This is an excerpt I pulled together from the work of famous Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is a "touchstone" document for me and I freely admit that I stitched it together from pieces of an article he wrote, and that I changed a few personal pronouns so that it reads with a bit more gender inclusion.
We tennis players look to play in "the zone." It is elusive. In life we strive to be happy. Happiness is also elusive. When important things seem so elusive, we have to ask, "Are we looking in the right places?" Csikszentmihalyi has much to say about this search. Read on.
"Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.
Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. 'Ask yourself whether you are happy,' said J. S. Mill, 'and you cease to be so.' It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, summarized it beautifully in the preface to his book Man’s Search for Meaning:
'Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.'
So how can we reach this elusive goal that cannot be attained by a direct route? It is a circuitous path that begins with achieving control over the contents of our consciousness.
We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration; a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.
It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt—sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile. And such events do not occur only when the external conditions are favorable: people who have survived concentration camps or who have lived through near-fatal physical dangers often recall that in the midst of their ordeal they experienced extraordinarily rich epiphanies in response to such simple events as hearing the song of a bird in the forest, completing a hard task, or sharing a crust of bread with a friend.
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmer’s muscles might have ached during her most memorable race, her lungs might have felt like exploding, and she might have been dizzy with fatigue—yet these could have been the best moments of her life.
Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery—or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life—that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine."