By Kimberly Beekman
The things that give me the most joy are intrinsically painful. Mountain biking, backcountry skiing, writing. They all involve either literal or metaphorical sweat, and, sometimes, after going over the handlebars into a sharp pile of rocks, tears. And yet I crave these activities like food when I’m hungry.
Some people call this type of joy Type II Fun, which means it can be rather miserable in the moment but, when reflected on later, is a source of great pleasure.
When I try to explain this phenomenon to my teenage daughter, most likely while trying to convince her to join me, I struggle with the logic. Intuitively, I know this kind of suffering is good for us, but it’s difficult to put into words just why, and even harder to explain why it makes me happy.
This, I think, is where the concept of “flow” comes in. Flow is a concept defined by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-HIGH CHEEK-sent-me-HIGH) in his seminal 1990 book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” Csikszentmihalyi essentially posited that people are happiest when they experience periods of intense concentration or absorption, when self-consciousness and a sense of time disappear.
The idea is that these activities get us out of our own heads and give our brains relief from the constant white noise of thinking about work, money, email, kids, to-do lists, news, etc. During these periods of intense concentration, we experience bursts of creativity and a pure experience of just being alive.
What this really boils down to for me might just be freedom—not just from external pressure, but more importantly from internal pressure. This, I think, is probably why we also enjoy looking out at the ocean, up at the stars, or at a mountain range. That feeling of insignificance, of understanding there is a much bigger picture than what’s in the six inches between our ears, allows us to experience what it means to exist.
OK, but what does this all have to do with suffering? Is pain necessary to find a flow state? Ask any expert in their field—a musician, rock climber, triathlete, scientist—and they’ll tell you it’s in “the zone” where the magic happens. But to get in that zone, you need to become a said expert, which takes years of hard work, which is to say years of a specific type of suffering. So it stands to reason that certain kinds of pain are intrinsically beneficial, if only because they can lead us to the flow.
This is not a new idea. In America, we subscribe to the idea that “that which does not kill you makes you stronger.” This is certainly true in some cases, when people succeed not in spite of their difficulties but because of them. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in terms of “desirable difficulties,” a class of obstacles that, for whatever reason, has an advantageous outcome. He noted, for example, there are a disproportionate number of entrepreneurs who suffer from dyslexia, suggesting that because they had to work harder than their peers to read, they had a better work ethic that played a part in their success.
However, I think a line needs to be drawn between challenge and hardship. Sometimes there is no silver lining; sometimes hardship is just hard. All those dyslexic entrepreneurs, for example, have two things in common: intelligence and someone who believed in them. So what about a kid of average intelligence with dyslexia who quit school to support his drug-addicted single mom? What could he or she have accomplished if he or she had some support? Then there are the hardships of racism, sexism, classism…these are undesirable difficulties that can hamstring us—not set us free.
Csikszentmihalyi himself, for whatever reason, was exceptional for being able to turn undesirable difficulties into desirable ones. He grew up as a Hungarian in Europe during WWII; his two older brothers were both killed, one in the Siege of Budapest and the other in a Siberian labor camp. After the war, his family lost their Hungarian citizenship after his father refused to work for the Communist regime that took over Hungary, and Csikszentmihalyi dropped out of school to help support his family.
Eventually, he made it to America and worked his way through school, but it was watching the suffering of those who had lost their homes, families, and livelihoods in the war that sparked his curiosity about what makes life worth living. It was that suffering that fueled his quest for knowledge. This is how he eventually stumbled into his research on flow.
We can only surmise that’s where Csikszentmihalyi, who died in October of 2021, found his own peace. Let us help you find yours.
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