In life, the more we look for happiness, the more it seems to escape us. We will never achieve it by actively searching for it, nor is it the fruit of pure coincidence. Happiness is a choice, a condition that needs to be cultivated, and that can be achieved only by being completely involved in every detail of life, both good and bad. The ability to control our inner experience, or our consciousness, determines the quality of our lives, and is one of the essential conditions that allows us to be happy. Our consciousness works like a sorting office for information and feelings, perceptions and ideas, and allows us to establish our priorities. It can also generate new information in the form of imagination: this means that it is possible to deliberately create a new state of consciousness. Basically, we can make ourselves happy by changing our consciousness, as long as we are able to organise it in such a way that we have more control over it, and we can reach this kind of control through conscious intention. Someone who is able to control their consciousness is able to focus their attention, to filter any distractions and to concentrate for as long as they need to in order to achieve a goal, and in doing so, they become more fulfilled, not only in extraordinary moments, but also during the most mundane activities of daily life.
Regardless of what is happening around us, we can enjoy a feeling of pleasure and fulfilment, because it is the way we look at things that makes all the difference, and what will determine the content of our lives. The secret to leading a happy life is to pursue optimal experience, during which we feel in control of our actions, feel that our abilities are up to the task we want to complete, and that we are masters of our destiny; deeply focussed on what we are doing, engaged and content. The best moments in life happen when the body or mind exerts itself to the maximum, doing a task of our choice, involving something challenging, that we feel is worthy of our effort. These activities are not necessarily easy, (think of a climber on his way to the top of a mountain), but they contribute to a feeling of satisfaction and mastery of the content of our lives, that brings us closer to happiness more than anything else.
This optimal state of inner experience coincides with a state of order in our consciousness, because when we focus all our attention on what we are doing, we temporarily forget everything else and our priorities become crystal clear. Our attention becomes effortlessly focussed, there is nothing to worry about, and we feel aware of ourselves and of the feeling that we are on the right path. This kind of experience is called flow. When a person is in flow, the ‘self’ differentiates yet integrates: our differentiation makes us more unique, while integration makes us feel in harmony with ourselves and with the world. Combining differentiation and integration flow experiences makes the ‘self’ become more complex, because opening up our range of abilities and pursuing more ambitious challenges helps us grow within, to become more complete human beings. The state of flow can be found in all types of activities, both mental and physical, at work and at home, alone and within personal relationships. Our senses enable us to feel that we are in flow, during movement, while creating something, in satisfying basic physical needs, or when carrying out complex mental tasks, while playing chess, doing crosswords or spending time with friends and family. To carry out these tasks in optimum flow, we need to learn to exert control over our awareness, and that requires constant practice. Just like athletes and musicians, we need to train in order to enjoy optimum experiences. It can be tough to achieve the life we desire, because of all the obstacles we encounter along the way: the secret lies in learning to enjoy the struggle. So to sum up, there are three key components to enjoy a life full of optimal experiences:
- Intrinsic motivation: we need to consciously choose objectives that give structure to our flow experiences, objectives which must be chosen for the value that they hold, and for the pleasure that we feel while pursuing them. For example, we can decide to train for a marathon, but this can only become a flow experience if we are doing it for ourselves, for the enjoyment of setting ourselves a personal challenge, not so that we can tell our friends.
- Attention: this is the way in which we select the information we choose to bring our awareness to, it is the energy we put into things, and this is why our lives end up mirroring what we choose to pay attention to. To enjoy optimal experiences our attention should be focussed on the task in hand, on the goal we are pursuing at any given moment.
- Fulfilment: an intense pleasure that is not only felt at the moment you achieve your goal, but the whole time you are working on it; it is linked to the pursuit of a new challenge.