How not to be miserable: Challenge, mastery, and flow as panacea…

There’s a pervasive theme among my clients. Time and again, they report having pretty OK lives; they have a comfortable home, supportive relationships, a decent job, and plenty of stuff. But they’re unhappy, or preoccupied, or stressed, or overwhelmed by their emotions (usually anxiety and, or depression). In fact, despite having enviable lives (compared to a lot of the rest of the world), they’re miserable.

Base jump

Tellingly, whenever I ask my clients what they do for fun or stress management, or what they’re passionate about, pretty much all of them come up blank. It’s not that they haven’t been passionate about things, or that they never had fun, it’s just that they’ve allowed their ‘adult’ lives to take over.

The modern adult life isn’t much fun, or so I’m told over and over. Instead of reaching a magical age when everything is revealed and we feel like competent grown ups, we find (much to our disappointment) that we’re the same person in a harsher, more demanding environment. The optimism and open-mindedness that most people experienced in their 20’s, is usually (slowly) replaced by a world-weary acceptance and, eventually, scepticism and conservatism, by the time most of us reach our 40’s. The demands of modern living wear us down and narrow our focus; youthful enthusiasms begin to appear naïve; and pressures from work (which many people actively despise), family, kids, and the ubiquitous bills and other financial demands (including the constant need to upgrade) wear us down. After a while we struggle to pay attention to things that used to be important (like our health), and numb ourselves with alcohol, television and social media to assuage the pain of a long, hard work day. Life has lost its sheen. It’s become a series of obstacles. We yearn for our younger selves’ feelings of optimism, but have no idea how to recapture it. So, instead, we place our hopes on supposed tangibles, like holidays and new cars, and promotions, and stuff. Of course it doesn’t help, we still feel empty, but the temporary feeling we get from the thing or the holiday makes us believe that we’d be OK if only we could have more. Worse, we buy in to the expectation that happiness and satisfaction should just happen, or be provided by others, or simply be purchased. We stop taking personal responsibility for our wellbeing and attempt (almost always unsuccessfully) to outsource it.

No wonder we’re all so bloody miserable. We’ve fallen victim to an epidemic of self-manufactured ennui*.

Technically, we’ve fallen victim to the focusing illusion (also called the availability heuristic) – our perceptions are negatively coloured by the things we focus on, even if those things are disproportionately small. When everything you focus on is crap (or boring, or tiring, or frustrating, etc.), that’s all you’ll see, no matter how many awesome things actually happen.

Let me provide an alternative. In the 1960’s the (rather awesome) Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, noted psychologist and polymath, proposed the notion of Flow. Flow, he posited, is the ultimate state of human consciousness, in which we are completely absorbed in the moment, and during which we are able to function to an extremely high capacity. Csikszentmihalyi first noted this phenomenon in athletes, but subsequently reported evidence of flow states in normal people in normal life events. No matter who the person or what the background experience, those reporting flow indicate that they’ve never felt more absorbed, more satisfied, or more alive. It’s pretty awesome.

In fact, there’s a strong relationship between experiencing flow states and satisfaction in the rest of our lives. That is, people who report experiencing flow on a more regular basis are substantially more satisfied the rest of the time. Conversely, they are substantially less likely to experience anxiety, depression, or ennui.

Great! “So how do I get me some of this flow stuff?”, I hear you ask. Well, there’s a catch. Flow doesn’t just happen, it requires the right circumstances and mindset to occur, and (here’s the crux) this takes time and effort to accomplish. In fact, flow is most often the end product of a process of skills development and mastery, combined with just the right amount of challenge. In other words, it has to be earned. Real accomplishment comes from taking time to invest in learning, skills development and mastery, all of which take considerable effort, attention and resources. Thus, flow is more likely to occur alongside expertise – where challenge and skills are balanced (with skill ever so slightly higher than challenge). Have a look at the diagram below.


You’ll see from the diagram that flow is most likely to occur when skills and challenge are balanced. Too much skill without enough challenge equals boredom, and too much challenge without corresponding skill results in anxiety. Many of us find ourselves in one or the other, cycling from anxiety to boredom without ever hitting the flow sweet spot. This is because, for most of us, skill development is, like many other things in our lives, no longer a priority. You spent your 20’s developing skills (out of a combination of necessity and curiosity), and from then on, it was mostly a case of slight refinement or simple repetition, rather than active, ongoing development. Most importantly, by the time life caught up to you in your 30’s, you’d forgotten about the biggest driver of skills development: passion.

Hardly any of my clients report any passion in their lives. In fact their lives are anti-passion. The modern, middle-class life seems to be set up specifically for denuding passion, unless it’s socially sanctioned and easily digestible (football anyone?). This is because passion requires fuel, and that fuel comes from the time, energy, resources and effort we put into sustaining our passions. Modern lives don’t offer us much in the way of left over fuel for our passions, so we let them die. And alongside the death of our passions we lose the motivation to develop our skills; so our desire for challenge is negated (we actually start to dread challenge), and our opportunities for flow disappear into the crap of boring, quotidian life.

OK, fine. But what’s the point in telling you that you’ve created a boring life that kills your chance of passion and flow, if you’re stuck in that life? Well, my question to you is: are you really stuck, or is it just habit. Sure, you have a demanding job, bills, kids – in fact, you’re (to use a horrid modern expression) ‘time-poor’. I’m not suggesting you take up base jumping (despite the picture at the top of the article) or another ‘adrenaline’ sport. In fact, most people find themselves really disappointed when they attempt to compensate for their lack of passion by attempting something ‘exciting’. Because it also turns out that most of these activities require a pretty heavy skills base in order to provide satisfaction, and this skills base requires hundreds or thousands of hours of dedicated time and practice. Worse, we make a double error by, first, confusing risk for excitement and, then, by assuming that excitement is a substitute for flow. Instead, most of the time, we just end up feeling anxious and disappointed (because we expected to feel flow or something like it and didn’t because we lacked the skill base necessary to match the perceived challenge).

So, by all means take up base jumping if you’re prepared to spend several hundred hours mastering standard parachute jumps, and then, developing your skill base to a point where you’ve mediated the hazard through a combination of skills mastery and the ability to take measured risk (so you’re less likely to kill yourself). Great! But, in fact, flow doesn’t even require physical activity – it simply requires balancing skills with challenge (with the caveat that you need to spend time developing your skills, which is a lot easier when it’s driven by passion). So we’re back to the choice point: are you prepared to spend your remaining life being miserable, dealing with the daily grind of stress and disappointment, or are you going to do something that matters to you, no matter how many barriers are in the way. Whatever you end up doing might be totally profound (like a major humanitarian effort), or completely selfish (like mountain biking), or just pointless (like chess) (read here about my ideas on the value of purposeless activity); to my mind, it doesn’t really matter what you do, because you’ll be doing something that matters to you, and the spillover will enhance the rest of your life. Just remember that whatever it is you decide to do, it will require effort and sacrifice on your behalf, and the rewards won’t be immediate. It might take years to master whatever it is you want to master, and that, in itself makes all the difference. By devoting yourself to something, you’re cultivating passion, which fuels your desire for skills development, which increases your need for (rather than discomfort around) challenge, which improves your chances of experiencing flow, which is what it’s all about really…

Rereading through this post, it all sounds a bit middle class. Maybe it is – in fact, it’s only relatively recently that a greater majority of people have had access to leisure, study, or other passions that can be pursued with vigour. But the very fact that we have more, coincides with many people (who have the most stuff) feeling less satisfied. Mostly gone are our deep connections to family and community (read here), and our need to work hard (and to wait) for the things we want. That’s been replaced by easy credit, social media, and raised expectation, leaving us feeling empty. Our resilience (learning through progress and failure, and recognising that failure can be part of progress) has shrivelled up and been replaced by apathy, avarice and impatience. As pointless as it seems, setting up the conditions to experience more flow, can help us overcome our listlessness and disconnection. Passion provides energy, and energy lets us expand our focus beyond the increasingly narrow sphere of existence most of us create for ourselves. It leaves room for openness to ideas, experiences, and alternatives, rather than becoming conservative, resistant and curmudgeonly.

Deep satisfaction comes from doing something that feels worthwhile. Of course, it’s all illusion (read here), but so is everything else…


* Ennui [noun]: a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.

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