Reclaiming Experience | Walking in Flow


Above all else, achieving control of your inner experience will require a drastic change in attitude regarding what is important and what is not.

“We grow up believing that what counts most in our lives is that which will occur in the future. . . .Of course this emphasis on the postponement of gratification is to a certain extent inevitable. As Freud and many others before and after him have noted, civilization is built on the repression of individual desires. It would be impossible to maintain any kind of social order, any complex division of labor, unless society’s members were forced to take on the habits and skills that the culture required, whether the individuals liked it or not. Socialization, or the transformation of a human organism into a person who functions successfully within a particular social system, cannot be avoided. The essence of socialization is to make people dependent on social controls, to have them respond predictably to rewards and punishments. And the most effective form of socialization is achieved when people identify so thoroughly with the social order that they no longer can imagine themselves breaking any of its rules.

In making us work for its goals, society is assisted by some powerful allies: our biological needs and our genetic conditioning. All social controls, for instance, are ultimately based on a threat to the survival instinct. The people of an oppressed country obey their conquerors because they want to go on living. Until very recently, the laws of even the most civilized nations (such as Great Britain) were enforced by the threats of caning, whipping, mutilation, or death.

When they do not rely on pain, social systems use pleasure as the inducement to accept norms. The ‘good life’ promised as a reward for a lifetime of work and adherence to laws is built on the cravings contained in our genetic programs. Practically every desire that has become part of human nature, from sexuality to aggression, from a longing for security to a receptivity to change, has been exploited as a source of social control by politicians, churches, corporations, and advertisers.” (16-17)

It is important to clarify here the difference between pleasure and enjoyment. Seeking pleasure is a simply a feeling of contentment-- a reflex response-- wired into us to ensure preservation of the species. Eating is pleasurable in order to ensure our bodies get the nourishment we need. Sex is pleasurable to ensure we have children and continue the human race. Pleasure is an important ingredient to the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. It does not add complexity to the self because when something is pleasurable, our conscious plans play a minimal role. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness. There is nothing wrong with following your genetic programming and seeking pleasure, as long as you are able to retain control over them when necessary, prioritize other things, and pursue other goals.

Enjoyable events, on the other hand, are quite different. They do add a level of complexity to the self. “Enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire but also has gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before. Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment…. After an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result. Experiences that give pleasure can also give enjoyment, but the two sensations are quite different. . . . we can experience pleasure without any investment of psychic energy, whereas enjoyment happens only as a result of unusual investments of attention. A person can feel pleasure without any effort, if the appropriate centers in his brain are electrically stimulated, or as a result of the chemical stimulation of drugs. But it is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity.

It is for this reason that pleasure is so evanescent, and that the self does not grow as a consequence of pleasurable experiences. Complexity requires investing psychic energy in goals that are new, that are relatively challenging. . . . But if one gets to be too complacent, feeling that psychic energy invested in new directions is wasted unless there is a good chance of reaping extrinsic rewards for it, one may end up no longer enjoying life, and pleasure becomes the only source of positive experience. . . .

Without enjoyment life can be endured, and it can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment. To gain personal control over the quality of experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.” (46-48)

The “liberated” view of human nature, which accepts and endorses every instinct or drive we happen to have simply because it’s there, results in consequences that are quite reactionary.” (18, flow). When we seek pleasure obsessively, without question, we give up that control over our consciousness. We become helpless and vulnerable. If you can’t resist food, alcohol, sex, or any other form of pleasure, you are not free to direct your psychic energy. Instead of doing activities you actually want to do, things that meet your goals, you end up surrendering to the pleasures that your body has been programmed (or misprogrammed) to seek. In order to achieve a healthy independence of society, you must regain this control over your instincts. As long as you respond predictably to what feels good and what feels bad, you are an easy target to the endless people willing to exploit your pleasures for their own ends.

Furthermore, when the rewards you desire are not of your own conscious choosing, or are chosen as a result of what other people say they should be, you miss out on potentially thousands of fulfilling experiences. You fail to notice them because they are not your desires.

“There is no question that to survive, and especially to survive in a complex society, it is necessary to work for external goals and to postpone immediate gratifications. But a person does not have to be turned into a puppet jerked about by social controls. The solution is to gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one’s own powers. This is not to say that we should abandon every goal endorsed by society; rather, it means that, in addition to or instead of the goals others use to bribe us with, we develop a set of our own.

The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders. Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces. It is no longer necessary to struggle for goals that always seem to recede into the future, to end each boring day with the hope that tomorrow, perhaps, something good will happen. Instead of forever straining for the tantalizing prize dangled just out of reach, one begins to harvest the genuine rewards of living. But it is not by abandoning ourselves to instinctual desires that we become free of social controls. We must also become independent from the dictates of the body, and learn to take charge of what happens in the mind. Pain and pleasure occur in consciousness and exist only there. As long as we obey the socially conditioned stimulus response patterns that exploit our biological inclinations, we are controlled from the outside.” (19)

Learning to find enjoyment and reward in each moment is the only consistent way we are able to improve our life experience. Therefore, every flow experience must be made up of activities we enjoy. We discussed the elements of enjoyment (aka the elements of flow) in detail earlier on in THE BOOK OF FLOW, but we will provide a brief summary here. The common characteristics of optimal experience are: “a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over the think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.” (71). What this means is that the psychological conditions that make flow possible, seem to be the same the world over. No matter the activity, the reasons are the same. With this knowledge of what makes an experience enjoyable, we can now provide examples that all of us can use to enhance the quality of life.


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