I’ve been on a kick of trying to optimize my life, reading books about working habits, motivation, organization, etc. The latest one was Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s about optimal experiences, getting into the frame of mind in which you function almost on autopilot, but at a high level. This is what happens when you really get into a task, to the point you have heightened awareness of what you’re doing while tuning out distractions, time seems to fly, and what you’re doing seems both easy and challenging — there’s enough challenge to keep you engaged and stretching yourself, but you’re in the zone where it still feels easy. I mostly read the book because I want to find good ways to get into this state for writing, but there was some other stuff that really made me think.
One of the things that came up in the research related to the subject was that while few people would think they’re happier at work than during their leisure time, studies show that on measurements of things related to happiness, people actually do tend to feel happier at work. They’re more likely to get into this flow state, to feel like they’ve got a purpose, to feel engaged and challenged in a way that makes them feel alive. What generally makes people unhappy at work isn’t so much the work itself, but the environment, the people, corporate bureaucracy, etc. On the other hand, the way most people spend their leisure time isn’t that engaging. You don’t get into that optimal flow state by watching TV. The exception about being happier at work than at leisure was the people who have active hobbies, so they’re doing something other than watching TV in their free time. The author did consider reading to be “active” and something that can lead to a flow state. Practicing or performing music works, as does listening to music when it’s engaged and active listening, not just using it as background noise. Writing, painting, and making things, gardening, and even housework can also count. The book was written before social media and the Internet really took off, so I don’t know where he’d stand on web surfing or online discussions.
The author thinks that this may be one reason why people seem to be less happy even as life gets easier. Before TV, people had to be more engaged in their leisure time. There were fewer passive pursuits, and people did the passive things that were available less often. Even rich people probably didn’t go to the theater more than once a week, and now we watch dramatic productions every night on TV.
This really got me started thinking. I’d resisted adding more work time to my day because one of the perks of working for myself at home is having more free time, but that free time doesn’t do me much good if I’m not using it well. When I started writing first thing in the morning and was spending more of my day working, I was actually happier and more satisfied, and I didn’t miss that “leisure” time. I feel more like I’ve had a good weekend when I spend a good part of Saturday doing housework and organizing than when I don’t try to schedule my time and just goof off.
I’ve been trying to limit my TV time and instead use that time for reading or doing other things. It’s funny how TV has become such a default activity, or how if there’s something later in the evening, I’ll look for something to watch in the meantime rather than turning off the TV and doing something else. Not that I think it’s entirely bad. A little downtime for the brain is good, and I think you can be mentally engaged while watching. I tend to analyze story elements. But there are so many other things I want to do, and I’m trying to really think about how I use my time.
Apparently, there’s another book by this author that specifically deals with creativity, so that may have to be my next read.