Csikszentmihalyi: Starting from Within

Ready for round 2? Only 8 more after this!
What to remember from round 1: (1) success is measured by emotions not just things themselves (even money) (2) happiness is the success emotion and it flows out of “optimal experiences” (3) having “optimal experiences” is a matter of interpretation, a skill that we can learn how to do better.
What is in round 2? Happiness is not something we can get on demand, like ordering a meal at a restaurant. It arises from our interpretation of experiences and it may not come at all, no matter how much we may want it or even feel like we have earned it. So interpretation is our tool to produce happiness. We need to learn how to use this tool. The first step is to master how to “focus”. If we can master this, we can produce happiness. Let’s do it!
We might start by seeing how NOT to build our interpretive capacity. We get nowhere when we passively take over what someone else says is “great”. It is tempting to do so — and that is why companies pay so much to advertise their products and services to us and why we see a blizzard of advertising every day. We cannot help being influenced by this, but we need to see the problem with it too. No matter how “great” that thing may seem to be based on what others say— it is only great from the perspective of that other person. In other words, it is their interpretation, not our own. And if we simply accept that something is “great” because someone else tells us so, we subtly weaken ourselves. Nicht gut! BTW, let me know if you want to learn more about our vulnerabilities to influences like advertising. It is a fascinating subject. I will gladly send you a follow up note.
To produce our own interpretations, we need to go in the opposite direction — and build our individual capacity. To repeat — in modern society, this is hard to do because we receive so many messages about what to feel. So we can start getting better at doing our own interpretation by seeing external messages for what they are – invitations to see something – not definitive guides to finding what we need. Focus is the skill we develop to say “no” to invitations that are not helpful to us. As we start to do this, we build a stronger wall between what is inside us and what is outside of us. We need to be confident that this protection empowers us to choose what to focus on. Then we can be masters of our inner selves. That we can hear our inner voice as it interprets what is around us rather than get overwhelmed by the noise around us.
This sounds simple enough to do. But we immediately bump into a problem that we don’t often think about. Our brains are hardwired to make us believe that we see a complete picture of everything around us. In fact, our capacity to take in and use input from what is around is is very limited. Moreover, there is not much that we can do to increase that capacity in any significant way. You might think of what we see and hear like you are watching a movie. You are able to catch all the details only if the pace is slow enough. If the pace picks up, we start missing details. And so it is in life too. If you want to think further about this limit of our consciousness, ask for my follow up.
You might notice that this limit can be problematic. When we invest our capacity in seeing only external messaging (like in a store) we have none left for ourselves. Nicht gut. But how does the brain work if we are so limited? How can we manage to get through the day, let alone contemplate “multi-tasking”? To get around this, our mind builds a powerful set of beliefs about what is around us. These are beliefs that we do not like to challenge. They are beliefs that allow us to act with confidence. Like when we step into an airplane. We believe that we are safe even though we have no idea how safe the flight will be. As we practice focusing, we begin to see these beliefs with more clarity. And we put ourselves in a position to see which of these are useful and needed and which are not. We can start letting go of the beliefs that have no use.
Right. Let’s stop here. Focus is the ability to say “no” and we need to build our capacity to focus in order to begin choosing what we want to see. And we need to protect our limited consciousness. We do that by tuning out the distractions and valuing our own inner voice. We all can focus if we choose to. All we need is the focus point to make it worthwhile. So what do we focus on?
Hmmm … good question. Now we know how to use the tool of interpretation. What skills can we build to make it more useful? And it is next on our agenda.
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