Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for the ‘Happiness’ Category

Happiness and Flow

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 19, 2014

“In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.[8] The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.”

“In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”[9]

These are the words of Dr. Mihaly Csizszentmihaly, a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University. I gravitate to his ideas, as opposed to Dr. Gilbert,, because as “the ego falls away” happiness can be felt. The full engagement in an activity, with the right challenge/skill balance enables a person to have that rare experience of living in the moment. This is the argument for “positive addictions” like exercise or computer games. The ability to fully immerse creates an energy and vitality, rarely experienced while one is planning for the future or anxious about life’s traumatic events. This vitality can then be leveraged for a greater “immune system,” to quote Dr. Gilbert, when stressful life events pop up. The positive addiction can serve as a means of coping, a means to remember and experience that one’s own brain, one’s own body, can give oneself pleasure and pride. This “addiction” creates the “flow” that Dr. Csizzentmihaly describes.

Lee, forty-one, the mother of Hugh, sixteen, is worried that Hugh is playing too many videogames. “Does he have friends?” I ask, trying to figure out if the videogames have narrowed his social interaction or expanded them. As we explore Hugh’s life, his friends, his academic performance, his other hobbies, it seems that Hugh is using videogames as a means of having fun, of enjoying the challenge and the thrill of a virtual space. Hugh, I might argue, is enjoying his imagination, which, in his case, is stimulated by the role-playing games. It is possible that Hugh is having the “flow” and so maybe, just maybe, the videogames are a positive part of his development.

They are helping him learn to love his brain, to live in the moment, and explore ideas that are exciting and innovative. Videogames, as play, as “flow” could, in fact, be the key to his success in life. The confidence created in trusting how his brain gets him to a higher level in a game, could be the forerunner to the confidence he needs to land the right job, and feel creative and satisfied. “Maybe you should buy him some more games, ” I say, emphasizing my point about the potential developmental enhancement of some videogames. Flow is my new word. It is a great way to conceptualize the value of immersion. Sometimes the world turns to a better place.

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Impact Bias

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 18, 2014

Dan Gilbert

A “psychological immune system” is what Dr. Gilbert terms the mechanism about how we cope with adversity. “We synthesize happiness,” he says, implying that we frame events in our lives in order to feel happy.  He cites the story of a man who was wrongfully in prison for most of his life and then describes the prison as “glorious.” This TED talk got me going towards this post, as I found myself talking back to the podcast. What people say and how people feel are two different things, I wanted to say. There is the manifest content, what is expressed, often representing wishes and fears, which are part of the latent content. In other words, asking people if they are happy is not a useful exercise, as happiness is an affect which has layers of complexity and ambiguities, and hence not amenable to a yes or no question. We do not “synthesize” happiness,” we experience meaning, closeness, a sense of importance, joy, humor and relaxation, and with those feelings comes happiness. Self-assessment of happiness is also not the best measure as it presumes that people know how they feel, which, to my way of thinking, is not always so clear. Understanding one’s mental state is a challenge for many, and so the answer to the question about happiness is subject to the “living in wishes” experience that I have blogged about previously. How to obtain happiness is an interesting question. I do not think Dr. Gilbert is helping us towards that answer.

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