We all want to be happy. That’s a given. But we also tend to tie our happiness to one-off events. Holidays, Friday nights, buying new shoes, going out for dinner at a fancy restaurant. Those sorts of things make us happy. The problem is their inherent rarity, and that doing them too often deadens their effect.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to be happy on a day to day basis, not on occasional special events. I guess that it is the result of reaching the age where I am fully responsible for myself and can't expect other people to structure my life. The interesting realization I have come to from reading a lot of books and doing a lot of thinking is that we don’t become happier by doing more of the one off, fun stuff. We become happier by making the dull, routine stuff meaningful as well. I’m talking about paperwork, chores, annoying phone calls to apathetic customer services, that kind of stuff. We all have to do it and most of the time we hate it.
In Finding Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses this topic. According to Csikszentmihalyi, our well-being depends on the number of ‘flow’ experiences we have. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, ‘flow’ refers to the times when we are so caught up in what we are doing that we lose our sense of time or even of ourselves. We might experience it while playing sport, making art, working on an enjoyable project, or playing with our pets. And we have three areas of our lives in which to fit flow experiences:
“...in essence, what our life consists in experiences related to work, to keep things we already have from falling apart, and to whatever else we do in our spare time. It is within these parameters that life unfolds, and it is how we chose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up for a formless blur or to something resembling a work of art.”
What helps us find flow? Goals. Goal setting is a big part of my personal life. I set them for each day and month, as well as setting long-term stretch goals. But I don’t just scribble them in a notebook and forget about it. I’m strict about measuring my achievement every single day, ticking off the goals I have completed and making plans for the ones I haven’t. The humble spreadsheet is my copilot. I use them to track a lot of different daily, monthly and stretch measurable goals - words written, hours slept, hours worked, pages read, healthy meals eaten, income, expenditure. A completed goal gets a green square, an incomplete one is red. I can see at a glance how well the day or month went. I don’t discuss this with other people because talking about our goals actually makes us less likely to meet them. No one is holding me accountable - the motivation is all intrinsic:
“Psychic entropy is highest instead when persons feel that what they do is motivated by not having anything else to do. Thus both intrinsic motivation (wanting to do it) and extrinsic motivation (having to do it) are preferable to a state where one acts by default, without having any kind of goal to focus attention. The large part of life many people experience as being thus unmotivated leaves a great deal of room for improvement...Without a consistent set of goals, it is difficult to develop a coherent self. It is through the patterned investment of psychic energy provided by goals that one creates order in experience.”
But shouldn’t we just be spontaneous? Doesn’t having a lot of goals restrict us? Part of the reason I don’t discuss mine with people around me is that measuring our lives often gets labeled as obsessive or restrictive. Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t think so and neither do I:
“Those who expect that by being spontaneous they will avoid setting goals, usually just follow blindly the goals set down for them by instinct and education. They often end up being so mean, lecherous and prejudiced as to stand a good Buddhist monk’s hair on end...Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that required appropriate responses.”
When I don’t set goals, I work less, sleep less, eat worse, read less, write less and generally get apathetic. What else helps us to find flow?
“What is common to such moments is that consciousness is full of experiences and these experiences are in harmony with each other...in moments such as these, what we feel, what we wish and what we think are in harmony….Another characteristic of flow activities is that they provide immediate feedback. They make it clear how well you are doing...Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. Optimal experiences usually involve a fine balance between one’s ability to act, and the available opportunities for action.”
Note that there is no mention of lounging around in a hammock under a palm tree, or earning more money, or having more friends. Finding flow requires goals, feedback and the right dose of challenge. If you think about it, we can bring those attributes to almost any task or situation. We can make anything challenging and goal orientated if we wish.
Personally, I’m really bad at answering emails. Whenever I get a sweet, lovely email from a reader, it usually takes me weeks or even months to respond despite how much I appreciate it. When I do reply, I end up overthinking it and taking hours to write an email which doesn’t even get across what I want to say. The solution I have found is a Gmail plugin (which I believe works for other email providers) called the Email Game. It turns the process into a, well, game. It makes it a challenge to reply to as many people as possible each day. It’s helping me alot with getting through the backlog of emails I have collected. I also find ways to apply the three flow attributes to dull tasks. When I need to do chores, write a pitch or read academic papers for work (tasks which I find hard and usually not much fun) I set tight yet realistic time limits and make a game out of finishing it in time. The motivation switches from extrinsic to intrinsic. I find that this makes the day to day stuff more enjoyable, even when I’m not having many of the dramatic, obviously fun experiences.
Some of the chapters of Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg also focus on finding meaning in everyday situations.
“People who know how to self-motivate, according to studies, earn more money than their peers, report higher levels of happiness, and say they are more satisfied with their families, jobs, and lives….A prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. To motivate ourselves, we must feel like we are in control… When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more.”
Duhigg’s suggestion for finding this motivation is simple:
“People are more motivated to complete difficult tasks when those chores are presented as decisions rather than commands….Unless we practice self-determination and give ourselves emotions rewards for subversive assertiveness, our capacity for self-motivation can fade...What's more, we need to prove to ourselves that our choices are meaningful...It is part of a bigger project that we believe in, that we want to achieve, that we have chosen to do. Self-motivation, in other words, is a choice we make because it is part of something bigger and more emotionally rewarding than the immediate task that needs doing.”
That's where these two books link together; we find motivation and in turn flow (which I'm using interchangeably with 'happiness' here) by seeing what we do as meaningful and by loving what we do. Again, Duhigg isn't talking about the dramatic stuff, he's talking about making otherwise draining minutiae feel important. The final chapter includes an example from his own life:
"One of my hardest challenges, for instance, concerned my motivation which seemed to flag at exactly the wrong times. While I was working on this book, I was still also a reporter at The New York Times. What's more, I was promoting my previous book, and trying to be a good husband and dad. In other words, I was exhausted...I'd find my self-motivation was in short supply...One night, after putting the kids to bed, I sat at my laptop and hit the reply button, creating a series of responses. Then, as fast as I could, I typed a sentence within each email - any sentence at all - to get me going...I noticed two things. First, it was much easier to reply to an email once I had at least one sentence on the screen. Secondly, and more important, it was easier to get motivated when that first sentence made me feel in control...I used those sentences to amplify my internal locus of control...Forcing ourselves to explain why we are doing something helps us remember that this chore is a step along a longer path, and by choosing that journey, we are getting closer to more meaningful objectives...Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate (to ourselves) that we are in control."
In essence, the combination of these two ideas is something I find profound: the idea that it doesn't matter whether we do what we love or love what we do, provided we reframe it around goals and self-motivation. The big ticket items still matter, but I balk at the idea of prioritizing them over the day to day work which consumes 99% of our time, or of living for Fridays and holidays. And these two books are teaching me how to flip that balance.