BY MATTHEW HERBERT
The cognitive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmilhayi characterizes flow, the feeling one gets from excelling at a mentally absorbing activity, as an act of “effortless attending.”
In 1972, Daniel Kahnemann, another cognitive psychologist, was writing a book about the then little-regarded hypothesis that the act of focusing attention required effort. He discovered, among other things, that the brain burns more calories when it is actively attending to something. The name of Kahnemann’s book, appropriately enough, was Attention and Effort.
Glossing Csikszentmilhayi, Kahnemann expands on the feeling of flow we get when we freely channel attention toward the task at hand:
People who experience flow describe it as a “state of effortless concentration so deep that they lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems,” and their descriptions of the joy of that state are so compelling that Csikszentmilhayi has called it “an optimal experience.” Many activities can produce a sense of flow, from painting to racing motorcycles–and for some fortunate authors I know, even writing a book is often an optimal experience. . . . In a state of flow, maintaining focused attention on these absorbing activities requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources to be directed at the task at hand.
Flow is fun. But it’s an unusual kind of fun: it requires an initial outlay of effort and discipline to break free of the conscious need for self control. By why would we have to control ourselves to achieve an “optimal experience?” Don’t we naturally desire what is best? Not really. Look around you. In our natural state, we are consumerist losers. We would rather acquire stuff and show it off to others than do almost anything else, especially things that require effort and don’t promise a flashy payoff.
In a clip on Youtube, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek makes the unlikely-looking claim that we should not seek to be happy. Instead, we should try for something harder. Zizek’s proposition is prima facie a staw-man, because he appears to define happiness as a sort of tawdry, slackminded state of sensory satisfaction. Then again, we are steeply descending toward tawdry slackmindedness as our default setting, so it’s worth hearing Zizek out on this point. What he says is that it is much better to be caught in the grip of creative toil than to slip into a warm bath of unreflective pleasures. Buy less stuff, stare at fewer screens, and get your ass in gear instead. Don’t settle for porcine “happiness.”
Richard Dawkins hits on, or perhaps glances off, the same idea when he reflects on the “importance of doing useless things.” A biologist, Dawkins is ever attuned to the adaptive value of animal characteristics. In the case of doing “useless” stuff (like gardening or writing poetry) he espies a paradox. Anyone who can take the time and effort to excel at something hard–i.e., something that does not clearly contribute to mere survival–signals a surplus of survival resources. He stands out as someone who has transcended the struggle for mere means of staying alive.
In what is perhaps my favorite political essay of all time, “Political Ideals,” Bertrand Russel divides our broad options for pursuing the best life thus:
There are two kinds of impulses, corresponding to the two kinds of goods. There
are possessive impulses, which aim at acquiring or retaining private goods that cannot be shared; these center in the impulse of property. And there are creative or constructive impulses, which aim at bringing into the world or making available for use the kind of goods in which there is no privacy and no possession. The best life is the one in which the creative impulses play the largest part and the possessive impulses the smallest.
Russell, of course, went through his socialist phase, and you can see its main principle of collectivism on full display here. But Russell is not saying the headlong abandonment of private property is the shortest route to a socialist paradise. He’s actually saying something much closer to what I have noted in Csikszentmilhayi, Kahnemann, Zizek and Dawkins: that engaging one’s mind is more fulfilling and points to a more dignified fate for individuals than chasing down dollars to buy the next gadget, buffet meal, or other material diversion.
The style is a little peremptory, but here is Russell’s worthy and memorable peroration on the critical importance of creativity:
What we shall desire for individuals is now clear: strong creative impulses, overpowering and absorbing the instinct of possession; reverence for others; respect for the fundamental creative impulse in ourselves. A certain kind of self-respect or native pride is necessary to a good life; a man must not have a sense of utter inward defeat if he is to remain whole, but must feel the courage and the hope and the will to live by the best that is in him, whatever outward or inward obstacles it may encounter. So far as it lies in a man’s own power, his life will realize its best possibilities if it has three things: creative rather than possessive impulses, reverence for others, and respect for the fundamental impulse in himself.
I suppose Russell is giving a precis here of the main reasons why I bother to write the book reviews and other scraps that end up in this blog. They are mentally absorbing, they often produce a feeling of flow, and–although I wish there were a less purple way of putting this–they are a way of staving off inner moral defeat and of feeling the courage and hope to live by the best that is in me.
Well, since it’s a Sunday, and I’ve sort of worked myself into a holy lather, I guess I might as well end with an amen.