Csikszentmihalyi is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, who has been studying human enjoyment since 1963. The question he posed himself was simple: What is fun? What makes some experiences enjoyable, and other experiences not?
Over the years, I came up with the expression “flow”: a term to describe the common denominator among those people who deemed themselves happy. The most obvious component of happiness, I found out, is intense concentration, which is the main reason that activities such as music, art, literature, sports and other forms of leisure have survived. The essential ingredient for concentration — whether it happens when reading a poem or building a sand castle — is that it involves a challenge that matches one’s ability. The only solution to achieve enduring happiness, therefore, is to keep finding new opportunities to refine one’s skills: do one’s job better or faster, or expand the tasks that comprise it; find a new set of challenges more appropriate to your stage of life. Paradoxically, the feeling of happiness is only realised after the event. To acknowledge it at the time would only serve as distraction — the rock climber would lose his footing, the chess player his game. Out of all the moments pinpointed by people I have interviewed, their best are with hindsight. Just as a smell might evoke a memory, happiness is realised in its aftermath. As I look back at a life devoted to happiness, I often wonder whether I have achieved it. Overall, I think I have and my belief that I held the keys to its secret has helped immeasurably.
Ironically, my unhappiest moment was when I achieved what most would consider success. When my book Flow: The Classic Work On How To Achieve Happiness took off, I had to fight complacency and reclaim serenity. As I get older, I find myself reinventing challenges. I gave a lecture to businessmen during the recession of the 1990s. What affected them most, they said, was an inability to nurture the young talent they believed would be their legacy. When I asked Dr Jonas E. Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, his main aim in life, he answered “to become a good ancestor”. The ultimate challenge, perhaps, and one to which, in old age, I rise willingly.