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If you can't buy happiness, achieve "flow"


Summary by Dan Dascalescu, 2011-Apr-06

Money can't buy happiness

Generally, GNP correlates with happiness, but with big deviations. For example, Germany and Japan have twice the GDP of Ireland and much lower happiness, and suicide is rampant in Sweden, despite the very high standard of living and social security. In the US, between 1956 and 1996, average adjusted income grew from $8,000 to $20,000, but the percentage of people who reported being "very happy" remained the same 30%. Reported happiness of teenagers correlates inversely with the social class of their community, likely because they spend less time with their hard-working parents. Why doesn't wealth bring happiness?

  1. Escalation of expectations: those making $30k/yr wanted $50k to feel happy, while those making $100k wanted $250k.
  2. Relative deprivation: even the affluent feel poor compared to the very rich.
  3. Socioemotional happiness suffers due to time spent to achieve material happiness. Sensitivity to these atrophies as one's time is worth more and more money, such that the opportunity costs of playing with one's child, or enjoying a book, become too high.

Past societies provided more models of successful lives (e.g. the good craftsman, the wise person, the brave patriot). Nowadays the worth of a person is quantified in a common metric - the dollar.

The material rewards of wealth, health, comfort, and fame, after a certain minimum threshold (a few thousands of dollars above poverty level), seem to be irrelevant. Nevertheless, most people "will still go on from cradle to grave believing that if they could only have had more money, or good looks, or lucky breaks, they would have achieved [happiness]".

Aside from drugs and religion, modern psychology techniques of achieving happiness include self-actualization, ego-resiliency, positive emotionality, salutogenic approach, personality integration, autonomy, dispositional optimism, learned optimism (test).


Csikszentmihalyi proposes (awareness of) another technique: "autotelic experience", or "flow" - "an experience so engrossing and enjoyable that is becomes worth doing for its own sake, even though it may have no consequence outside itself". Over 10,000 interviews suggest that happiness depends on whether a person can derive flow from whatever they do. The experience of flow is described as "ecstatic", "somehow separate from the routines of everyday life". The separation can be induced by environmental cues (e.g. walking into a sports arena), or internally, by focusing attention.

Our nervous system can process only about 110 bits per second. Hearing and understanding speech required 60 bits per second, which is why you can't listen to more than two people talking to you. Being in flow tends to use up all processing power of the brain, such that physical sensations including thirst, hunger or pain, may go unnoticed. Performance becomes effortless. A composer describes this state as "I feel that I almost don't exist".

In business terms, flow is described by Sony founder Masaru Ibuka:

To establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society and work to their heart's content.
-- Masaru Ibuka, the first "Purposes of Incorporaton" of Sony

Characteristics of flow


From the 1999 paper:

  1. Know very clearly what needs done, moment by moment
  2. Have immediate feedback
  3. Abilities match opportunities (challenges match skills)

In the TED talk (starting at 15:06), Csikszentmihalyi presents a graph of challenges vs. skills, with 8 areas: worry, anxiety (low skill, high challenge), arousal, FLOW (high skill, high challenge), control, relaxation (high skill, low challenge), boredom, apathy (low skill, low challenge).

A study on 8,000 very diverse people reveals 7 conditions to enter "flow" (TED talk, at 14:04):

  1. Completely involved in what you are doing - focused, concentrated.
  2. A sense of ecstasy - of being outside reality.
  3. Great inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done, and how well you are doing.
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable - that your skills are adequate to the task.
  5. A sense of serenity - no worries about oneself, and a feeling of going beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  6. Timelessness - thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
  7. Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

Flow and happiness

Happiness is perceived after the "flow" experience (since during it, the brain is occupied almost completely with the experience).

People are happy not because of what they do, but because of how they do it. If they can experience flow working on the assembly line, chances are they will be happy, whereas if they don't have flow while lounging at a luxury resort, they are not going to be happy.

Flow only provides life-long happiness if it is found in activities that provide a potential for growth, allow for the emergence of new opportunities, and stimulate the development of new skills.

Limitations of flow

  1. Short-term enjoyable activities can provide flow while being destructive in the long run: vandalism, drugs, juvenile crime (which is rarely a consequence of deprivation, but is rather caused by boredom or lack of other opportunities for flow).
  2. Exclusive focus on one way of achieving flow (e.g. a workaholic who only feels alive while on the job)

Material rewards are often zero-sum (e.g. money, power). Rewards from flow are most often open-ended and inexhaustible.

Unfortunately, too many institutions have a vested interest in making people believe that buying the right car, the right soft drink, the right watch, the right education will vastly improve their chances of being happy, even if doing so will mortgage their lives" and "materialist propaganda is clever and convincing.

You can help. Spread this article to bring awareness of accessible and sustainable ways to achieve happiness.