The distraction economy kills happiness

DSC_4692_2048LEI’m about halfway through Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and as I said in an recent installment of my weekly blogpost, LFK Thoughtful Weekends it is headed to be one of the most important books I have ever read – and I read quite a few. It is said to be the “classical” work on happiness, yet it in so many ways differs from what I would categorize as “books on happiness”. A lot of those try to pull all kinds of crazy advice over your head in order for you to achieve happiness. This book – Flow – doesn’t do that. It draws upon heavy and clever research on how people feel doing different tasks during the day. A lot of the data gathered has come from people carrying small devices that at random times during the day beeps them, and then asks them to answer questions on how they feel and what they do.

The surprising or unsurprising finding, depending on how deep you already are in this type of research is, that people actually doesn’t feel most happy or fulfilled when relaxing, but actually while they are working or submerged in a task that takes their total attention. This state of mind and being is referred to as “flow”. A state where you lose track of time and being and is just totally submerged in the task at hand.

Speaking from personal experience I can totally agree on the fact that this is one of the most pleasurable states of being. But it is also somewhat paradoxical as although pleasurable as it is, it takes quite a lot of mental effort to reach. In order for an activity to qualify as being able to produce flow, it has to involve some part of skill and be mental challenging to the right amount for you. Meaning that if you get bored doing the activity, then it is not challenging enough. On the other hand if it is to challenging you will look for ways to escape the activity to cut the mental strain.

Reading a book is probably one of the easiest ways to obtain “flow”. If it is a good book and you have placed yourself in an distraction free environment you will probably quite quickly get into a state where you lose track of time and is just totally submerged in the book. Watching television or surfing the internet without purpose is on the other hand not very good flow-activities. While you can get submerged in them, they don’t offer enough challenges or involve enough skill to be fully rewarding. A good movie can leave you with thoughts for days, but they still won’t qualify as flow-activities. That is not to say that you shouldn’t watch movies or television, they are great at creating relief after a full day of good work, but they shouldn’t be your prime sources of happiness.

I won’t go in full detail with how work in a “flow” state creates happiness, for that argument you should pick up the book. But if you can stay with me and for now “buy” the hypothesis that “flow” state creates a sense of happiness, then you can probably follow the title of this blog post; “The distraction economy kills happiness”. Because with billions of dollars poured into one universal goal – grabbing your attention, then you can begin to see why it is so hard to concentrate and reach the sought after state of flow.

Reaching flow is not easy. If it was just a straight fight between a pleasant and easy state on the one hand and an as easy and pleasant state on the other it wouldn’t be that hard a fight. But the odds are very skewed. Not only are billions of dollars being poured into the advertising industry, social media etc. they also offer a quick fix of dopamine that feels good – for about half a second, then you need the next one. But getting into flow and reaping the benefits of this awesome feeling takes hard work. You have to do something that is adequately challenging for a sometimes long period of time, before you can come anywhere close to this pleasant feeling, so why not just stay with the quick fixes of dopamine?

Because in flow state you really live. You live on your terms, creating value for yourself and perhaps even for others. We are born with this internal paradox where almost all of us wants to relax more, but once we do nothing we start to feel worse and perhaps even inadequate. Doing can be anything from researching your bloodline, building scale models of old planes or finding cures for rare diseases. The important part is doing. And doing focused work on something that we enjoy for long uninterrupted periods of time.

A lot of research points to the fact that we might call an unfocused mind an unhappy mind. The more time you can spend in flow the happier and more fulfilling the life you seem to live. The good news here is that you can almost turn any activity into flow activity. What matters is that it challenges you, and that you find it worthwhile. What it leads to and whether you only do it for your own sake does not matter.

Focus your mind and get to work.

Stop worrying – get to the confirmed objective facts

Boat beachThere are numerous articles and blog-post that promises to help you get rid of worry. This won’t be one. Try as you might you’ll never get to a point where you’re free of worry in your life. You will probably have periods with more and periods with less, but avoid it altogether won’t happen. What’s way more interesting and important is how to deal with it once it arrives.

Worry is closely related to anxiety and stress. They are all fear based feelings, that try to tell you that something is wrong in an attempt to protect yourself from whatever it is that causes them. They are totally natural and occurs to everyone whether people admit it or not.

As they are natural feelings, there is no real reason to try to get totally rid of them. What you need is a better way to handle them once they arrive. Today we will focus on worry even though as said earlier; worry is closely related to anxiety and stress and can in some instances it can be hard to know one from the other. But as this advice will work with all of them, there is no real reason to really pinpoint which of the feelings you have.

Worry has a lot to do with control. When you are in total control you aren’t worried. If you had an exam where you knew all the questions in advance and could prepare so intensely that you knew all answers by heart – then you wouldn’t worry. Your brain would probably then try to worry about whether those actually was all the question, try to come up with potential “unknowns” that could hamper with the end result. But if we keep all what-if’s out of the question; you wouldn’t be worried at an exam where you knew you all questions and all answers. You would be in total control.

Seeing worry from this angle starts to point to a solution, or precaution that can help in situations of worry. You just have to be in control, then there is nothing to worry about. Well yes, thank you! I’ll just lock myself into a room where I’m able to control all the variables and live from there. NOT really viable.

What we need to do is take a stoic look at “events”. The stoics made this really good distinction between event. They divided them into 3 groups. Event over which you have total control, events over which you have some but not total control, and events over which you have no control.

The first and the last are the easiest and are the ones you should spend the least time on. If you have total control, then just make it the way you want. If you have no control, then do not worry because your worry won’t change anything.

Going back to the example with the exam. You are probably not worried whether you will show up or not to the exam. You decide to go or you decide not to go. Then that is out of the question. The cynic will probably then see any number of things that could go wrong on the way there. Again, some of those you will have control over, some of them you won’t. If you are worried about getting late, then go really early and spend the extra time waiting at the destination. Being hit by lightning on the way there is not something you can control, so don’t worry about it. These are of course simple examples but, they should be adequate to bring home the point.

Then we arrive at the last one; events over which you have some but not full control. This is where most energy is spent. The final grade of your exam is a good example of this. You can push it in either direction by more or less preparation, but you cannot control it fully. Even in the example of having all questions and answers in advance, you still can’t control the final grade from the censor.

But what you need to do to control your worry, is get to the confirmed objective facts. And the words “confirmed” and “objective” is there for a reason. “If I go talk to that girl and she rejects me, the whole world will laugh at me and my life will be over.” or “If I don’t get straight A’s in all my exams my life will be over.” – That could be felt as very strong facts inside yourself, but to an outside person or even when having the experience somewhat at a distance, it’s totally obvious that those are not “confirmed objective” facts. They are strong feelings, yes. But facts – no.

I love doing this on paper. If I’m very worried about something I start by writing whatever it is that I am worried about on the top of a piece of paper. Then I test my hypothesis.

“If I can’t X then Y will happen, which will be an absolute disaster.”

Then I start by saying am I absolutely certain that Y will happen. Can anything else be the outcome of this? If not, then I start to look at what it will actually mean to me if Y happens. Is it as big of a disaster as I have in my mind. It could mean a minor or major setback, but total disaster?

Then I just work my way through and test all the hypothesis and all my conclusions. The funny part about this is that even just the act of doing this calms me down. I am back in control, I am not contemplating all outcomes and can decide which of them I find most attractive or least disastrous. As said in the beginning worry almost always stems from a feeling of loss of control. Getting this control back, or even just working on getting it back can seriously dampen if not totally rid yourself of worry.

Try it for yourself. The next time you are really worried by something. Write it down and objectively test all your hypothesis and conclusions. I bet you’ll feel the worry lessen almost immediately.