John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Feeling Alive

The Opposite of Happiness

Is distress the opposite of happiness?

I don't think so. I think the opposite of happiness is boredom.

Let me take this a step further. There's so much talk, these days, about happiness. Thanks to a movement known as positive psychology, you can find scores of books on subject. Indeed, I've listed a few of them on this website under the Helpful Books page.

And yet, I'm not always so convinced that happiness is the brass ring that people are really grasping for. Joseph Campbell, the late mythologist, once said he wasn't looking for the meaning of life so much as THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING ALIVE.

That's what I think people really want. They want to feel alive, vibrant, or excited.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied the psychology of optimal experience, which, for shorthand's sake, he called FLOW. I think this is much closer to what most people really want. Think of some domain that requires skill. Brain surgery, psychotherapy, video games, tennis, whatever.

When there is a perfect match between your level of skill and the challenges presented activites within the domain, you're likely to experience flow –– that state of mind when you are completely absorbed by the activity itself. However, if the challenge is greater than your skill, you'll feel uncomfortable, possibly anxious. And if the challenge is significantly below your skill, you're feel bored.

Why are video games so compelling? Why do we play sports? We do people jump off bridges with a rope tied to their feet? Why do people climb mountains when they already know what's at the top? Why, despite the dangers, did extreme sports come into existence? Why do people travel to exotic lands?

It's difficult to seek happiness. It's just too elusive. It's much easier, however, to identify activities that produce flow –– jobs, hobbies, or relationships –- and then to arrange our lives so that we engage in these activities regularly.

Feeling fully alive –- isn't this what it really means to be rich?

Related blog entries:
Flow and Savoring