Flow (1990) explores how we can experience enjoyment in our lives by controlling our attention and strengthening our resolve. This is achieved by being immersed in an activity or subject that makes us neither anxious (if it’s too hard), nor bored (if it’s too easy). In this “flow state” we lose our self-consciousness, selfishness and sense of time. Using goal-setting and immediate feedback, we can achieve a state of flow that improves our relationship with work, increases our self-worth and gives our lives meaning.
When we view our lives from a distance, they seem insignificant. And when we examine them closely, we notice that we’re unhappy and unfulfilled. To help us cope, most of us look for comfort in religion or we seek external rewards, like wealth or fame.
While this approach seems to make sense, it can also lead to us abandoning our critical faculties.
For example, while organized religions like Christianity and Islam have provided us with rules to live by and given our lives meaning, our firsthand discovery of our predicament in the universe has shown the principles of religion to be wrong. Still, many people continue to follow religious ideologies because they’re more comfortable thinking of life as meaningful.
Also, many empires and cultures led their citizens to believe they’d mastered their fates – for instance, the Romans at the height of their power and the Chinese before the Mongol invasion. Although this belief comforted people, it proved completely wrong as each of these civilizations collapsed.
And if we’re not hiding behind religion or political ideology to avoid the pointlessness of our lives, we’re struggling to acquire external rewards like power, wealth or fame. But these don’t satisfy us for very long either.
Certainly we live in luxurious times and people from the past wouldn’t believe the conveniences that modern life provides. But having more money and acquiring more stuff doesn’t seem to make us happier. As one study showed, satisfaction with life doesn’t correlate strongly with being wealthy. You don’t need to look far to see evidence of this: just think about the number of rich patients that psychiatrists treat regularly.
So in order to give our lives meaning, we try to change the environment around us, whether by displaying our wealth to impress others or chasing powerful positions. Yet these all fail to sustain our happiness.