Success, the good life and “flow”

Aristotle, an early positive psychologist

Aristotle, an early positive psychologist

I consider myself–on the whole, give or take–lucky. That’s because I’ve been able to arrange my life in such a way that I spend a fairly large share of it doing something that both suits and pleases me: writing. When I write–whether for The Economist or my book, or even on this little blog–I tend to forget myself and become absorbed in the activity. This is a state that psychologists and new-agey types call flow.

Flow is really important, because it is the basic ingredient of “the good life,” as opposed to the “pleasant life” or the “meaningful life”.

I’m getting those terms from Martin Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology. Watch this fascinating talk by him at the TED conference in 2004.

The premise of Positive Psychology is that traditional psychology has been one-sided by studying only miserable people and freaks and trying to devise ways of ameliorating their misery. Traditional psychologists did not study happy people and geniuses, and did not try to figure out what made these people so. Positive psychology does precisely that. It

  • studies strengths as well as weaknesses
  • tries to build strengths rather than ameliorate damage
  • tries to figure out what makes lives fulfilling

And so we get to the three kinds of “happy” lives: Pleasant, Good and Meaningful.

The pleasant life is about maximizing pleasures. Savoring good food and sex, enjoying sunsets, and so forth. This is great, but there are two problems. 1) The ability to enjoy pleasure is, perhaps surprisingly, hereditary. You’re born with a natural limit on your savoring. 2) Pleasure habituates. The first scoop of gelato tastes divine, the second good, the third fine, the fourth so-so, the fifth is mildly off-putting, the sixth leaves you sick of it forever.

The good life is the one Aristotle talked about a lot. It comes from achieving flow. Parenting, writing, gardening–whatever you’re doing, if you merge with an activity that you are good at, and you do that on a regular basis, then you lead a good life. If you are good with people and happen to be bagging groceries in a supermarket for a living, you can turn the bagging into a social occasion and achieve flow.

The meaningful life is when you use your strengths not just for flow but for something larger than you. Serving others, basically.

The “full life” is defined as having all three. In the context of my book, it might also be called: Success.

6 thoughts on “Success, the good life and “flow”

  1. I love nearly all the TED talks, but this is one that resonated with me too. I’ve tried to adapt my life to more actively include the good and meaningful life experiences.

    Another one that I really enjoyed was Barry Schwartz’s talk on the “Paradox of Choice”

  2. I read this post and almost convinced myself that I had nothing to say. Then, the flood gates opened. Where to begin? Several years ago I came up with the statement, ‘just because I like to sleep and I’m good at it, doesn’t mean the world owes me a living.’ (I say this as a fable. I happen to be a poor sleeper.) Do you think it is an American thing, or a generational thing, or a thing at all, that a co-requisite of Good Work is believing that someone cares and is willing to give you money for your efforts?

    The first thing I’ve been mulling is the question of whether Mr. Kluth is really ‘lucky.’ He has probably worked very hard and at some level, luck has nothing to do with it. ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ On the other hand, luck does account for something. This trite observation really hit home when, while playing Yahtzee with my nine year old, she rolled five Yahtzees in a single game. The most learned Yahtzee player would have a hard time beating five Yahtzees. But, on AVEARGE, the learned Yahtzee player will win.

    During this worldwide ‘economic downturn’ will useful work eventually become more popular than Good Work? Since we are globalized, will one culture prevail over others? The warlike culture? The industrial culture? In other words, the popular psychology of Pleasant, Good, Meaningful, and Full, will give way to just two types. Employed or Not. There must be a corollary with Useful or Not. Everything else is entertainment. (but wait, entertainment has its uses; possibly good for national defense, but not for eating).

    I’m trying to think of something clever to add about new-agey types. I can’t. The phrase new-agey types is sufficiently squishy to be subversive and clever. No one would ever say astronauty types.

  3. It’s always impressive when those flood gates open, Mr Crotchety.
    But by focusing on useful/not useful, are you not looking at a very different aspect of an activity?
    If you’re perfecting your skills at, for example, Japanese tea ceremony, you’re not, technically speaking, doing anything useful. But you might be achieving “flow”. And that might make you feel human, alive and whole. Ie: better. Even if you were unemployed and half-starving at the time. No?

  4. I don’t know. I think I know flow but only dabbled in hunger. We could discuss this when you stop over during your book-signing tour. I’ll buy.

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