06 May Attention, satisfaction and happiness during lockdown (part #1)
In any book, conversation or talk about happiness, positive psychology or how to live well, you can count down the pages or minutes until the mention of Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. A good few decades old now, Flow was a milestone in the study of how to be happy and what happiness means. It is reassuringly dry, repetitive enough to feel unlike a self-help book, (though that is often where it is shelved) and if you haven’t read it, you should. Because it may well help you understand why, even for those of us not in front-line medical jobs or at-risk groups, the COVID-19 crisis can feel so darned difficult.
The core argument of the book goes something like this: we are most happy and fulfilled not when we have maximum choice or freedom or express ourselves the most, but when we are dedicating our full being and all of our effort to a single task which has the correct level of challenge. It doesn’t matter whether it be a hobby or a profession, matching our skills to a task and throwing ourselves into it wholeheartedly is what gives us that elasticity of time and uniting of self and task that is how we create and experience happiness. Most people, Csikszentmihalyi observes, are more likely to feel happy at work than out of it.
Let’s ignore for the moment any concept of extrinsic benefit, of coming out of the other side of the lockdown with a side-hustle, ripped abs or a mad sourdough skills, one of the things which is so difficult at the moment is to know where to dedicate our energies and then, when we have made that decision, keeping our attention there. Without unity of purpose, unity of self is very hard to maintain. Our houses are filled with information and objects, all of which call us away from what we are doing, promising that whatever it was, there is a better, funner, shinier thing we should be doing. That if we are not feeling right, the power lies with us to solve that. Satisfaction, says this voice, is always somewhere else. Plus, self-care is essential. We are all under stress, and sometimes bed is the right place to be.
But there’s the problem. Happiness is not, in fact, in doing whatever you want, jumping from task to task, discarding that which is not immediately successful. Though we do get an endorphin bump from changing tasks, we should be careful about chasing that dragon. It fragments the feeling of selfhood, frustrates with an inability to know why we are feeling this way. Inherent to satisfaction and happiness is challenge, immersion in something singular. In Flow, Csíkszentmihályi describes it as the individual coming back out of loss in the task richer, more complex. A push and pull of losing the self in order to find the self and vice versa. All of which is strongly at odds with our opposition of work and fun.
I am of course talking about improv and what I am getting from it right now. Improv is difficult, invigorating, hard enough that for those couple of hours you are doing it, it is hard to think about anything else. Giving full concentration to a scene, show and team gives me that feeling of coherence and one-pointedness of mind that makes me feel like, even though I went no further than the shop on the corner, this day actually happened. I am not arrogant and naive enough to think that it is the only, or even the best way to do this, but it works for me.
Now, I know I am incredibly lucky. I will not starve or go bankrupt during this time, my family is all safe and I do not have to expose myself to the virus without protection, but I have found the maintenance of coherence and focus to be very difficult. It is a position of extraordinary privilege to be thinking about this, and balancing looking after yourself with attacking a useful challenge is a hard line to tread. When are you helping and when are you damaging yourself?
Improv online is not for everyone of course. It is really important that we respect those people who don’t want to do it, can’t do it, or can’t do it right now, but it can provide very specifically some of the things which we are lacking including, for one this, coherence. And I am grateful for that.