The Sea Refuses No River

“The foremost reason that happiness is so hard to achieve is that the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Comfort is such an important concept in our society. We place enormous importance on being comfortable whether our homes, jobs, or even when we venture out into the world. First class air travel exists because we place a high value on comfort and are willing to pay a premium for it. One of the fundamental promises of advertising and marketing is comfort. Being comfortable is deeply connected to our self esteem, and our sense of shame. A homeless person is clearly uncomfortable and we attach negative feelings to that experience because we are afraid of the possibility of being persistently uncomfortable. Living uncomfortably in our society is a kind of failure. Unfortunately a perpetual focus on comfort is counter intuitive to us living a mentally comfortable life.

472px-Challenge_vs_skill.svgMihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology research pioneer, has been studying the phenomenon of happiness for decades. His seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was a breakthrough in understanding that happiness is dependent in part on what he calls “flow”, a state of concentration or complete absorption. By studying artists and athletes he discovered a state of mind, a point of absorption when we are deeply engaged and loose sight of everything around us. We are pulled away from ego, from our personal problems, and time slips away. A highly focused mind on a task or experience that has been honed over years leads to this state of flow. Flow cannot be achieved if we are attempting to multitask, if we are preoccupied with external inputs or ruled by negative emotions. It is also a state that requires practice.

I often think of the concept of flow in terms of the engagement of a Border Collie with a herd of sheep. As a herding breed that is highly intelligent, the dogs need a high level of engagement in what they were bred for—herding. Border Collies are trained when puppies through adulthood to hone their herding skills and listen for the shephard’s whistle. When you watch the Border Collies corralling sheep you see a hyper-focus, a precision of art. There is an effortlessness to their herding that appears to calculate precisely what spot they need to place themselves in order to maximize compliance by the herd of sheep. There is nothing else on their mind at the time. I don’t know if the dogs are happy but they certainly seem happy after successfully corralling sheep into a pen. It’s not a mindless act though, it is a combination of years of training and the dogs understanding of sheep behavior matched with a hyper-focus during the act of engagement.

If we spent more time practicing something we found fulfilling instead of chasing comfort we would be able to more consistently achieve flow. Runners call this “runners high”, artists know it as a state of high creativity. Anyone can experience flow even if it’s when you are cooking for the family. There is value in the floating that comes with flow experiences because we gain mental space from our inner fears and the outer flood of data. Ironically this ends up providing us with real comfort. Earning more money, getting a bigger house, a better car, nicer things, are all intangible attempts at enhancing our comfort, our self-esteem, which we have been conditioned to believe will increase our happiness. Learning to connect our identity with experiences gained by using greater concentration and practice will provide us with moments where we experience flow. That rather romantic idea is the one that will reward you far more than expectations of comfort. You will always experience times of discomfort in your life no matter how much control you exert over it, so focusing on comfort as a marker of satisfaction is bound to undermine the very thing which you desire—happiness.

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