“Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”
Pleasure is what we get from satisfying a bodily need, such as hunger or thirst. Enjoyment, on the other hand, comes from an intrinsic desire, a motivation to grow and to be curious.
While both are positive experiences, only enjoyment leads to self-improvement.
Those things we do for fun usually don’t have an external draw card such as money or status, they’re the type of activities that involve novelty and experiences.
“Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment.” — Flow
In the midst of these experiences we lose track of time, our sense of self, and of our everyday concerns that would normally intrude on our mind. We enter a state of flow, characterized by deep concentration and immersion in an activity.
The brain goes into a state of transient hypofrontality, according to Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project, where activity in the prefrontal cortex reduces. This area houses the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, sometimes known as the “inner critic” for its role in self-consciousness.
This is essential for what Mihaly calls the autotelic self, or the being that can turn bad situations into enjoyable ones using the right mindset. By unlocking the flow state we can deal with otherwise painful or difficult events in a more pleasant way, but for this to occur it requires our concentration.
“Having an autotelic self implies the ability to sustain involvement. Self-consciousness, which is the most common source of distraction, is not a problem for such a person.” — Flow
Enjoyable activities are often those that don’t seem like they should be fun at the time. They’re filled with exhaustion both mentally and physically, and comprise elements of risk and danger. What’s more, they lack the same rewards that drive much of our usual activities.
“[…] experiences [might not be] particularly pleasurable at the time they are taking place, but afterward we think back on them and say, “That really was fun” and wish they would happen again.” — Flow
There is a distinction to make here, between the experience of the moment, and of the memory we’re left with.
The Two Selves
It would make logical sense that the most fondly remembered experiences in our lives are those that were the most enjoyable at the time they took place. But that’s not the case.
Daniel Kahneman, nobel laureate and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, illustrates two selves, both of whom process happiness in different ways: the experiencing self and the remembering self.
“The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: ‘Does it hurt now?’ The remembering self is the one that answers the question: ‘How was it, on the whole?’” — Kahneman
Kahneman references a study in which participants had to separately submerge each of their hands into cold water. The temperature was low enough to be considered painful.
For one of their hands, the duration of the submersion lasted one minute, at which point they removed their hand. For the second hand, an extra 30 seconds was added, but, during this extra time warmer water was added to the bucket so as to raise the temperature very slightly.
If we were to graph the pain experienced by each hand, it is clear that the one that lasted only one minute would have experienced less, for the simple fact that it spent 30 seconds less in the cold water.
But, that’s not how people remembered it.
“[…] retrospective assessments are insensitive to duration and weight two singular moments, the peak and the end, much more than others.” — Kahneman
When asked which hand they’d prefer to re-submerge, the majority chose the hand that went in for the longest time, and as such experienced the most pain.
The remembering self looks back and rather than seeing the full picture, and taking into account the time spent, looks only at two factors: the peak emotional experience, and the end.
As both hands experienced the same cold temperature, the peak experiences were likely the same. The important difference was at the end, where one hand had experienced a slight raise in temperature, therefore relieving some of the discomfort — yet clearly experiencing more on the whole.
“A story is about significant events and memorable moments, not about time passing. […] This is how the remembering self works: it composes stories and keeps them for future reference.” — Kahneman
Who then, do we care more for? The self that exists in the moment, and experiences more pain as more time passes; or the self that exists only as a memory, yet defines how we look back on our lives?
“Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” — Kahneman
There is a strange divide between our two selves. One acts in the moment, and while we only ever exist in that moment, the demands can be impulsive and neglect our future self. The other decides how we interpret these past actions, but in doing so fails to take into account the time spent on them and the true measure of enjoyment experienced.
In a way, both selves neglect their opposites.
“Some aspects of life have more effect on the evaluation of one’s life than on the experience of living. Educational attainment is an example. More education is associated with higher evaluation of one’s life, but not with greater experienced well-being.” — Kahneman
The key is attention. At any moment in time, we have a choice about what to focus on.
We can attend to the experiences in the moment and enter a state of flow, or we can look back over the past and revel as the hero in our personal narrative.
“[…] people who are able to retrieve a past situation in detail are also able to relive the feelings that accompanied it, even experiencing their earlier physiological indications of emotion.” — Kahneman
The greatest way to maximize happiness — both forms of it — is to take part in activities that contain the necessary conditions for flow, and that offer peak experiences and memorable endings that promote psychological growth.
Many of our goals require us to fight through uncomfortable or downright painful experiences. To workout, eat right, face our fears, each asks us to do something that our experiencing self might not enjoy.
But in achieving our goals our life forms meaning, we realize its purpose.
“The goals that people set for themselves are so important to what they do and how they feel about it that an exclusive focus on experienced well-being is not tenable.” — Kahneman
And, the best way to reach these goals is through flow. Where the experiencing self takes an otherwise difficult situation, immerses itself entirely into the activity, and comes out having been stretched to the limit of its ability.
“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 that we make happen.” — Flow
Keeping both selves happy is to balance the time-relevant experiences of the moment with peak-relevant memories that make up ones life. Using flow not only creates peak experiences out of any activity, but it drives us toward more memorable achievements with greater vigor that we end up having more to look back on.