A thoughtful reader emailed me a link to a recent Time article, Getting Serious About Happiness. It’s about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an expert on happiness and “flow.” His book Flow: The Pyschology of Optimal Experience is fascinating.
What interested me most was the following advice by Csikszentmihalyi:
Be attuned to what gives you genuine satisfaction. Although many people assume that popular activities like watching TV are enjoyable, their own reports generally indicate that they feel more engaged, energetic, satisfied and happy when doing other things.
Study yourself. To better understand their own happiness, Csikszentmihalyi says, people should systematically record their activities and feelings every few hours for a week or two….Afterwards, note the high points, particularly, and the low ones. Then try to adjust how you spend time according to your findings.
These underscore the importance of one of my Secrets of Adulthood: “What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you--and vice versa.”
I don’t know why this bit of wisdom is so hard to keep in mind, but it is. It has been a huge struggle for me to recognize the most obvious things about my own likes and dislikes. I only recently acknowledged to myself that I don’t particularly enjoy listening to music, and I’m not very attuned to the pleasures of food. Wine leaves me utterly cold. I don’t like sports. I don’t like mysteries.
I was also in denial about the things I did like. I love, love, love children’s literature. I love making books in all different sorts of ways. I love gathering quotations. I love making the bed in the morning. I’m very interested in the problem of obesity. I can’t read enough about St. Therese of Lisieux. I love extremely floral scents.
The problem for me comes when I wish that I did enjoy things that I don’t really enjoy, or that I have interests that I don’t really have. I have an idea of who I wish I were, and that obscures my understanding of who I actually am. But I’m trying to do a better job of keeping my first commandment: “Be Gretchen.”
For example, an extremely athletic, well-rounded friend of mine said to me, with great enthusiasm, “My idea of a great weekend is when I get outside with my kids for at least two hours before lunch and two hours after lunch.”
Now, that’s great. Healthy, active, family time. Right? Doesn’t that sound terrific?
Well, not really. Actually, I admitted to myself, my idea of a great weekend is when we all lie around reading in our pajamas until mid-afternoon.
Now, maybe that’s not the best way to spend a weekend. Maybe it wouldn’t even make me happy to do that two days in a row. (Not that it’s even possible to do, with the Little Girl.) But that’s the kind of thing I like.
I will, however, add one caveat on the observation that “What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you--and vice versa.”
There are some activities that do universally boost happiness, such as socializing with other people, exercising, being of service to others, mastering and exercising a new skill. But while one person might enjoy learning to hang-glide, another person might enjoy learning to play chess. One person might like to meet friends for coffee, another person might like to join a church choir.
Certain actions form the basis for a happy life, but we all must find for ourselves the most pleasing FORM for these activities to take. And that requires self-examination and honesty.