The first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance, the last half consists of the chance without the capacity.
What activities do we do that aren’t necessarily tied to money or recognition? What are the characteristics of these behaviors that we do primarily for enjoyment? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the phrase flow experience to identify activities that are optimal in bringing us enjoyment. The following nine elements were constantly mentioned by participants in a study to describe and explain how it feels when an experience is enjoyable:
There are clear goals every step of the way.
I’ve always thought that generalities were the enemies of personal growth. You have to deal in specifics (goals, deadlines, the right people etc.). Large long term visions are wonderful but I find that they need to be supported by intermediate and short-term goals. It’s too easy to wallow in vagueness and not get anything done. Ambitious short-term goals motivate me to do more than I would normally do. It makes me stretch. Creativity involves newness. Creating something new is a very enjoyable activity. Repairing broken objects is usually an enjoyable activity for men; the goal is obvious. Games are designed so that we can keep score. Again there is clarity and the goal is obvious. Goals for the artist are a little less obvious. How do artists know when they are making progress? And when is a work of art completed? Perhaps that’s why many suspect that an artist’s life is filled with suffering and frustration.
There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
It’s great to know how you are doing and whether you are on the right path. Feedback that’s heard affords you the opportunity to understand whether progress is being made or whether you are on the wrong path pursuing a life that isn’t going to bring you much pleasure.
Practically all behavior triggers some form of real-time feedback. Denied and ignored feedback spawns repetition and life will continue as before. The movie Groundhog Day isn’t a bad analogy. If you are willing to acknowledge the feedback and contemplate all possible scenarios (even those that are painful and perhaps unflattering), then progress can be made. You will be dealing with reality on its own turf. Suppose you are a writer and you haven’t achieved the success you desire. It is because the world doesn’t recognize your talent or is it that there is no talent to be recognized?
There is a balance between challenges and skills.
When we feel that our skills are no match for the challenge we feel anxious, overwhelmed and frustrated. If the task doesn’t test our skills we become bored and restless. There is a fine line between boredom and anxiety. I like Dorothy Parker’s take on boredom – The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.
Action and awareness are merged.
Distraction or preoccupation will diminish the enjoyment of an activity. Focus and one-pointedness is an ingredient in the formula for enjoyment.
Distractions are excluded from consciousness
When you are really focused and in-the-moment, distractions are but a faint memory.
There is no worry of failure
Real enjoyment and worry are mutually exclusive. You can’t worry and have a good time simultaneously.
Self consciousness is often the product of an idle mind. When you are fully engaged with an activity you aren’t dwelling on your alleged shortcomings.
The sense of time becomes distorted
When enjoying life you might feel hungry and decide it’s time for lunch and discover it’s 3:00 in the afternoon. That’s a far better experience than having the feeling “will this ever end” and discover that you will have to wait another 45 minutes for you scheduled morning coffee break.
The activity justifies itself
Some activities are an end in themselves. They aren’t subservient to a distant or larger goal. If there wasn’t enjoyment there wouldn’t be a reason for the activity. This contrasts with many activities in life where enjoyment is secondary to a later goal. Happy people learn to be in-the-moment and often get enjoyment from whatever they are doing.