Thursday, October 9, 2008


Contemporary economists know that money doesn’t buy happiness. I take that back. Economists have trouble even defining money or happiness. But they can use stone-age tools (aka the art of regression) to ‘prove’ to us what most societies have known for millennia.

This, however, is a problem. Traditional economic thought has at its core the concept of utility - the thing that individuals try to maximise, and that we as a society should also strive to maximise. In effect, it is their best attempt at defining happiness. Economists are now struggling to get past this fundamental happiness contradiction. I would like to add some thoughts from psychology that may help our understanding, and reveal the underlying evolutionary explanation of how happiness is achieved.

I will preface this blog by saying that the majority of the views I am sharing actually come from a book called Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He breaks down happiness into to components – pleasure and enjoyment. Pleasure by itself will not provide us with happiness. It is the type of experience we have when we do not invest psychic energy in an activity. It is passive. Pleasure may come from watching a movie, walking in the park, admiring a work of art, listening to music. Enjoyment on the other hand requires the investment of psychic energy. The flow experience is how one gains enjoyment, and it comprises eight components:
1. Confronting tasks that we have a chance of completing
2. Concentration
3. Clear goals
4. Immediate feedback
5. Removes awareness of worries and frustrations
6. Provides a sense of control over one’s actions
7. Concern for the self disappears
8. The sense of time is altered

Clearly, a life without confronting tasks and clear goals is inherently unrewarding. But this is exactly the goal of much of societies development in the past century. The goal has been to make life easy, with no confronting tasks, and give us more choice, and as I have suggested earlier, this ‘choice-overload’ leads to less clear goals.

Surprisingly, Csikszentmihalyi found that people experience flow more often at work than during leisure time. It is easy to imagine many working environments where the first 4 components of flow are readily available. Other places people experience flow is when playing computer games. In fact, the game design field is probably the greatest user of the principles of flow. You know how you start with easy levels. You acquire greater skills, and are then confronted with more challenging tasks. All the way, there is plenty of feedback, and two hours have gone by in a flash. Edward Castranova has written about how people are shifting from their real lives, into online gaming worlds in search of flow.

One of the most interesting parts of flow is that to continue to have flow experiences, you need increasing complexity of challenges, and of skills to meet them. As a society , we have basically taken away much of the challenge of living, and also taken away many of the skills necessary to learn in order to live. Many people cannot cook themselves a meal from fresh ingredients. They cannot mend their own clothes, repair their houses, cut their own hair, clean their own house – what skills do we have?

I would to propose an evolutionary explanation for this desire for flow. In essence, those who sought more challenges, and reached them, were rewarded. You can imagine a tribe of early humans seeking out new lands in the face of increasing numbers of predators. The reward for this desire to rise above challenges, and persevere until new lands are found, would be greater reproduction and survival rates. Those early humans who did not have this desire to confront challenges, would ultimately perish before they could reproduce.

The ironic part of all this, is that flow often occurs in the times of most hardship. Csikszentmihalyi found that many prisoners of war, and people who have were faced with major physical disabilities, actually experienced flow more often than those of us living cushy urban lives in the 21st century. While we may find much pleasure in our comforts, this will not bring us happiness.

So what can we do to increase flow? We need to acknowledge that the most vital part to this story is that flow actually is self-determined. You can actually learn to be happy. External factors play no role. It is how you interpret your external environment that determines your happiness.

With all this great detail about human motivation and happiness, I still wonder why economists seek explanations use outdated concepts like utility to explain our actions. By sticking with this underlying theory they are stuck with trying to see whether factors such as wealth, number of children, marital status, age or any number of external circumstance or events can provide happiness. They pursue this even though they know can never prove a casual link. I guess reality and economics don’t mix sometimes.


  1. Interesting Vid on happiness in gaming

  2. The book by Castranova that deals with flow in games is called Exodus to the Virtual World.

  3. Martin Seligman talks about flow too on Ted Talks but he also talks about meaningfulness as a third type of happiness.

  4. wht is the importance of the last element -time??

  5. Which time? Do you mean leisure time? As far as I know the amount of leisure time does not correlate well with happiness (beyond a point I would suspect). There are a lot of people who thrive on being busy. But of course, everyone is different. Some people who appreciate leisure time will not be happy if forced into long working hours.