Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don't even try to pronounce it) has brought these ideas together in a coherent model of optimal experience which he calls Flow. Flow is the experience that one has when engaging in an actvitiy that produces happiness in the moment and enduring happiness. A short introduction to Flow can be found in the Flow article in Wikipedia.

I won't replicate the book or the article here, but will say that a Flow activity has clear and worthy goals, it is challenging but achievable, it provides feedback reflecting progress, it is intrinsically satisfying, and one tends to loose a sense of external things when pursuing a flow activity.

Flow activities take your mind off of what Russell called 'detractors' and allow you to engage in meaningful contributors. They also support Wittgenstein's requirement that you have a sense of purpose in that they contain clear and worthy goals. The notion that they are challenging but achievable while being intrinsically satisfying seems to support Aristotle's view of virtues.

Different activities might produce flow experiences in different people. Some people, for example, find that playing music is a flow experience. I, who am tone deaf, do not find it to be so. However, I do find other things to be flow experiences.

Bringing the conversation back to video games, it is easy to see why video games are so addicting. For many people, they are flow experiences. The have clear goals that are worthy in the mind of the players. More sophisticated games such as World of Warcraft actually have quite complicated goal structures with short and long term goals, conflicting goals, and both implicit and explicit goals. The goals are challenging but achievable. There is feedback in the form of leveling and the accumulation of resources and achievement awards. Players tend to find video games intrinsically satisfying. And they tend to loose a sense of external things when engaged in playing them.

People are often critical of video games for precisely this reason. They feel that gamers are much to involved in there games. However, I would turn it around and ask why are the other activities in life so much less compelling. Why are work and education more like video games? Is work, somehow, supposed to be unpleasant? Is education inherently difficult. What if work and education could be designed using the same principles as video games? Instead of being disdainful and suspicious, maybe there is something here that we can take advantage of.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Contributor and Detractors

There is a lame old joke which says that the nice thing about hitting yourself on the head with a hammer is that it feels so good when you stop. Certainly the presence of adversity in your life can make you unhappy. But does removing it make you happy? There are numerous things in life that can make you unhappy. These include shortage of money, criticisms from people whose opinion matters to you, feelings of inadequacy, boredom, and fearing for your physical well being, just to name a few. While these things make you unhappy, their removal does not make you happy. It will only make you less unhappy. It seems that there is an equilibrium state between happiness and unhappiness where you are neither happy nor unhappy.

There are things that make us happy and things that make us unhappy. Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, referred to these as contributors and detractors, respectively. Some of the detractors are mentioned above. According to Russell a contributor to happiness is zeal. That is, you have to have positive energy exerted towards something worth pursuing in order to be happy. Russell's student Wittgenstein added the notion that a sense of purpose was essential to happiness.

We are beginning to see a pattern emerging here. In order to be happy, you have to remove the things that make you unhappy and purse things that are somehow worthy of pursuing. In addition, these things that you pursue have to be things that you are good enough at to make progress. Next time, I will bring this all together in a coherent psychological theory.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Developing Your Virtues

In the last post, I mentioned Aristotle's claim that happiness is the only goal that we seek as an end in itself. In this post, I will take that a step further and discuss Aristotle's view on how happiness is actually achieved.

Aristotle saw each person as possessing unique talents. These talents are your virtues. This comes from the fact that Aristotle used the term "arete" which is translated some times as excellence and some times as virtue. I prefer the word excellence rather than virtue because virtue has a connotation of moral goodness where as excellence is more suggestive of something that you are good at. The key to happiness, according to Aristotle is to develop your virtues or, in simpler terms, become better at things that you are good at.

This is almost common sense if you think about it. People who are good at music enjoy playing music. People who are good at sports enjoy playing sports. People who are good at academics enjoy studying and learning. Similarly, people who are not good at sports, for example, do not enjoy them.

This can also be understood from an evolutionary perspective. If a person is good at something and they develop that talent, then they are more likely to survive as long as that talent has some survival value. This mechanism was discussed earlier. If people are rewarded by pleasurable experience for pursuing things they are good at, they are more likely to pursue those things. If the pursuit of those things has evolutionary advantage, then the pleasurable reward also has evolutionary advantage.

So, over eons of evolution, the enjoyment of pursuing one's virtues has evolutionary value. The enjoyment also has evolutionary value. And hence we enjoy doing things we are good at and becoming better at things we are good at makes us happy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Psychological Quality of Life

Pyschological quality of life occurs when one has an enduring feeling of well being. That is, quality of life is a subjective experience rather than a response to external factors. This is a problem for those measuring quality of life because there is no test you can perform to assess one's subjective experiences. None the less, if you wish to improve your quality of life you have to work on your subjective experience. So, it is important to look at it from this perspective. We can also think of subjective quality of life as happiness. One is happy if their life has quality. We are assuming 'good' quality, of course. And if one's life has quality they will be happy.

Before we dismiss the objecitve external factors (such as those used for an objective or sociological determination of quality of life), it is fair to say that external factors can diminish one's subjective experience. A happy person who is being hit with a stick will be less happy than a similarly happy person who is not being hit with a stick. However, not hitting someone with a stick does not make them happy. It merely makes them less unhappy. I will come back to this issue later. But for now, we need to focus on the question of what makes people happy.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Aristotle's claim that happiness is the only goal which we seek for its own sake. We seek money, fame, and worldly posessions because we believe they will make us happy. But we pursue happiness as an end in itself. We want to be happy because we want to be happy. So, how do we do this? Aristotle had an answer, and it was quite a good answer. We will turn to it next time.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sociological Quality of Life

Very often when we are attempting to assess the extent of a difficult to measure attribute such as quality of life, we look to surrogate attributes that are more easily measurable. It is very difficult to detemine the quality of life for an individual because we do not have a handy quality of life meter that we can use in the same way as we could use a thermometer to measure their temperature or a tape measure to determine their height. What we do instead is that we measure other attributes that we feel are correlated with quality of life.

We often see list of states or cities with the best quality of life. What does this mean? Does it mean that the people in these states or cities go through their days kvelling in ecstasy? If you were to move to one of these cities or states would you reel in the delight of increased quality of life? Are there no miserable people in these places?

Actually, what happens is that the people who determine quality of life for states or cities do it by measuring surrogate variables such as days of sunshine, average temperature, air quality, commute time, and so on. The presumption is that if these variables are agreeable then your quality of life will be improved. This is not entirely unfounded as having these variables at disagreeable levels might well detract from one's quality of life. But, they do not get directly at the underlying phenomenon. One could not say that quality of life means good climate, clean water and a short commute. While quality of life might be affect by these variables, it is somethig very different from them.

This approach to quality of life is often refered to as sociological quality of life as it looks to aggregate sociological variables to assess a personal subjective phenomenon. And while it is not without merit, it does fail to directly address the underlying phenomenon. That is, one's life has quality if one feels like it has quality. Quality of life is a subjective psychological experience that has little to do with these surrogate variables. And that will be the topic of the next post.