The Will to Happiness

I learned a lesson about life and training that I would like to pass along.

It comes from the book that made the greatest impression on me last year. Not a hot new best-seller but a 25-year-old classic, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi. The author is a Hungarian immigrant to the United States, a professor of psychology. In an era when his field oozes with whining and victim mentality, this researcher stands out with his positive and powerful message that you are 100% in control of your happiness.

Csíkszentmihályi, Happiness, and Flow

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi is the author of the famous concept of “flow” that became the foundation of the burgeoning field of psychology of happiness and creativity. Much has been done by Csíkszentmihályi and his followers in the 25 years since his seminal book came out and you will have no difficulty finding the most up to date discoveries, techniques, and tactics. But there is no better place to start discovering “flow” than the original classic.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Prof. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi. Watch his inspiring TED talk.

Prof. Csíkszentmihályi defined flow as “the process of total involvement with life.” He observed thousands of people from many cultures and all walks of life who had arrived or stumbled onto this state. He concluded that the key to happiness lies is in the way one manages his attention.

Attention is the crazy monkey in your head that cannot sit still. Generations of wise people, from Indian yogis to Buddhist monks to the early Christian desert fathers, sought to calm and control the monkey. Those who succeeded reached nirvana.

Csíkszentmihályi showed that this happy state could be reached not only during religious practices but in the course of a variety of physical, intellectual, and artistic pursuits — and also on the job, even a tedious one, and even in extreme conditions such as Nazi concentration camps. The key is mastering and directing one’s attention. “Attention can be invested in innumerable ways, ways that can make life either rich or miserable,” writes the professor.

Technology vs. Happiness

Attention is a spoiled child that needs to be constantly busy. And as soon as the external stimulation occupying is removed, attention starts wandering. Busy thoughts about problems, real and imaginary, with one’s family, health, job, etc. pop up into the foreground. The monkey hates this annoying default setting and eagerly runs away to any distraction available.

“It is for this reason that television provides such a boon to so many people… the mind is protected from personal worries,” explains the psychologist. “…Of course, avoiding depression this way is rather spendthrift, because one expends a great deal of attention without having much to show for it afterward.”

A quarter of a century after Flow’s publication, digital technology offers the busy monkey a million ways to escape reality — an offer most monkeys happily take. If you decide to be one of the few who aspire to more, read on.

How to Focus Your Attention

Distracting your attention with a screen will not bring happiness. It takes a challenge.

Competitive sports offer an obvious outlet for challenges and reaching the flow state. Csíkszentmihályi comments:

The roots of the word “compete” are the Latin con petire, which meant “to seek together.” What each person seeks is to actualize her potential, and this task is made easier when others force us to do our best.

He points out that the joy of athletic competition is not the exclusive domain of Olympians. “Every person, no matter how unfit he or she is, can rise a little higher, go a little faster, and grow to be a little stronger. The joy of surpassing the limits of the body is open to all.”

The scientist stresses that flow will be uncatchable if you are preoccupied with victory and do not enjoy the process and the opportunity for self-improvement. This is great news as, from the coach’s point of view, frequent competition is a decidedly bad idea — and many of our readers train for themselves and do not compete in sports at all.

In training, you can achieve flow by learning to love the process, by treating it as a quest for technical mastery rather than a mindless smoker. You must go deeper into your skills rather than broader. Prof. Csíkszentmihályi reminds us that, “Enjoyment depends on increasing complexity.”

StrongFirst training has been practically designed to generate flow. We do not “work out” — we “practice.” Our skills have multiple layers of complexity and peeling them can occupy one’s attention in a most productive and enjoyable manner for decades. Chief SFG Brett Jones, who has more experience in the hard style kettlebell swing than anyone, says he is still looking for that perfect swing.

On the other side of the coin, one may enjoy many benefits of this extraordinary exercise even after peeling its most superficial layers – by reading and implementing Kettlebell Simple & Sinister, taking a one-day kettlebell course, or taking private lessons with an SFG certified instructor.

Kettlebell Simple & Sinister Excerpt
Kettlebell Simple & Sinister was designed as a “flow” training regimen.

It is important, for attaining progress and flow, that the levels of technical and physical challenge are just right. According to Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”

Flow Channel ChartStrongFirst training loads are carefully chosen to hit the flow channel, staying below the ceiling of anxiety and above the floor of boredom. Competently lifting heavy iron while avoiding failure is pure “muscle joy.”

But what if the deadlift — or the pull-up, or the kettlebell snatch — bores you out of your skull?

Learn to like it. “People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any one of us can come to being happy,” states Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi. He observes that there are individuals who even have “the ability to create flow experiences even in the most barren environment,” citing Richard Logan’s research of survivors lost in Antarctica, confined to prison camps, etc. It turns out that:

[T]hey survived by finding ways to turn the bleak objective conditions into subjectively controllable experience. They followed the blueprint of flow activities. First, they paid close attention to the most minute details of their environment, discovering in it hidden opportunities for action that matched what little they were capable of doing, given the circumstances. Then they set goals appropriate to their precarious situation, and closely monitored progress through the feedback they received. Whenever they reached their goal, they upped the ante, setting increasingly complex challenges for themselves.

If they could turn something truly awful into an enjoyable game, you sure should be able to do it with deadlifts.

Self-Mastery and Happiness

mihaly csikszentmihalyi flowWill yourself to become “one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains inner harmony.” Will yourself to become a person who is “never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time.” In Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s opinion, self-mastery is almost synonymous with happiness:

At certain times in history cultures have taken it for granted that a person was not fully human unless he or she learned to master thoughts and feelings. In Confucian China, in ancient Sparta, in Republican Rome, in the early Pilgrim settlements of New England, and among the British upper classes of the Victorian era, people were held responsible for keeping a tight rein on their emotions. Anyone who indulged in self-pity, who let instinct rather than reflection dictate actions, forfeited the right to be accepted as a member of the community. In other historical periods, such as the one in which we are now living, the ability to control oneself is not held in high esteem… But whatever the dictates of fashion, it seems that those who take the trouble to gain mastery over what happens in consciousness do live a happier life.

Happiness is reserved for the strong willed.

Photo 1 by Striker Sándor (Emailben Demetrovits Zsolttól) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

13 thoughts on “The Will to Happiness

  • Thanks, Pavel! This reminds me why I’ve always wanted a glance at your library! Hope your Father is doing well. Happy New Year!!

  • Great book Pavel! I’m already halfway through it.

    What do you think your top 5 non-fitness books would be?

  • This is exactly what I do. I had no idea it was a field of study. I constantly observe my interaction with my studies; how I learn in layers; how going back over the material; is like looking at it for the first time, even when it is the 7th time.

  • Thank you so much Pavel, I appreciated this article, what a breath of inspiration during the day!

  • During a recent Deadlift session with a strong friend, I was about half way up on 425 (my 4th out of 5 singles that day), when he said “a goofy grin” spread across my face. I was experiencing a technique breakthrough, completely abandoning any previous want to “explode” the bar up, and enjoying the grind of “wedging my hips between the floor and the bar.”

    Three weeks later, 500 lbs on the bar, an all time PR attempt, half way up, that same goofy grin, and then I was at the top, and had more to give. Flow.

  • Thanks Pavel.

    Great article. I bought the book and look forward to reading it. I “get” what you mean by sports focusing the mind to create flow. I found it interesting that tv can calm the brain but doesn’t solve the root cause problem. Thanks again for a great post.

  • Thanks Chief – a timely post as always. I read this classic years ago and put in the necessary attention to sooth my drunken monkey, but lately that crazy chimp has taken back control in some parts of my life. The principles that create the foundation of Flow and the principles that are evident throughout each of your classics have much in common – they are simple to process and incorporate and … they work. when I read ETK a few years back and came across the story of completing the get-up with a 48kg as entry to the big barbell lifts, I made it my goal to meet that challenge. Your program of swings and get-ups was simple to incorporate into my life, I practiced daily for years, was gifted a 48kg kettlebell for Christmas this year and on December 30 I successfully performed get-ups with the 48kg – I was very happy. Attention to the small details of swings and get-ups kept my practice interesting and small improvements along the way kept me motivated. I will pick up another copy of Flow and re-read it, thanks for the reminder, I will need a strong will to improve myself as a father, husband, co-worker and as I reach for the Sinister and Beast challenges over the next couple of years. Happy New Year!

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