The most satisfying and memorable happiness comes with comparative mastery of something that’s just tricky enough. Not so hard we are left frustrated; not so easy we are bored. Just enough challenge to absorb the attention, capture our interest and give us a sense of success, skill or growing mastery.
Try something too hard and we are easily defeated and disappointed. Repeat something too simple – including many of life’s most addictive pleasures – and our taste buds are no longer so titillated; the enjoyment diminishes.
If you want the evidence, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s great insight is that ‘flow‘ is a state of perfect concentrated absorption but which requires the delicate balance of skill and difficulty.
But the problem is that fulcrum is always moving. And there’s the rub. What brings ‘flow’ today: a new flavour, finding a simple tune on a musical instrument or indeed landing a tough presentation in a boardroom – only continues to do so if the complexity continues to challenge; and your skills and appreciation of them are developing too.
And here’s where ‘Relevant Complexity’ comes in. Some things we enjoy, we will choose to make a life’s work of. Some things we do to sustain our working lives. But many of the most enjoyable and satisfying things we do follow a common pattern – discovery, initial struggles; then learning, enjoyment, mastery and ‘flow’.
But then, subtly and imperceptibly, sometimes even the things we once enjoyed the most, tail off into familiarity, boredom and ennui.
It seems tragic. But the answer is simple – keep trying new things! Once you are a connoisseur of anything, your palate risks becoming jaded. But there’s always a world of something else which awaits.
Once you can cook a great Bolognaise, try a Masala; the perfection of properly fried spices and onions awaits. Tiring of Da Vinci and the Dutch Masters; try ‘Street Art’ or the great photographers. The answer lies, in recognising any and all of life’s pleasures are conditioned by Csikszentmihalyi’s simple equation.
So the way to keep them fresh is to keep seeking, finding and joyfully exploring new forms of ‘relevant complexity’ – and the new experiences, conversations and friendships they bring.
This blog explores forays into ‘relevant complexity’ – from food to philosophy and the Arts – there’s a menu top right; I’d start with the Chapters and Past Times & Pastimes, that’s what I did…
But most of life’s pleasures are best shared. So please add any recommendations to the reading lists, recipe books, drinks, recordings and videos in the ‘Comments’ boxes at the bottom of each chapter – with ‘relevant complexity’ the more things there are to try, the better life gets.
‘Relevant complexity’ is a life’s work – and once you’ve seen the pattern, everyone has great discoveries to share.
I found this from Aaron Swartz’s blog. ‘Raw Thought’ I think it’s relevant!
For most of my life, I saw my job as just making good choices. I was the decider, tasked with making the best selection from the options life presented. I could play with this friend or that one, go to this college or that one, take this job offer or the other one. Even my problems I dealt with this way. If someone was annoying me, I’d choose to avoid them. If something was bugging me, I’d choose to stop thinking about it. I mostly kept my eyes on what was in front of me. But recently I’ve started appreciating the virtues of stepping back and trying to see the bigger picture. Instead of just picking the best option, I try to invent new ones. Instead of just avoiding the stuff that bugs me, should I start making plans to fix them.
It’s given me a weird feeling. I feel more in control of my life, more able to cope with my problems. I feel like I’m charting my own destiny, instead of following some track. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a feeling like I’m getting stronger — not physically, but psychologically. It’s a good feeling. I feel like I’m growing as a person. So I started wondering: Is there more where that came from? I realized I’ve never stopped to ask whether I could get better at life. After all, in my day job, I’m constantly looking for ways to learn and grow — reading the latest books and articles about the field, talking to other people with similar jobs and hearing what’s worked for them. Why aren’t I doing the same thing for life?
It turns out to be surprisingly hard. Life comes with no instruction manual and the advice parents give is all over the place. TV and the newspapers don’t offer much more than narrow Quick Tips and I never saw a course in this stuff at school. There are self-help books and self-improvement courses, of course, but they seem overly practical: they’re usually less about working through tough problems and more about energizing you to Get Up And Go! And there’s philosophy about The Good Life, but it seems to go too far in the other direction: there’s very little in there for someone to practically apply. The blogs are a weird mix. There are the blogs on “life hacks,” which are full of gadgets and gizmos that seem to cause more problems than they solve. There are the anti-procrastination blogs, where the author has a constant stream of epiphanies that all seem to amount to “just put away the distractions and get stuff done.” And there are the charlatans, who tell you that all your wildest dreams can come true if you just follow their patented advice.
So instead of an obvious place to go, I’ve just been finding little bits and pieces in all sorts of strange places: psychology experiments, business books, philosophy, self-help, math, and my friends. But since there’s no community around it, it’s hard to discuss it with anyone (trying to persuade other people to be interested in what you’re interested in is a fool’s game). So I figure I’ll just start writing about it here and see if anyone cares. Maybe it’ll grow into something, but even if it doesn’t at least I’ll clarify my thoughts and hopefully get a few good suggestions for further reading.
I don’t have a name for what I’m talking about or even a good sense of what it is. I’m hopeful that will become clearer with practice. But in the meantime, what’s helped you get better at life?–at thinking, deciding, working, thinking. Whether it’s a gadget or technique or book or person, I’d love it if you posted what you’ve found most helpful in the comments.
Bang on I think Stuart – there’s no one recipe book; just lots of good ingredients! Cheers John
Have you seen Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s tedtalk where he explains how he became interested in psychology? On holiday, with no money for the cinema, he went to a lecture on flying saucers, given by…. Carl Jung.
On hobbies, I don’t think you can beat George Orwell’s collection of likes and dislikes: “Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening, especially vegetable gardening. I like English cookery and English beer, French red wines, Spanish white wines, Indian tea, strong tobacco, coal fires, candlelight and comfortable chairs. I dislike big towns, noise, motor cars, the radio, tinned food, central heating and ‘modern’ furniture.”
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Jung, flying saucers and coal fires – that’s what I call ‘relevant complexity’ Stuart. Thanks a lot.