The objects and events around us exist in an objective world. They are what they are. Yet each of us experiences these objects and events in a different way. What happens outside must pass through the filter of your subjective mind before it enters your consciousness. You control what enters your consciousness (and, thus, what enters your awareness and memory).
You and I go to the movies. We watch the same film in the same theater at the same time. You enjoy it. You’re wrapped up in the story and moved by the performances. I leave the theater unhappy. “The kid in front of us coughed the whole time,” I complain as we walk to the car. “The seats were uncomfortable and the volume too loud. Plus, I don’t like Nicholas Cage.”
We shared the same experience — and yet we didn’t.
“Consciousness corresponds to a subjectively experienced reality,” writes Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. “A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what actually happens ‘outside’, just by changing the contents of his consciousness.” We choose what we experience, and we choose how we interpret those experiences.
This idea can be challenging to people who possess an external locus of control, those who believe that their decisions and life are controlled by chance or fate or greater environmental factors. (We’ll discuss this in greater detail in the weeks ahead.)
Csíkszentmihályi says that in order to achieve flow and happiness, we must actively create the conditions that lead to it. That means we must learn to direct our focus:
[Happiness] 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 privately by each person. People who learn to control their inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any one of us can come to being happy.
The shape and content of your life depends on how you use your attention. People who master what happens in their heads tend to be happier than those who don’t — or won’t.
“While we are thinking about a problem we cannot truly experience either happiness or sadness,” writes Csíkszentmihályi. “Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and quality of life.”
The bottom line? Garbage in, garbage out. If you allow yourself to think negative thoughts, your experience will be negative. If you want a positive experience, you have to accentuate the positive in all that you see and do.
We can make flow moments more common and become happier people by structuring our focus and attention to bring long-term improvements to the quality of our daily life. There are two primary ways to do this:
- Change external conditions.
- Change how you experience external conditions.
Each strategy is sound. But one is generally easier than the other. Which path you choose depends upon the situation. Next week, we’ll look at changing the world; in two weeks, we’ll talk about changing yourself.