in the absolute sense. It is interesting only because it has the potential to make life richer, more intense, and more meaningful; because it increases the strength and complexity of the personality. But if the consequences of a flow situation are good in a broad sense, it is an issue that would need to be discussed and evaluated in terms of more global social criteria. The same is true of all human activities, be it science, religion or politics. A particular religious belief can benefit one person or group, but it can repress many others. A scientific breakthrough may be good for science and for a few scientists, but bad for humanity as a whole. It is an illusion to believe that any solution is beneficial for all and for all occasions; no human achievement has the last word. As Jefferson said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”, so we must constantly evaluate what we do to prevent past habits and wisdom from blinding new possibilities.
But it would not make sense to ignore an energy source simply because it can be misused. If humanity had chosen not to use fire because it can be used to burn things, we would not have evolved. The challenge is to learn to distinguish the different ways of flowing to enjoy more of our daily life without diminishing the opportunities of other people to enjoy theirs.
People agree to describe the characteristics of the optimal experience as follows:
? A feeling that one’s abilities are adequate to face the challenges that are presented to us.
? An activity directed towards clear goals and regulated by standards.
? The activity gives us immediate feedback on whether we are doing it right or not.
? The concentration is so intense that you cannot pay attention to anything else and the worries disappear.
? Self-consciousness disappears and the sense of time is distorted.
? An activity that produces experiences so pleasant that the person wants to do it himself, and cares little about what he will get from it, even if the activity is difficult or dangerous.
4. Flow conditions
The conditions of the flow experience are modulated because some things we do make us enjoy more than others. And it is not the skills that we really possess that determine how we feel, but what we think we possess.
The roots of the word “competition” come from the Latin com petire, which means “search together”. What each person seeks is to realize their potential, and this task is most easily accomplished when others force us to do our best. Of course, competition enhances the experience only while the focus is primarily on the activity itself. If extrinsic goals -such as beating the opponent, wanting to impress the audience or aiming for a good contract- are the most important thing and what you are concerned about, then competition is likely to become a distraction, rather than an incentive to focus awareness on what is happening.
Games offer a compelling analogy of culture. They allow people to feel involved in a process or act and to minimize their doubts and distractions. Culture encompasses everything: how a person should be born, how he should be educated, marry, have children and die. Games fill the void of culture. They enhance action and focus during “free time”, when cultural instructions offer little guidance and a person’s attention threatens to roam the unexplored realms of chaos.
Although flow is a powerful motivator, it does not guarantee the virtue of those who experience it. All large-scale surveys agree that citizens of the most affluent nations, with better levels of education and led by the most stable governments, have higher levels of happiness and satisfaction with life. The United States, despite its high rate of divorce, alcoholism, crime and addictions, is not far from the former. This should not surprise us, given the amount of time and resources we spend on activities whose primary purpose is to offer enjoyment.
Although the average citizen has many free time and broad access to leisure activities, they frequently do not experience flow as a result. Potentially does not imply reality, and quantity does not translate into quality.
One of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is this great possibility of leisure that, in some way, fails to translate into enjoyment. If we compare ourselves to people who lived only a few generations ago, we have much greater opportunities to enjoy a good time, although there is no indication that we really enjoy life more than our ancestors.
Having opportunities is not enough. We also need the skills to take advantage of them. We need to know how to control consciousness. We are surrounded by an unheard of array of recreational artifacts and recreational possibilities, but most of us feel bored and vaguely frustrated.
This fact leads us to the second condition that affects whether an experience will be optimal or not: the ability of an individual to restructure consciousness to make flow possible. Some people enjoy wherever they are, while other get bored even in front of the most captivating panorama. In addition to considering the external conditions, or the structure of flow’s activities, we also need to take into account the internal conditions that make flow possible.
It is important to realize that attention disorders not only interfere with learning, but also rule out the possibility of experiencing flow. When a person cannot control psychic energy, it is certainly not possible for him to learn or enjoy himself.
A less drastic obstacle to experiencing flow is excessive fear of ridicule. A person who constantly worries about how others perceive it, who is afraid of creating the wrong impression or doing something improper, also condemns himself to permanently exclude himself from enjoyment. And the same goes for people who are excessively selfish. A selfish individual is not normally self-conscious, but instead evaluates each piece of information solely from the point of view of how this information relates to his desires. For this person nothing has value in itself. A flower is not worth a second look unless it can be used for something. Although a person with excessive fear of ridicule has many different aspects from a selfish person, none of them has enough control of the psychic energy to easily enter a flow experience.
Attention disorders and excess stimuli impede flow because psychic energy is too fluid and erratic. The person who is excessively afraid of ridicule and the selfish person who is self-centered prevent it for the opposite reason: the attention is too rigid and restricted. Neither extreme allows a person to control attention.
Anomie: Condition that occurs when the rules of behaviour are not clear. When it is not clear what is allowed and what is not, when there is indecision about what values of public opinion are, behaviour becomes erratic and meaningless. People who depend on the rules of society to give order to their conscience, become anxious.
Alignment: Condition in which people are forced by the social system to act contrary to their own goals. A worker who must feed himself and his family, he has to do hundreds of times the same pointless task on an assembly line is likely to feel aligned. One of the most irritating sources of alignment is the need to waste a lot of free time lining up for clothing, food, entertainment, or endless bureaucratic clearances.
When a society suffers from anomie it is difficult to achieve flow because it is not clear what is worth investing the psychic energy; when you suffer from alignment the problem is that you cannot invest psychic energy in what you clearly want.
Just as some people are born with better muscle coordination, there may be individuals with genetic advantage in controlling consciousness. Such individuals may be less predisposed to suffer attention disorders and may more easily experience flow.
Neurological evidence does not prove that some individuals have inherited a genetic advantage in attention control and therefore experience flow. The findings could be explained more in terms of learning than inheritance. The association between the ability to concentrate and flow is clear; more research is needed to check which causes which.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that how parents relate to the child will have a lasting effect on the type of person that child will develop and become. The family context that promotes optimal experiences has five characteristics:
1) Clarity: Teens feel they know what their parents expect of them, that is, the goals and feedback are unambiguous
2) Focusing: There is a perception that parents are interested in what they do in the present, in their concrete feelings and experiences.
3) Choice: Children feel they have a variety of choices, including breaking parental rules, as long as they are willing to face the consequences.
4) Commitment: The child feels comfortable enough to lower the shield of his defenses and get involved in whatever he is interested in without being aware of himself.
5) Challenge: Dedication of parents to offer their children increasingly complex opportunities for action.
Autotelic Family Context: Children who are raised in familiar situations that facilitate goal clarity, feedback, a sense of control, concentration on the task at hand, intrinsic motivation, and challenge will generally have better opportunities to sort their lives so that flow is possible.
In less well-organized families, a great deal of energy is spent in constant discussion and negotiation and in children’s attempts to protect their fragile personalities so as not to feel overwhelmed by other people’s goals.
5. The body in flow
“Surely a human being does not own anything except a brief loan from his/her own body -wrote J.B. Cabell-, but the body is capable of very curious pleasures”. When we are sad, depressed, or bored, we have an easy remedy at hand: using the body for all it is worth. In our time, most people are aware of the importance of health and fitness. But the almost limitless potentials for enjoyment that the body offers then remain unexplored. Few learn to move with the grace of an acrobat, to see with the eye of an artist, to feel the exhilaration of an athlete when beating their own record, to taste with the subtlety of a gourmet or to love with the skill that turns sex in art. Since these opportunities are readily available, the easiest step to improving quality of life is simply learning to control the body and your senses.
The sense give us chaotic information when we don’t educate them; an untrained body moves awkwardly and awkwardly; a callous eye is not interested in what it sees; the ear that has not musical education hears noises that disturb it, and a rough palate only savors tasteless tastes. If we let the body’s functions atrophy, the quality of life becomes merely adequate, and for some it even declines. But if one becomes aware of what the body can do and learns to impose order on its physical sensations, entropy gives way to a pleasant harmony in consciousness.
Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is transformed to produce flow. The essential steps in this process are:
a) Set a general goal and as many realistic sub-goals as possible.
b) Find ways to measure progress.
c) Concentrate on what one does and make increasingly precise distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity.
d) Develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available.
e) Raise the level if the activity bores you.
In one of our studies we asked the following question: Are people happier when they use more material resources in their leisure activities? Or do they feel happier when they invest more in themselves? The result was that they were happier when they simply talked to others, when they were engaged in cultivating the land, weaving, or were occupied by a hobby; All of these activities require few material resources, but require a relatively high investment of psychic energy. However, leisure that uses many external resources often requires less attention and, as a consequence, generally offers fewer memorable rewards.
Flow in sex and love
It can be safely said that sexual stimulation is, in itself, generally pleasurable. We are genetically programmed to get pleasure from sexuality. It is the clever way in which evolution guarantees that individuals will engage in activities that are likely to lead to procreation, thus ensuring the survival of species. To obtain pleasure in sex, one needs only to have health and be ready for it; no special skills are required, and after initial experiences few new physical challenges appear. But like all pleasures, unless it becomes a pleasant activity, sex easily becomes boring. It becomes a truly positive experience, a meaningless ritual, or an addictive dependency. Fortunately, there are many ways to make sex enjoyable.
How to keep love alive? The answer is the same in this as in any other activity. To be pleasant, a relationship must become more complex. To become more complex, the couple must discover new potentialities in themselves and in each other. To discover this you must pay attention to each other, so that you can learn what thoughts and feelings, what dreams are on your partner’s mind. This is itself a process that never ends, a task for life. After one really begins to know what the other person is like, then many joint adventures can become possible: traveling together, reading the same books, raising children, making plans, and carrying them out become more enjoyable. Specific details are insignificant. Each person should find out which ones come to the case according to their own situation. What is important is the general principle: that sexuality, like any other aspect of life, can become enjoyable if we are willing to cultivate it to achieve greater complexity.
Flow in the sense of sight
It is easy to accept the fact that sports, sex, or yoga can be enjoyable. But few people go beyond these physical activities to explore the almost limitless capacities of the other organs of the body, although any information that the nervous system can transmit lends itself to rich and varied flow experiences. Seeing, for example, is often used simply as a system of measuring distances to avoid stepping on the cat or to find keys. Occasionally, people allow themselves to “enjoy the view” when a particularly beautiful landscape appears in front of them, but they do not systematically cultivate the potential of their vision. However, visual skills can offer us constant access to enjoyable experiences. The visual arts are one of the best training grounds for developing these skills.
It might seem like a contradiction that an activity like yoga can induce flow by training the eyes not to see and that we now advocate the use of the eyes to provoke flow. This is only a contradiction to those who believe that behaviour is important, rather than the experience it leads to. It does not matter if we see or do not see, as long as we are in control of what happens to us. The same person can meditate in the morning and close to the sensitive experience, and can look at a great work of art in the afternoon; with any of these activities you can feel transformed by the same feeling of enjoyment.
The flow in music
Teens, whose fragile evolving personality suffers threat after threat in rapid succession throughout the day, rely especially on the calming pattern of sound to restore order to their consciousness. But so do many adults. A police officer told us: “If after a day of making arrests and worried about being shot, I could not turn on the car radio when I go back home, I would probably go crazy”.
It is not hearing what makes our lives better, it is listening. We hear music, but we rarely hear it, and few can achieve flow as a result of all of this.
As with anything else, to enjoy music you have to pay attention to it. To the extent that recording technology provides us with music that is too accessible, we can stop appreciating it and reduce our ability to enjoy it.
Plato believed that children should learn music before anything else; by learning to pay attention to beautiful harmonies and rhythms, your entire consciousness would become orderly. Our culture seems to place little emphasis on teaching musical skills to children and youth. When a school budget has to be cut, music courses (as well as art and physical education courses) are eliminated. It is disappointing that these three basic skills, so important to improving the quality of life, are generally considered superfluous in today’s educational climate.
When teaching music to children, the usual problem arises: too much emphasis is placed on performance, and too little on what they experience. Parents who push their children to excel in playing the violin are generally not interested in whether the children really enjoy playing it.
Although it is best to learn to play an instrument when you are young, it really is never too late to start. Learning to produce harmonious sounds is not only enjoyable, but, like mastering any complex skill, it also helps to strengthen your personality.
The enjoyment of taste
In our culture, despite the recent interest in the culinary art of gastronomy, many people hardly distinguish what is put in the mouth, and therefore they miss the opportunity to enjoy a potentially rich source of enjoyment. To transform the biological need to feed ourselves into flow experience, we must start by paying attention to what one eats. Developing a discriminating palate, like any other activity, requires the investment of psychic energy. But the energy used is returned multiplied by many times in a more complex experience.
Like all sources of flow related to body skills, cultivation of taste only leads to enjoyment if one takes control of the activity.
Summary of the body in flow:
Realizing the body’s potential for flow is relatively easy. No special talents or large sums of money are required. We can all improve quality of life by exploring one or more ignored dimensions of our physical capabilities. Of course, it is difficult to achieve high levels of complexity in more than one physical domain. The skills necessary to become a good athlete, dancer, or gourmet of sight, sound, or taste are so difficult to develop that one does not have enough psychic energy in one’s life to master more than one. But surely it is possible to become a dilettante in all these areas, and it is possible to develop enough skills to find delight in what the body can do.
6. The flow of thought
Reading is perhaps the most frequently mentioned flow activity worldwide. Solving mental puzzles is one of the oldest forms of enjoyable activity, a forerunner of modern science and philosophy.
All physical activities involve a mental component if we want them to be something pleasant.
Achieving such an orderly mental condition is not as easy as it sounds. Contrary to what we have to assume, the normal state of mind is chaos. Without training and without an object in the external world that demands our attention, people are unable to focus their thoughts for more than a few minutes at a time.
We usually do not 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 and without interruption. After sleeping we regain consciousness in the morning when the alarm clock goes off, and then we walk to the bathroom and brush our teeth. The social roles prescribed by our culture take control of our minds in our place and we frequently act on autopilot until the end of the day, when it is time to lose consciousness in sleep again. But when we are left alone, without any demands to attend to, the basic disorder of the mind manifests itself. With nothing to do, the mind begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping at painful or disturbing thoughts. Unless a person knows how to bring order to their thoughts, attention is drawn to something that is very troublesome at the moment: it focuses on some real or imaginary pain, recent grudges, or long-term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness.
To avoid this condition, people are eager to fill their minds with whatever information is readily available while distracting attention from turning inward and fixing on negative feelings. This explains why a huge proportion of time is spent watching television, despite the fact that it is seldom enjoyable. When compared to other sources of stimulation -such as reading, talking to other people or playing a hobby-, watching television can offer continuous and easily accessible information that structures the viewer’s attention at a very low cost from the point of view of the psychic energy that needs to be invested. As people watch television, they are not afraid that their minds will force them to deal with disturbing personal problems. Understandably, once this strategy to overcome psychic entropy is developed, giving up this habit becomes nearly impossible.
The best way to avoid the chaos of consciousness, of course, is through habits that give control over mental processes to the individual himself, rather than to some external source of stimulation, such as television programs.
The influence of memory on flow
It is valid to think that memory is the oldest mental ability, from which all others derive, because if we were not able to remember, we could not follow the rules that make other mental operations possible. Neither logic nor poetry could exist, and the discoveries of science would have to be rediscovered by each new generation.
All forms of mental flow depend on memory, directly or indirectly.
Remembering is pleasant because it involves accomplishing a goal and it also brings order to consciousness. We all know how satisfied we feel when we remember where we have put the car keys or any other object that we had temporarily lost.
If consciousness control is considered to be at least as important as the ability to get things done, then learning complex patterns of information through memory is not wasted effort. A mind with stable contents is much richer than one without them. It is a mistake to assume that creativity and memorization are incompatible.
Words allow abstract thinking and increase the mind’s ability to store stimuli. Without systems for ordering information, even the clearest memory will find consciousness to be a state of chaos.
Having a set of rules that the mind can work with is a great benefit even in normal life. People without an internalized symbolic system can be held captive by the media too easily. It is easily manipulated by demagogy, pacified by television entertainers and exploited by anyone with something to sell. If we have become dependent on television, drugs and those who proclaim political or religious salvation, it is because we have little basis on which to rely, few internal rules to prevent our mind from being trapped by those who claim to have the answers. Without the ability to provide its own information, the mind floats in randomness. It is within the power of each person to decide if their order will be restored from the outside, over which we have no control, or if this order will be the result of an internal model that grows organically from our abilities and our consciousness.
Each individual is a historian of his own existence. Because of their emotional power, childhood memories become decisive elements in determining the type of adults we will become and how our minds will function.
While specialization is necessary to develop the complexity of any thinking model, the relationship with goals must always be clear: specialization is for the sake of better thinking, and not an end in itself. Unfortunately, many serious thinkers devote all their mental effort to becoming renowned scholars, but meanwhile they forget the initial purpose of their discipline.
Even outside of high performance, the emphasis has increasingly turned to assessing behaviours rather than subjective states; what is admired is success, achievement, quality of performance rather than quality of experience.
Many people drop out of learning after leaving school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been so manipulated from the outside by books and teachers that they consider the day they graduated to be their first day of freedom.
7. Flow at work
Like other animals, we must dedicate a part of our existence to looking for the necessary resources to live: the calories that the body needs to supply itself do not magically appear on the table, and houses and cars do not spontaneously assemble themselves. However, there are no strict formulas for how long people have to work.
Since work is so universal and so varied, the difference in one’s overall satisfaction is tremendous depending on whether what one does for a living is enjoyable or not.
The more psychic energy we invest in material goals and the more improbable goals become, the more difficult it is to turn them into reality. So we need to work more and more, mentally and physically, as well as we need more and more natural resources to satisfy our expectations that do not stop increasing.
For much of history, most people have had to abandon any hope of enjoying life in order to make the dreams of the few who had found a way to exploit them come true. The achievements that marked the difference between civilized nations and their more primitive contemporaries -such as the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, temples, palaces, etc.- were usually built with the energy of the slaves forced to realize the ambitions of their masters. It should come as no surprise, then, that the work acquired a rather poor and negative reputation.
When one understands that enjoyment depends on increasing complexity, it is no longer possible to take this radical relativism seriously. The quality of the experience of people who transform and play with the opportunities that surround them is clearly more developed, and it is also more pleasant, than the quality of life of people who give up being themselves to live within limitations of a sterile reality that you feel you cannot alter.
Work not only transforms the environment by building bridges to cross rivers and cultivate land: It also transforms the worker who performs it, from being an animal guided by instincs to a conscious, skillful and goal-oriented person.
The more the job is like a game -with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback -the more enjoyable it will be, regardless of the skill level of the worker.
In theory, any work could be altered to produce more enjoyment following the prescriptions of the flow model. If workers really enjoyed their jobs, they would benefit not only on a personal level, but surely sooner or later they will produce more efficiently and achieve all the other goals that are now prioritized such as productivity, safety and wages.
In a study we used the question: do people give more examples of flow at work or at leisure? As we expected, the longer a person was in flow during the week, the better the overall quality of their experience. People who were more frequently in flow were very likely to feel strong, active, creative, focused and motivated. However, it was somewhat unexpected how often people said they were in flow situations at work and rarely when they were at leisure. Flow at work was 54% of the responses, while at leisure it was 18%.
When people were in flow, they described work or free time as a much more positive experience. When the challenges and abilities were high, greater responses were achieved in a state of flow.
In our studies we find the American workers tend to cite three main reasons for their dissatisfaction at work:
? Lack of variety and challenges. Too much monotony.
? Conflicts with colleagues and managers.
? High pressure, tension and too little time to think about yourself and to be with the family.
The waste of free time
Although people want to leave their places of work and go home to make use of their free time and make good use of it, too often they have no idea what to do then. Ironically, it is easier to really enjoy work than free time, because, like flow activities, work has goals, feedback, rules and challenges, everything that makes you get involved, focus and lose yourself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is not structured, it requires a greater effort to become something that can be enjoyed.
The tremendous entertainment industry that has appeared in the last generations is designed to help us fill our free time with pleasant experiences. However, instead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching famous athletes compete in huge stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records by millionaire musicians. Instead of creating art, we are going to admire the paintings that obtained the highest prices at the auction. We do not take risks acting according to our beliefs, but we spend many hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures and who commit to lying, in meaningful actions.
This indirect participation is capable of masking, at least temporarily, the emptiness underlying the waste of time. But it is a very weak substitute for the attention spent on real challenges. The flow experience resulting from the use of our skills leads to growth; passive fun leads nowhere.
Unless the person takes control of them, both work and free time are likely to disappoint. Most jobs and many leisure activities -especially those that promote passive consumption of mass media- are not designed to make us happier and stronger. Its purpose is to make money for someone else. If we allow it, they can suck our life to the core and leave us weak wimp. People who learn to enjoy their work, who do not waste their free time, end up feeling that their lives have become much more worthwhile.
8. Enjoy solitude and others
Studies about flow have repeatedly shown that more than anything else, quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work and our relationships with other people.
Of all things that scare us, the fear of being pushed out of the flow of human interaction is surely the worst. There is no doubt that we are social animals; only in the company of other people do we feel complete.
Social surveys have found that people say they are happiest when they are with their friends and family, or simply in the company of other people. An illness or other mishap is less likely to bring a person down if they can rely on the emotional support of others.
There is no doubt that we are programmed to seek the company of our equals.
When we think about the most negative experiences in a person’s life, we find the most painful events are those that affect our relationships with other people, but the same thing usually happens with the best moments in life. How is it possible to reconcile the fact that people cause both the best and the worst situations that we live in?
A social situation has the potential to be transformed if we change its rules.
Also after understanding a little better how being alone affects the mind, we can see more clearly why being in company is so essential for well-being. The average adult spends only a third of their waking time, and we know very little about this huge part of our lives except that we dislike it.
Most people have an almost unbearable feeling of emptiness when alone, especially if they have nothing specific to do. Adolescents, adults and the elderly; all say that their worst experiences have taken place in solitude. Almost all activities are more enjoyable if someone else is around, and less when you do them alone. People are happier, more alert, and more cheerful if other people are present than if they are lonely, be it working on an assembly line or watching television alone; the worst moods occur when you are alone and there is nothing that needs to be done.
Why is loneliness such a negative experience?
The most profound answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimuli, feedback from the environment to keep our attention focused. And when we lack external information, attention wanders, and thoughts can be chaotic, resulting in the state we have called psychic entropy.
With nothing to do, the mind is unable to prevent negative thoughts from coming to the fore, unless one learns to control consciousness. Concerns about love, life, health, investments, family and work always hover on the periphery of attention, waiting, until there is nothing to call for concentration. As soon as the mind is ready to relax, bang, the potential problems that were eagerly awaiting take over.
This is why television is so beneficial to so many people. Although it is far from being a rich and positive experience, at least the screen brings a certain amount of order to consciousness.
More drastic ways to cope with the fear of loneliness are regular drug use or resorting to obsessive practices. Drugs reduce our perception of both what can be done and what we can do, until both sensations are balanced. This is a pleasant state of affairs, but it is only a deceptive simulation of enjoyment that causes increased opportunities for action and capacities to act.
The ultimate test for the ability to control the quality of experience is what a person does alone, with no external demands to structure their care.
When a person is able to carry out activities of his own free will, without considering what is happening externally, then he has learned to cultivate the quality of life.
You can survive in solitude, but only if you find ways to order your attention to prevent entropy from disrupting your mind.
Loneliness is a problem that must be faced whether you live in Manhattan or you live in Alaska. Unless a person learns to enjoy it, he can waste his life desperately trying to avoid its negative effects.
The family is our first and most important social environment, and the quality of life depends largely on whether a person makes interaction with their relatives pleasant. But then no matter how strong the bonds biology and culture have forged between family members, it is no secret that there is great variety in how people feel about their relatives.
Adolescents without strong family ties become so dependent on their peer group that they would do anything to be accepted by them.
If you change your goals, the personality will change as a consequence, since the personality is the sum of the organization of the goals. In this way, being single and entering any relationship implies a transformation of the personality, not only due to the interaction with another person. Common goals of a group team, or family should reflect and respect individual goals as much as possible. For this it is necessary to keep communication channels open. It is worth investing energy in it, because each individual has goals that some extent are divergent from those of the other members. Without good channels of communication, the distortions will expand until the relationship disintegrates.
Adolescents are biologically mature beings for sexual reproduction. But then psychologically, our current social conventions do not offer the right challenges for the abilities that adolescents have, and they have to discover opportunities for action, outside of those that are sanctioned by adults. The only outlets they find, too often, are vandalism, crime, drugs and sex. Under current conditions, it is very difficult for parents to compensate for the poverty of opportunities that culture offers. What can a strong, vital and intelligent fifteen-year-old do in his residential area? You will probably come to the conclusion that what you have at your fingertips is either too artificial, or too simple, or not exciting enough to catch your imagination.
How to structure this environment to make it challenging enough is surely one of the most urgent tasks facing parents of teenagers. And there is no value in telling our teens to behave and do something useful. What helps them are the examples in their own life and the concrete opportunities. If they do not have access to them, we cannot blame the young man for going his own way.
Emotional security in the first years of life can be one of the key conditions that help develop an autotelic personality in children. Without this, it is difficult to let go of the personality enough to experience flow.
In our studies on the quality of daily experience, it has been shown that people rate the experience more positively, when they are with friends. It is applicable to teenagers, adults and retirees. Because a friendship usually involves common goals and common activities, and this is naturally enjoyable. Friendships allow us to express parts of our being that we would rarely have the opportunity to show otherwise. It is only with friends that most people feel like they can drop their mask and be who they really are. Because we choose the friends with whom we want to share our goals. It is in the company of friends that we can clearly experience the freedom of personality and learn who we really are.
Friendship is not pleasant unless we accept its challenges. If a person surrounds himself with “friends” who simply reaffirm his public image, who never question his dreams or desires, who never force him to try other ways of being, he will lose the opportunities that friendship represents. A true friend is someone with whom we can sometimes be crazy, someone who does not expect us to be always formal. He is someone who shares our goal of self-realization and is therefore willing to share the risks.
Just as in the family, people believe that friendships form naturally, and if they fail, there is nothing to do but be sad. In adolescence, when so many interests are shared with others and you have a lot of free time to invest in a relationship, making friends can seem like a spontaneous process. But later in life friendships rarely happen by chance: you have to cultivate them assiduously, just as you have to cultivate a job or a family.
An exclusively economic approach to life is profoundly irrational. In the end the result is the quality and complexity of the experiences. A community should be judged as good not because it is technologically advanced or because it is swimming in material wealth; It is good if it offers people an opportunity to enjoy as many aspects of their lives as possible while allowing them to develop their potential in following ever-increasing challenges. Similarly, the value of a school does not depend on its prestige or ability to teach students to face the needs of life, but to what degree it is capable of transmitting the enjoyment of learning throughout that life. Why?
Because those who try to make life better for everyone, without having learned to control their own life first, often end up making things worse for everyone around them.
9. Fool the chaos
“The fact that the mind dominates the body is, despite its neglect by biology and medicine, the most fundamental fact that we know about the process of life” Dr. Franz Alexander.
How does the same blow destroy a person, while another transforms it into an inner order? It is clear that the same event can make one person feel totally dejected, while another will bite their lips and do what they can. This difference in how a person responds to stressful events has been called “ability to act”.
There are three types of resources to classify a person’s ability to handle stress:
- Social support network.
- Psychological resources: Intelligence, education and personality.
- Strategies that we use to face situations.
How we handle the situation is the most important factor in determining what effect stress will have on us.
When people are asked to name people they most admire, the qualities that most highlight as the reason for their admiration are courage and the ability to overcome obstacles. As Seneca said: “The good things that come from prosperity must be desired, but the good things that come from adversity must be admired”.
Of all the virtues that we can learn, there is no other characteristic more useful, more necessary for survival and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into a challenge that can provide us with enjoyment. Admiring this quality means that we pay attention to those who embody it, and thus have the opportunity to emulate them if necessary. Therefore, admiring courage is itself a positive characteristic; those who do so may be better prepared to overcome the blows of fate.
Humans have also managed to use surplus energy for their goals. The first major technological invention, fire, is a good example. At first, the fires started randomly: volcanoes, lightning and spontaneous combustion ignited fuel here and there, and the energy of the wood, decomposing, dispersed without purpose. When man learned to control fire, he used its dissipative energy to heat his caves, cook his food, and finally to forge metal objects.
Engines powered by steam, electricity, gasoline, and nuclear fusion are also based on the same principle: harnessing energy that would otherwise be wasted or would oppose our goals. Unless people had learned various tricks to transform the forces of disorder into something they could use, we would never have survived so successfully.
The integrity of the personality depends on the ability to take destructive or neutral events and turn them into positive ones. Getting fired can be a blessing if you make it an opportunity to find something else to do that is more in tune with your desires. In everyone’s life, the chances of only good things happening to you are extremely slim. The possibility of our wishes being fulfilled is always negligible. Sooner or later we will all have to deal with events that contradict our goals: disappointments, illnesses, financial setbacks, and finally the inevitability death. Each such event is negative feedback that creates disorder in the mind. Each threatens the personality and impairs its functioning.
Why are some people weakened by stress, while others draw strength from it? Basically because those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that they can control, are able to enjoy themselves and emerge stronger from the test. There are three main factors:
? Natural self-confidence: Believing in oneself, in one’s own environment and in one’s place in it.
? Focusing attention on the world: It is difficult to realize what surrounds us if the attention is focused mainly on the inside, if the majority of the psychic energy is absorbed by the interests and desires of the ego.
? The discovery of new solutions: Almost all the situations that we encounter in life present us with possibilities for growth.
These transformations require that the person be willing to perceive unexpected opportunities. Most of us are so rigidly driven by genetic programming and social conditioning that we ignore the options to choose any other course of action. Living exclusively on the basis of genetic and social instructions works as long as all is going well, but the moment biological or social goals are frustrated -which in the long term is inevitable- a person must formulate new goals and create a new flow activity to herself, or she will waste her energies in inner chaos.
The difference between someone who enjoys life and someone who is overwhelmed by it is the product of the combination of external factors and the way the person interprets them, that is, if they see challenges as threats or as opportunities for life action.
The autotelic personality transforms potentially entropic experiences (of disorder) into flow. It could be simplified and divided into 4 rules:
1) Define goals.
2) Feel immersed in activity.
3) Pay attention to what is happening.
4) Learn to enjoy the immediate experience.
10. The elaboration of meaning
It is perfectly possible that professional athletes are deeply devoted to their game, that playing gives them pleasure, but that off the court they are moody and hostile people. Picasso enjoyed painting, but as soon as he put down the brush he became a rather unpleasant man. Bobby Fischer, the chess genius, appeared to be helplessly inept, except when his mind was on the board. These and countless other similar examples are a reminder that having achieved flow in an activity does not necessarily force us to extend it to the rest of our lives.
If we enjoyed work and friendships and faced each challenge as an opportunity to develop new skills, we would get rewards that are outside the realm of ordinary life. But even this is not enough to ensure the optimal experience. As long as enjoyment is still tied to specific activities that are not significantly related to each other, one is still vulnerable to the vagaries of chaos.
As long as it provides us with clear goals, clear rules for action and a way to focus and engage, any goal can serve to give a person’s life meaning.
Creating meaning implies bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one’s actions into unified experience of flow.
People who find their lives meaningful often have a goal that challenges them enough to engage all of their energies, a goal that can transcend their lives. We can refer to this process as achieving a purpose.
Few things are sadder than finding a person who knows exactly what to do and who cannot muster enough energy to do it.
Purpose, resolution and harmony unify life and give it meaning by transforming it into a perfect flow experience.
Purpose gives direction to one’s efforts, but it does not necessarily make life easier. Goals can lead to all kinds of problems, to the point that one is tempted to give up and find some less demanding script to order their actions. The price you pay for changing your goals when obstacles threaten them is that even if you can achieve a more enjoyable and comfortable life, you will likely end up feeling empty and meaningless.
No goal can have much effect unless it is taken seriously. Each goal prescribes a set of consequences, and if one is unwilling to consider them, the goal loses its meaning. The mountaineer who decides to climb a difficult peak knows that he will be exhausted and in danger during the ascent. But if he gives up too easily, it will be revealed that his search was of little value. The same is true of all flow experiences: there is a mutual relationship between goals and the effort they require. Goals justify the effort they require at first, but then it will be the effort that justifies the goal.
The wealth of options available to us today has extended personal freedom to a degree inconceivable a hundred years ago. But the inevitable consequence of being able to make so many attractive choices is uncertainty of purpose; uncertainty in turn, undermines resolution and, by lacking resolution, we end up devaluing the choice. Therefore, freedom does not necessarily help to find meaning in life rather the opposite happens. If the rules of a game are too flexible, concentration falters and it is more difficult to achieve a flow experience.
Commitment to a goal and the rules that go along with achieving it is much easier when the choices are few and clear.
How do we know where to invest our psychic energy? Nobody will tell us: “here is a goal that is worth dedicating a lifetime to”. Because there is no absolute certainty. Each person must discover their own ultimate purpose. Through trial and error, intensely cultivating our interests, we can unravel the skein of contradictory goals, and choose the one that gives purpose to our action.
Self-knowledge -an ancient remedy so old that we easily forget its value- is the process by which one can organize the various options. “Know yourself” we find it so many times because it works. However, each generation needs to rediscover what these words mean, what the advice really implies for each individual. And to turn it into something useful we must express it from the point of view of current knowledge and foresee a contemporary method for its application.
If we interpret the lives of animals from a human point of view, we would conclude that they are in flow most of the time because their perception of what to do generally matches what they are willing to do. When a lion feels hungry, it will begin to growl and search for prey until its hunger is satisfied; then he will lie in the sun, dreaming what lions dream. There is no reason to believe that you suffer from unfulfilled ambitions, or that you are overwhelmed by responsibilities. The abilities of animals are always equated to concrete demands because their minds only contain information about what is actually present in the environment in relation to their bodily states, determined by instinct. Therefore, a hungry lion only perceives what will help him to find a gazelle, while a satiated lion concentrates entirely on the warmth of the sun. Your mind does not weigh possibilities that are not available to you at the moment neither imagines more pleasant alternatives, nor is he disturbed by fear of failure.
Animals suffer, just as we suffer, when their biologically programmed goals are thwarted. They feel the pains of hunger, pain and the dissatisfaction of their sexual urges. Dogs bred to be man’s friends are distressed when their owners leave and are left alone. But animals, with the exception of man, are not the cause of their own suffering, they have not evolved enough to be able to feel confused and desperate even after all their needs are covered.
The more complex any system is, the more space it leaves open for alternatives and the more things can go wrong. This surely applies to the evolution of the mind: as its power to handle information has increased, the potential for inner conflict has also increased.
When there are too many demands, options, challenges, we get anxious; when there are few, we feel bored.
Each child, before his self-awareness begins to interfere, actis spontaneously with total surrender and with full participation. A child is rarely sad for no good reason. Understandably, people feel so nostalgic for their childhood years; many feel that the serenity of childhood, the full participation in the here and now, is increasingly difficult to retain as the years go by.
When we are only able to imagine a few opportunities and a few possibilities, it is relatively easy to achieve harmony. The wishes are simple, the choices clear. There is little room for conflict and no need to compromise. This is the order of simple systems, an order caused by lack of opportunity, if we want to call it that. It is a fragile harmony: step by step, with increasing complexity, the opportunities for the system to generate entropy internally also increase.
Few would argue that a simpler consciousness, although more harmonious, is preferable to a more complex one. Although we may admire the serenity of the lion at rest, the carefree Indian who accepts his fate, or the child totally devoted to the present, none of them can offer us a model to solve our problem. The order based on innocence is now beyond our reach. Once the fruit has been plucked from the three, the way back is closed forever.