Saturday, April 21, 2007

Enough about Happiness

Flaubert argued that there are only three requirements for happiness: selfishness, stupidity, and good health. "Though if stupidity is lacking," he said, "all is lost."

I was happy to watch the Red Sox score five runs in the bottom of the eighth, so there's hope for me.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


I don’t necessarily endorse Csikszentmihalyi’s theories, although I think I understand what he means by flow. Intense absorption in a task is a real pleasure. And, thankfully, that pleasure seems to have little relation to one’s level of skill or ability.

For instance, I am middle-aged and of middling height; I can’t jump, or drive to my left. I also have one bad knee. And yet I have enjoyed (brief) states of flow on the basketball court, moments in which I do only what is absolutely right and beautiful in the game.

Can people be taught to enter this state of happy absorption at will? Or any of the other myriad happy states of which humans are capable?

In January 2007, D.T. Max published Happiness 101 in the New York Times. In this article, Mark Linkins, curriculum coordinator of a school district that mixes positive psychology with ninth grade English classes, says, “it’s preferable to be happy than not, even if that means the potential for creative output is diminished.”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who flinched upon reading this statement. This is Orhan Pamuk in his 2006 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

"I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can't quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


The "paralysis of the mind" that I enjoy is not a species of stupor. Fishing can do it for me, of course, but so can a long walk or a cold dawn, a well-written novel, an unexpected road trip, a stained-glass window, a cattail marsh.

What I seek is not relief, precisely, although it does feel good to forget that part of your brain which is responsible for fear, doubt, and expectation. Environmental psychologists (they exist!) describe this as "attentional restoration." Which might be related to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studies the state of being intensely absorbed in a task, calls flow.

According to the Edge Foundation, the name is pronounced "chick-SENT-me-high."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


I stole the title of this blog from a passage in a favorite novel: Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain. At least I think I stole it. After a few initial readings, I began to cherish this line: “Fishing paralyzes the mind so the soul can rest.”

How profound, I thought. What genius! I even quoted these words in a work of my own, a story that won second prize in the 2005 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest.

But when I went back to the book last month, I could not find that sentence.

In John Bester’s translation, Ibuse writes, “While one was fishing, one’s powers of thought were temporarily paralyzed, so that it had the same effect in resting the cells of the brain as a deep sleep.”

The right idea, but not nearly as elegant as I remembered.