In his book, Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes Optimal Experience in the following way:
It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt–sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile. Such events do not occur only when the external conditions are favorable, however: People who have survived concentration camps or who have lived through near-fatal physical dangers often recall that in the midst of their ordeal they experienced extraordinary rich epiphanies in response to such simple events as hearing the song of a bird in the forest, completing a hard task, or sharing a crust of bread with a friend.
What can be concluded from such a statement is that the best moments, the most optimal moments in our lives are not passive ones. The times where you relax and do nothing can be pleasurable but rarely do we look back at such times with fondness and memory. Instead, the opposite is what we recall. The times where we sacrificed, worked hard, stretched ourselves physically and mentally to achieve a goal. These character-defining moments are what gives our lives richness and thus makes these experiences optimal.
Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.
“Make” is the keyword. It means we have to actively pursue tasks that are challenging, which make us uncomfortable and the accomplishment of such tasks would result in growth.
For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat this own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.
An important component to achieving optimal experiences is understanding what you care for and what doesn’t matter to you. You cannot rely on society to determine your rewards and punishments because you may simply not care for what other people find important. So, the pursuit of something that has little value in your life will not provide you with optimal experiences even though it may test you physically or mentally.
To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its reward and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. This challenge is both easier and more difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within each person’s hands; difficult because it requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present. And before all else, achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.
The main thing to understand about the optimal experience is that it may not be pleasant as you experience it. When you truly push your body physically to new heights, pain will be associated with that struggle. Or when you consistently put yourself in uncomfortable positions you really test your mind and force it to adapt but during that task, the feeling of being uncomfortable, of quitting, of the easier things you could be doing instead will be prevalent in your mind. That resistance is something you have to deal with.
Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long-run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery–or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life–that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably experience.
The aim then is to pursue enjoyment and not pleasure. Pleasure can be hedonistic and is often temporary where after the pleasurable act is over, that sensation or feeling fades. While enjoyment, which comes from optimal experiences, stays with you long after the act, it is this enjoyment we think back to, feel a sense of pride and are overcome with happy emotions when recalling what we have accomplished.
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