The scientific study of happiness is referred to as positive psychology. Traditionally, clinical mental health has looked at distress such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. and sought ways to resolve these. As Freud said, “the goals of psychotherapy is to convert neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness.” However, positive psychology takes a different approach and asks, how do human beings flourish and what are the conditions that can make this emergent?
The Evolving Self, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
After many years of research into the psychology of creativity and happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has integrated his findings into the natural sciences, other social sciences, and the humanities. The Evolving Self rests upon the principles of entropy and evolution. Csikszentmihalyi believes the processes which underlie physical entropy and evolution are also at work in other areas, such as cultural “memes,” human genes and the “self,” and that the similarities between the two can be noted in more than just a metaphorical way.
People can best give meaning to their lives by becoming a conscious part of the evolutionary process. Once we understand the overall directional tendency of evolutionary development, we are more inclined to make decisions based on perpetuating complexity, creativity, and adaptation. Flow is the particular type of conscious experience that is most conducive to participating in evolutionary advancement.
Genetically determined instincts and culturally programmed beliefs produce thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are not always in our present interests. Developing control and mastery requires an understanding of how our evolutionary past has conditioned and biased our present view of reality. Acting on these instincts can waste valuable psychic energy and have negative consequences.1
Our genetic repertoire instructs us to utilize the environment in certain ways. Having a predicable food source and means of protection come naturally to us. Yet genes can also misinstruct us, as when “a hungry three-million-year-old gene” prompt us to overindulge in food or drugs, which eventually make us physically and psychologically weaker. This is a form of entropy because it decreases complex growth rather than enhances it.
Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Reflecting on the source of impulse, of habits, is the first step in getting control of one’s psychic energy. Knowing the origin of motives, and becoming aware of our biases is the prerequisite for freedom.”2 This reflection helps the organism individuate by “moderating” its diverse needs.
The same type of reflection is needed to regulate cultural, “mimetic” instructions. He describes memes as “any permanent pattern of matter or information produced by an act of human intentionality.”3 Memes secure the investment of psychic energy in order to survive and reproduce by creating a need in our psyches to feed them. While some memes teach us how to speak, write, act, and behave in ways that increase our potential to individuate, others are a waste of time and can become self-destructive If genes and culture can determine who we are not, then it is up to each individual to create who he or she is – and this is determined by how we invest our psychic energies. We have the option to match our abilities to challenging activities, in which case their skills and abilities will increase and the experience of “flow” is most likely to occur.4 Further, after our skills and abilities increase, we naturally seek out greater challenges.
Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Whenever we discover new challenges, whenever we use new skills, we feel a deep sense of enjoyment. To repeat this desirable feeling, we must find ever higher challenges, build more sophisticated skills; in doing so, we help the evolution of complexity move along one more step.”
1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1993. The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. New York: Harper. p. 63-69.
2. Ibid., p. 18.
3. Ibid., p. 120.
4. Ibid., p. 178-79. – Eight characteristics of flow:
- Clear goals: an objective is distinctly defined; immediate feedback: one knows instantly how well one is doing.
- The opportunities for acting decisively are relatively high, and they are matched by one’s perceived ability to act…
- Action and awareness merge; one-pointedness of mind.
- Concentration on the task at hand; irrelevant stimuli disappear from consciousness, worries and concerns are temporarily suspended.
- A sense of potential control.
- Loss of self-consciousness, transcendence of ego boundaries, a sense of growth and of being part of some greater entity.
- Altered sense of time, which usually seems to pass faster.
- Experience becomes autotelic: if several of the previous conditions are present, what one does becomes worth doing for its own sake.
5. Ibid., p. 189.
By Bradley Sears