A Life of Flow: Finding Purpose, Resolution and Harmony for a Meaningful Existence
What is the meaning in life? We know happiness is part of finding meaning in life. Happiness does not happen magically and it is not something that "just happens." Random chance, good luck, or pure blind luck isn't the reason for happiness. The result of happiness, in fact, is not due to external stimuli (i.e., outside events) but in actuality how the person interprets these events. The power of discovering purpose and forging resolve while maintaining inner harmony creates a lifetime of genuine happiness. So how does one discover purpose? Finding purpose means doing what in life? One forges resolve by doing what? How does one find inner harmony? What is the secret to piecing all the components together to create a lifetime of "flow," a life time of happiness?
Enjoying our work or enjoying friendships is pleasurable. Being ready to face all of life's challenges would be rewarding and pleasurable. However, this isn't enough to experience "flow." We have to control our consciousness and find order in our mind so as to reach optimal experience. This requires making all of life's moments into a unified flow experience.
Small Pieces Make the Bigger Picture
Csikszentmihalyi stated: “If a person sets out to achieve a difficult enough goal, from which all other goals logically follow, and if he or she invests all energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then actions and feelings will be in harmony, and the separate parts of life will fit together—and each activity will “make sense” in the present, as well as in view of the past and of the future.” Stated differently, think of an ultimate and long-term goal (e.g., becoming a CEO of a mid-size corporation). This big goal is achieved by setting and reaching small goals that fit into the bigger goal, the grand picture, in this case "becoming CEO". This is much like putting a puzzle together. Without the small puzzle pieces, "the small goals", one cannot reach the end of the puzzle..."CEO"...without putting together all the pieces.
Furthermore, even if the puzzle is completed the puzzle ("becoming CEO") may still be a smaller piece in an even bigger puzzle. With this ideology an individual is giving a meaning to one's entire life. Any goal can give meaning. Any goal can define a persons entire life, like the dream of Martin Luther King, the forgiveness and equality modeled by Mandela, or Mother Teresa's "Call within a call". Yet, the goal has to have clear objectives and well-defined rules for action. In addition, concentration and involvement (and action) towards that goal has to be accomplished to reach meaning. “It is one thing to recognize that life is, by itself meaningless. It is another thing entirely to accept this with resignation. The first fact does not entail the second any more than the fact that we lack wings prevents us from flying” (Csikszentmihalyi, pg. 215).
What is Meaning?
Defining meaning is a difficult word to define. When defining meaning one must remember that there are three components that define its usage. “What is the meaning of life?” This question illustrates the first component of the definition of meaning.
The first usage points toward "the end, purpose, or significance of something." An assumption here is that moments and events are causally linked together towards an ultimate goal...like the analogy of the puzzle described above. The second component of the word refers to a person's intentions. An implication is that people show their purpose in actions. These goals show predictable, consistent, order of actions. The third component refers to "ordering information." This usage illustrates how individuals identify words; in addition, how an individual creates relationships between words and events. This creates clarity and order among unrelated information. An example would be: “Psychology means the study of an individuals mind and behavior.”
Introduction to Purpose, Resolve and Harmony
Creating meaning involves integrating an individuals actions with having order within the mind. This creates a unified flow in life. A goal has to be challenging enough to involve the mind and body and give importance to life. When this happens a life is said to be "meaningful." Stated differently, this is when people generally refer to as “achieving purpose.” A unified purpose is what gives meaning to life. The “unified purpose” refers to the expression of intentionality. Intentionality has to be translated into action for meaning to have purpose. This is what is called as "resolve." Resolution in the pursuit of one's goals. More importantly, it matters if work (or effort) has been done to reach the goal not whether an individual reaches or achieves the goal.
The final way in which life is meaningful is the result of the first 2 steps, purpose and resolution. When all the different activities and events align unifying into a flow experience and resolution of a goal is maintained the final result is called "harmony." This also means there is harmony in consciousness. When an individual's feelings, thoughts and actions are congruently aligned together then inner harmony is achieved. At this time, an individual knows their desire and knows what purposeful work is needed to achieve the goal. Again, the individual achieves inner harmony. A seamless experience of flow is built on the unification of life with purpose, resolution, and harmony.
So how does an individual discover an ultimate goal or goals in order to create meaningful experiences? Without such a purpose, life will lack meaning. To understand how to cultivate purpose one must understand the steps of how one may cultivate purpose. Understanding society, the individual and the interaction between the two is very important. Humans are social beings and the environment plays a part in shaping purpose. "There is consensus among psychologists who study such subjects that people develop their concept of who they are, and of what they want to achieve in life according to a sequence of steps" (Csikszentmihalyi, pg. 223). These stages do not reflect what "does happen" or "will happen." These stages illustrate what "can" happen if an individual is lucky in controlling their consciousness.
I'll illustrate, furthermore.
The models in the chart below are on a continuum; therefore, these models don't fit perfectly in the 4 steps I discuss or may fit in more than one step. However, regardless of the steps or stages the point is still the same. There is an alternating pattern between differentiation and integration. (Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to its opposite: a union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond oneself...The self becomes more differentiated as a result of flow because overcoming a challenge inevitably leaves a person feeling more capable, more skilled...Flow helps to integrate the self because in that state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered...when the flow episode is over, one feels more together than before, not only internally but also with respect to other people and the world in general." (Csikszentmihalyi pp. 41. Refer to Chapter two of Flow for further understanding.)
Steps in Making Meaning
Based off Erikson's Model (Psychosocial Development)
Maslows Model (Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs)
Kohlberg's Model (Moral Development)
Loevinger's Model (Ego Development)
Stage 1 or Step 1
E: Identity: Who am I and What can I be?
M: Physiological needs and Safety needs
K: Obedience and punishment “How can I avoid punishment?”
K: Self-interest “What's in it for me?"
L: Pre-social stage
L: Impulsive Stage
|The need to preserve the self, to keep the body and its basic goals from disintegrating.|
Step 2 or Stage 2
E: Intimacy: Can I love?
M: Love and Belonging needs
K: Interpersonal accord/conformity “Social Norms”
K: Authority and social-order (Law and Order morality)
L: Self-protective Stage
L: Conformist Stage
L: Conscientious Stage
|The values of a community, i.e., family, the neighborhood, religious or ethnic groups.|
Stage 3 or step 3
E: Generativity: Can I make life count?
M: Love and belonging needs blending into Esteem needs
K: Social contract orientation
L: Conscientious Stage
L: Individualistic Stage
L: Autonomous Stage
|Reflective individualism; an individual turns inward and finds new grounds for authority and value within the self. Here is were autonomous conscience develops. The main goal of life here is the desire to grow, improve and reach/actualize potential.|
Step 4 or Stage 4
E: Integrity: Is it okay to have been me?
M: Esteem needs blending into Self-actualization
K: Universal ethical principles
L: Integrated Stage
|This builds on all the other steps...this is the turning away from the self back towards integrating with other people and with universal values.|
Systems of Meaning in Society
One way to find meaning in life is to look at society and ascribe to some of the social normative behaviors. Within cultures there are “systems” of meaning that can serve as the ultimate goal or the encompassing purpose. Specifically, in Western civilization there are three types: the sensate, the ideational and the idealistic phases of culture.
In the sensate system/culture the views of reality are created to satisfy the senses and this is how one finds meaning. Goals tend to be epicurean, utilitarian, concerned primary with concrete needs. Everything in this culture glorify and justify the goals as being tangible experiences. This doesn't mean people are “more materialistic.” This means they organize their goals and justify behavior by primarily pleasure and practicality. Rather than through abstract principles focus is on the good as what feels good and mistrust idealized values.
Finding meaning in the Ideational system/culture the emphasis is on abstract principles asceticism, and transcendence of material concerns. Tangible items are frowned upon and there is a drive towards nonmaterial, supernatural ends. Everything in this culture is related not to making life easier but reaching an inner clarity and conviction.
In order to find meaning in the Idealistic system/culture means the individual preserves the advantages of both the sensate and ideational systems. In addition, neutralizing the disadvantages of both are also valued in this culture. Ultimately, the individual has to learn to balance the two dialectically opposed ideas, i.e., sensate and ideational system. Finding meaning in an idealistic understanding means combining acceptance of concrete sensory experiences with importance on spiritual ends.
Sensate, Ideational and Idealistic Systems of Meaning
In any society or culture there can be many subtypes and/or combinations of sensate and ideational worldviews. In addition, sensate and ideational ideology may simultaneously manifest in the consciousness of an individual. For example, in the United States, both ideational and sensate cultures dialectically coexist together. The “Bible belt fundamentalism” in south eastern U.S. (ideational) and the yuppie life-style (sensate) are examples. Another example to understand these concepts surrounds how an individual views “the body.” In a sensate culture the body is cherished, protected and cultivated to achieve “health and pleasure.” In a ideational society the body is view in abstract terms; it may be viewed as a metaphysical perfection, like the idea of “Roman Valor.”
Some of the advantages of the sensate ideology is that there are a lot of opportunities for concrete challenges. Also, the fact that most, if not all, people can comprehend the rules thereby the feedback tends to be very clear. For example, it is pretty easy to understand the rules of health, money and sexual satisfaction; the feedback is also clear as well. The advantages of the ideational ideology is that goals rooted with metaphysical ideals may never be achieved and failure is almost impossible to prove. Csikszentmihalyi stated: “how individuals order their actions is to focus on the complexity of the challenges they set for themselves rather than on their content. A well-thought-out sensate approach to life, one that was responsive to a great variety of concrete human experiences and was internally consistent, would be preferable to an unreflective idealism, and vice versa.” (See chapter 2 of Flow)
Forging Resolve (Know Thyself)
There are too many goals to siphon through and who is to say which goal is worth the dedication of an entire life? Purpose gives direction for life but doesn't mean that flow will occur. Changing goals, for any reason, may temporarily be pleasant and it also comes at a price. The price one pays may lead to moments of emptiness and meaningless in the long-term. An individual standing strong in their convictions and not wavering in their values can create goals that become worthwhile. Stated differently, every goal comes with a set of positive and negative consequences and if one isn't ready or prepared to reckon with them the goal is meaningless.
For example, a world-class marathon runner who decides to run a personal best time in a race knows that he will be physically and mentally exhausted. However, if he gives up without effort (or too easily) the goal will have little value. To experience flow there has to be a mutual understanding between the relationship of the goal and the effort to obtain the goal.
Goals justify the effort in the beginning, but later it is the effort that justifies the goal. Commitment to a goal and to the rules it entails is easier when the choices are clear and limited. There is no absolute certainty what goal will create purpose and meaning. However, each individual must discover “the ultimate purpose” on their own.
Knowing Thyself (A Life of Action and Reflection)
Self-knowledge is defined as the process through which one may organize conflicting options.
Inner conflict is the result of attention between pulling or distracted to other ideas or goals. Too many incompatible goals pull the attention away from the desired goals and toward their own ends. To battle this distraction of ideas, or goals that pull away from the ultimate purpose, an individual has to do two things. An individual has to incorporate “a life of action” and “a life of reflection.” A person living a life of action can experience flow through involvement in concrete tasks. Action helps create inner order. However, action is only one side of the mountain. Someone so dedicated in achieving a goal may overlook and destroy different options. Said in another way, the effort, power and action of working towards a goal is not enough to give meaning to the entire lifespan.
Reflecting on the experience, having a detached reflection, and weighing all the options and consequences realistically, are a great way to deal with “a life of action.” These two ideas must complement each other for a life of flow. Asking yourself, “Is this something I really want to do? Is it something I enjoy doing? Am I likely to enjoy it in the foreseeable future?” Individuals have to understand what they want and have the internal attention of the mind to focus on the goal. Furthermore, individuals noticing their own feelings is paramount in creating a meaningful plan of action for life. Well-chosen goals and having the courage to stick with them despite opposition will create resolve.
The positive outcome of creating and building a life with purpose and resolution is a sense of inner harmony. There is a dynamic order in the mind. However, unfulfilled wants, expectations, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, guilt are all likely to disrupt the inner harmony. Individuals have the ability to see more than what can be accomplished and understand that they are able to accomplish more than what conditions allow. This mindfulness reflection and understanding improves harmony. This is a mental understanding of what is and what could be. A mind that imagines one or a few opportunities (and possibilities) increases the odds of achieving harmony. Lastly, it is important to note that, a more complex individual and complex consciousness is preferable over a simpler consciousness.
The Unification of Meaning in Life Themes
Instead of accepting "meaning" through what culture or society says an individual can chose to create harmony though reason and choice. Psychologists have identified the concept called “Life Themes.” “The life theme, is like a game that prescribes the rules and actions one must follow to experience flow, identifies what will make existence enjoyable.” It is worth noting, everything that happens in a life theme will have both positive and negative meanings.
Authentic and Inauthentic Projects
When a person's attention blends into a life theme, the mind achieves harmony. But not all life themes are productive or desired by the individual. Existential philosophers distinguished between authentic and inauthentic projects. “Authentic projects” means a person freely chooses and makes genuine personal decisions based on (rational) evaluations of the experience. Authentic projects are intrinsically motivated and inauthentic ones are motivated by external means. “Inauthentic projects” means a person chooses a life theme because they feel it is “what ought to be done or because “it is what everybody else is doing.” Inauthentic projects have no alternative options. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, of course and is out of the scope of this blog post.
There are several common characteristics of how people forge “discovered” life themes. Some people find a life theme by an event that causes a “reaction to a great personal hurt suffered in early life.” However, this is just one way someone may find a life theme. In addition, what is important to remember is that it isn't the trauma that defines a life theme but the reaction to it. The external event never determines what the theme will be; most importantly, what matters is the interpretation that one places on the suffering. Suffering must be viewed as a possible challenge.
Controlling Consciousness Through Knowledge
So how do people succeed in building meaning into their existence? The most common way is extracting knowledge by past generations that will help the individual control consciousness. Teachers, books, models, heroes, presidents, parents, and the like are just a few examples how an individual can benefit from the knowledge of the past. One of the most common answers adults give on how they discovered their life theme was from their parents or from books their parents read to them as children.
Interestingly, through decades of research, many people find a coherent life theme either one of two ways from childhood and adolescence. These individuals remembered either a parent, an older person or a historical figure whom they greatly admired. Secondly, the person served as a model for how they should act. Another way people find a coherent life theme is that individuals recall having read a book that revealed new possibilities for action. Regardless of how one finds meaning, purpose, resolution and harmony in their life it is without a doubt necessary for the individual to live a life of action and a life of detached reflection.
post written by: Michael L. Kerns, MS, LPC, LCAS, MAC, CRC
This blog post was inspired by the research and writing of Mihaly Csikszenstmihalyi. For further insight and reading refer to his book.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1987). The Flow experience. In M. Eliade, ed., The encyclopedia of religion, vol. 5 (pp.361-63). New York: MacMillan.