Happiness is Simple, Not Easy (Part 3 of 3)

If you haven’t yet, please check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this happiness series.

An Evolutionary Paradox

It sounds relaxing, vegetating in front of a TV, hitting the channel-down button as the screen’s rapidly changing colours light up our faces. After the novelty wears off, though, we don’t feel great.

It’s counter-intuitive, since we’re taught from a young age that not needing to expend much labour is the true mark of accomplishment. Our minds are packed with images of royalty lounging on their priceless furniture surrounded by servants, and successful business people (modern royalty) in an oceanside summer home with a brilliant view, frozen for eternity before a sublime sunset.

In all our imagery of success and happiness, we see people relaxed and comfortable. So if we can enjoy convenience and ease today, we should snatch up the opportunity without the gargantuan cost of a lifetime of effort, right? Why wait to be comfortable? Why miss out on being happy now?

It may seem like it makes sense that we would have evolved to be happiest when we’re spending the least energy to dissuade us from wasting calories that were so precious in the pre-industrial world. Following that logic, there should be an inverse relationship between our happiness while performing any task and its difficulty.

However, this isn’t the case. Counting grains of rice and sitting in traffic isn’t a treat. Our youth aren’t at risk for becoming addicted to slowly and aimlessly walking around their neighbourhood. We don’t groan in frustration if we mistakenly chose the fastest-moving checkout aisle at the grocery store, robbing us of the opportunity to simply stand there. Our world is the opposite.

The Skill-Difficulty Fit

We abhor mindless tasks. Idleness with intent is relaxation, but idleness without intent is boredom, and as a 2014 study in which participants would rather electrocute themselves than sit still for up to 15 minutes showed, we prefer even physical pain to boredom. We relish the challenge. We like to try.

But of course, universally difficult tasks don’t make us happy either. We don’t get excited at the idea of scrubbing our driveway clean with an old toothbrush, or signing up for an Ironman race with no training. When the objective isn’t clear or the reward for completion doesn’t excite us, we don’t feel motivated.

When there is purpose, though, we love to see ourselves gain proficiency and skill over time, performing increasingly difficult versions of the task until we develop mastery. When an activity has the perfect combination of purpose, difficulty (given our skill level), and feedback, we feel engaged, enriched, and motivated.

We thrive when we feel like our limits are being pushed without being shoved. We love when an activity takes up enough of our attention that we don’t have any mental space left to worry if we’ve left the stove on. When a task has those magical ingredients, we are elevated to a trance-like state. This is “flow.”

The Importance of Channelling Excess Energy

The outside world melts away, and we feel this odd sensation of being outside of ourselves, forgetting any identifying characteristics of who we are. Maybe we’re playing football with our friends, coding for work, or painting something for somebody we love. We feel “in the zone” — our perception of time distorts, we feel a sense of oneness with the task at hand, and most importantly, we feel a deep sense of clarity and enjoyment.

Consciousness is in a perpetual state of entropy. Our mind, when left to its own devices, is diffusing its energy aimlessly. This is inherently unpleasant. Although a natural byproduct of consciousness, this mental energy, when in excess, can become corrosive and destructive, leading to chaos for the mind. We might feel fidgety, anxious, worried, restless, even unhappy, without a discernible cause.

Immersing ourselves in flow gives order to consciousness and protects our minds against the negative effects of unused mental energy. Like pouring sand into a bucket and overturning it to make the shape of a castle, focus gives form to our consciousness and provides it a scaffolding on which to exist in a healthy and productive way.

The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Flow — as a mental state — and its implications on individual happiness were popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American researcher and psychologist who studied optimal experience and how to achieve it. His seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, published in 1990, was the evidence-based debut of many of the ideas that we now see as common knowledge in the self-improvement/productivity space as they relate to the relationship between work and happiness. Below is a graph of our subjective experience when performing an activity of varying difficulty.

When trying a skill we want to cultivate, we sometimes make the mistake of delving in when the task is too difficult. The mismatch between our skill level and the task difficulty causes worry or anxiety, both of which are demotivating and counterproductive to achieving flow. If we start too easy, we shrug our shoulders and miss the point of the activity and disengage.

Mastery is achieved through the positive feedback loop between challenge and proficiency, and it is through incrementally and consciously increasing difficulty that we create the environment conducive to flow. This requires reliable and instant feedback.

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we can make happen.”— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Being in flow, we lose ourselves; our sense of individuality fades into the background. But coming out of flow, our sense of self and identity intensifies. In no trivial way, we feel as though we have a stronger sense of who we are and what we are meant to do after the experience of detaching from our self. Thus, being in flow is a self-education tool. Oscillating in and out of flow over time, we have the feeling of returning to ourselves with our individualities written in a slightly bolder font each time.

Our understanding of our nature may help us to choose activities that will likely lead to a state of flow, but inversely, being in flow may also help us become reacquainted with our nature for future decision-making too. We’ve all had the experience of sitting around a table with friends, lost in conversation. Effortless but deeply engaged. Seemingly out of nowhere, the restaurant staff are piling chairs onto empty tables, signalling closing time.

We walk away from those experiences with deep satisfaction and sense of fulfillment, not merely because of the contents of the conversation, but because getting lost in almost anything makes it easier to find our way back to ourselves.

Happiness is Not Inevitable

We grow up with this romantic idea that as long as we don’t make any catastrophic decisions in our life, happiness is inevitable. But life is not a spectator sport. Cultivating sustainable and high levels of enjoyment throughout our lives takes intentional and consistent effort.

We must protect the delicate flame of our happiness from the harsh winds of chance and judgment. We must make decisions that seem illogical to others but align with our nature. We must find the bravery to build relationships using our authentic selves and cultivate them through sustained effort.

Ultimately, we must have the courage to admit our needs to ourselves and then subsequently live in a way that meets them. And I’m not sure which is harder.


If you haven’t yet, please check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this happiness series.

The original version of this essay was shared on Long Way Home🏡 (Oct. 21, 2020)

A special thanks to Blake Reichmann, Giselle Sproule, Kiki Schirr, Soma Mandal, Chris Harvey, Ali Q for being so generous with their time and energy, and offering such thoughtful, valuable feedback.




Creator of the Long Way Home🏡 newsletter. Writing to think. Let’s explore.

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Long Way Home🏡 by Vandan Jhaveri

Long Way Home🏡 by Vandan Jhaveri

Creator of the Long Way Home🏡 newsletter. Writing to think. Let’s explore.

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