(or Why TV Is Bad For You)

In the wonderful book “Flow: The Psychology of Happiness” the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi looks at how people become happy and enhance their quality of life.

One of the key distinctions he makes is between pleasure and enjoyment. We tend to talk about these two concepts interchangeably, but it’s useful to look at the differences in their nature and effects.

Pleasure is the feeling of contentment that we achieve whenever we feel that “expectations set by biological programs or by social conditioning have been met.”

We seek pleasure from alcohol, drugs, watching TV, having sex, and material possessions. Sleep, food, and rest help us to restore order to our consciousness when we are overstimulated or “run ragged” by the demands of work or modern life – they are what Csikszentmihalyi calls “homeostatic experiences”.

Enjoyment is quite different. When people think more deeply about what makes life rewarding, says Csikszentmihalyi, they tend to come up with experiences which go beyond meeting some expectation or satisfying some need to achieve something more. Enjoyment is about a sense of forward movement and accomplishment, where the person’s abilities are stretched beyond what they thought they could achieve.

Some examples would be: having a stimulating conversation in which you surprise yourself by your wit or wisdom, mastering a difficult piece of music that you thought you’d never be able to play, reading a book that causes you to think about things in a new way, or playing a tennis opponent who causes you to lift your game.

These experiences may not necessarily be pleasurable at the time (though sometimes enjoyment and simple pleasure do overlap), but after the event we look back and we’re pleased we did it. Afterwards we know we have “grown” as
individuals and that our self has become more complex and more able to cope with change.

Merely pleasurable experiences, by contrast, leave us no more complex than before. In fact, when the experiences stop we may feel worse. Research by Csikszentmihalyi and Robert Kubey found that heavy TV viewers (more than 4 hours per day) reported feeling much more anxious and unhappy when they have nothing to occupy their attention – e.g. when waiting in queues. They are more easily bored and distracted than lighter TV users.

How do you recognise an activity which is truly enjoyable as opposed to merely pleasurable? Csikszentmihalyi lists eight characteristics of enjoyable or “flow” experiences:

  1. The experience is challenging and requires skills but we have a chance of completing it.
  2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
  3. The task has clear goals.
  4. It provides immediate feedback on whether we are reaching those goals.
  5. We become absorbed in the activity and forget about the worries of everyday life.
  6. We have a sense of control over our actions.
  7. Concern for the self disappears (though the sense of self emerges stronger after the experience is over).
  8. Time disappears – hours can pass like minutes, yet minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.

This gives us a useful checklist. How many of these criteria do your favourite leisure activities meet? If you don’t feel as happy as you’d like, how about building more “flow” activities into your life?

BONUS TIP: if it’s hard to think of flow activities that you would enjoy, this is a real sign that you need to free up some mental energy! A good place to start is by “not doing” some of the things which may be pleasurable but don’t give you enjoyment. Let’s say you are in the habit of watching the two most popular soaps in the UK. Simply by switching off “EastEnders” and “Coronation Street” you would have four and a half extra hours to spend on your life and the (real) people in it – and can you honestly say you would have missed anything?

Now – what did you use to do that gave you enjoyment? What did you like about it? And what could you do now that would give you the same feeling? You might find a way of “updating” childhood activities, or it might be some totally new activity that you used to dream about but have never tried.

Order “Flow: The Psychology of Happiness” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


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