Go With The Flow
Positive Psychology is an attempt to define 'the good life', scientifically measure the activities that lead to it, and so arrive at a scientific hypothesis for reaching it: the fabled 'happiness hypothesis' that Positive Psychologists search for, like alchemists searching for the Philosopher's Stone.
I've spoken about how some 'happiness scientists' define happiness as subjective reports of well-being, which one can measure (they argue) with a seven-point scale, asking people 'how happy does this make you, if one is very unhappy and seven is very happy'.
The problem with this, as has been discussed, is that it assumes the variety of human experience, and the varieties of human happiness, can be measured in such a simplistic way, without asking whether there are higher or lower forms of happiness, or if happiness should be the main 'goal' of human life. There are deep philosophical assumptions in this branch of happiness science, which it rarely addresses.
Positive Psychology has taken the step of suggesting happiness is not one thing, but instead is divided into three main sorts of happiness: hedonic happiness (positive feelings), which you can measure with seven-point scales; engaged happiness (feeling absorbed in what you're doing), which you can also measure; and meaningful happiness (serving a worthy higher cause) which they're not sure how to measure.
Ignoring the fact that Positive Psychologists admit that meaningful happiness is very difficult to measure scientifically, and therefore the whole basis of the scientific search for the 'Good Life' is called into question, let's look at the second form of happiness, 'engaged happiness'.
This type of happiness is supposed to have a lot of what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihayli calls 'flow', which are moments when a person is completely absorbed in what they're doing, to the point where they lose track of time and space.
Csikszentmihayli writes: 'a good life is one that is characterized by complete absorption in what one does'.
You can measure the extent to which someone feels the flow doing different activities, by beeping them throughout the day and asking them the extent to which they are in 'the flow'. This must be pretty annoying, there you are, in the flow, then 'beep!' Darn it, it's Csikszentmihayli, interrupting the flow again.
Anyway, leaving that to one side, Csikszentmihayli came up with this concept in the 1960s, when he observed artists at work, and saw how they became completely caught up in their creative endeavours, completely focused on them, completely engaged with them, until they were finished, and they lost interest in the work and turned to something else.
How good a model of the 'good life' is this?
Well, there are obvious philosophical problems with it. We'd have to say, lots of different activities can be highly absorbing. Heroin addicts are utterly absorbed in what they do. Gamers get utterly absorbed in playing computer games, playing for hours without even getting up or eating. Market traders can easily become totally absorbed in what they do, totally gripped by it.
While we might accept that this sort of deep engagement in what you are doing is one of the pleasures of life - and part of the answer to the question 'what is the good life?' - don't we have to say that the goodness depends on the activity in which you are absorbed?
That's to say, the complete absorption of a heroin addict in doing heroin is morally and qualitatively different from the complete absorption of the mystic in divine contemplation. Isn't it?
Let's take two artists, both completely absorbed in their work. One is writing the next great novel, and one is building a car out of match-sticks. Doesn't the 'worth' of their activity depend to some extent on the worth of what it is they create? If a friend of ours spent five years utterly absorbed in a novel, and the novel turned out to be completely rubbish, wouldn't we think that the person has incorrectly decided where their talents lie, and had to some extent wasted their time?
Let's even say that a person becomes completely absorbed in their work, and produces a good novel, but they become so absorbed that they disregard all their relations, get divorced from their wife and separated from their children, don't eat or drink properly, and end up a gibbering wreck. Is that a 'good life'? Perhaps it is, if the book is considered 'worth it', but it's very much a matter of opinion and debate, not scientific accuracy.
In other words, there's the question of worth: is the activity that you habitually absorb yourself really 'worthwhile'? Is it helping the world? Is it healthy for you?
Secondly, there's the question of talent: are you really any good at it? Are you wasting your time?
Thirdly, there's the question of balance: should you spend all your time pursuing the flow moments, or is there something to be said for balancing your 'gift' with other activities, such as building loving relationships or taking exercise?
These are my main objections to defining the good life simply as 'having a lot of flow', but there are probably other objections.