The rantings of a beautiful mind

On life, society, and computer technology.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I live in the Fortress of Solitude. I drive the Silver Beast. My obsession is justice. I used to be a Windows software developer. I retired in 2000 when my stock options helped me achieve financial security.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The How-to-be-happy Formula, Part III

University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [pronounced chick-SENT-me-hi] was struck by

the relative poverty of experience in free time, the emptiness of most leisure... We all want to have more free time: But when we get it we don’t know what to do with it. Most dimensions of experience deteriorate: People report being more passive, irritable, sad, weak, and so forth. To fill the void in consciousness, people turn on the TV or find some other way of structuring experience vicariously. These passive leisure activities take the worst edge off the threat of chaos, but leave the individual feeling weak and enervated.

An example: Italian researchers report that 3 percent of those who are watching TV report experiencing flow, 39 percent feeling apathetic. For those engaged in arts and hobbies the percentages flip-flop – 47 percent report flow and 4 percent report apathy. In fact, the less expensive (and generally more involving) a leisure activity, the happier people are while doing it. Most people are happier gardening than power boating, talking to friends than watching TV.

Why do most people in their hard-won free time sink into what Csikszentmihalyi calls “a state of apathy that brings no joy.” Are we simply too exhausted to enjoy more active leisure? If so, why do so many people in more traditional societies (such as in Thai villages and Alpine farming communities) work dawn to dusk in the fields and then spend their free time weaving, carving, playing musical instruments, and engaging in other flowlike activities? The problem seems to be our culture’s reliance on television and other forms of passive leisure and on our inability to structure our free time in ways that would enhance our well-being. Well-being resides not in mindless passivity but in mindful challenge.

So, off your duffs, couch potatoes. Pick up your camera. Tune up that instrument. Sharpen those woodworking tools. Get out those quilting needles. Inflate the family basketball. Pull down a good book. Oil the fishing reel. It’s time to head out to the garden store. To invite friends over for tea. To pull down the Scrabble game. To write a letter. To go for a drive. Rather than vegetating in self-focused idleness, lose yourself in the flow of active work and play. You may be surprised what happens. “In every part and corner of our life, to lose oneself is to be a gainer,” noted Robert Louis Stevenson; “to forget oneself is to be happy.”

- The Pursuit of Happiness