One of Jean Paul Sartre’s most recognized quotes is “Hell is other people”. The ever-present feeling of being consistently watched and judged by someone, be it at home or out in the open, unless one is totally convinced that one is physically isolated from other human beings, can be one of the most discomforting aspects of human existence. However, even instinctively, we are drawn to other people, especially those that share the same interests and goals as us. Surveys have reported that people tend to be the happiest when they are with friends and family, or even just in the company of other people (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). It gets more puzzling as we see people around us having blissful times together on the sandy shores of a beach, while also waking up the next day to the news of two countries exchanging nuclear threats with one another. What differentiates these two scenarios, where the former leans towards harmony, and the other towards fragmentation and destruction?
Relationships, whether they’re associative, platonic, familial or intimate, may seem to be occurring naturally, however, they require as much investment of attention as one would expect from rock-climbing to demand. A family is an individual’s first environment where one learns values and morals of the contemporary world. In earlier times, even if things within a family did not work out, the family would still stay together due to feasibility of resources as well as social influences. With the increasing emphasis on individualization in the modern day world and the learned ability to acquire the means to survive, relationships between family members may not be the most intimate throughout one’s life. In case of friendships, the relationship tends to involve shared goals and interests, and also allows the validation of one’s sense of self. As the goals of the individual as well as the larger group change, so does one’s sense of self, irrespective of it being conducive to growth or not since the self basically represents the sum and organization of one’s goals. In addition to shared goals as well as the orientation of attention, the fostering of meaningful connections between two people also depends on the level of complexity involved (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Complexity here refers to the emphasis on differentiation i.e. the unique skills and associated goals of one individual, as well as integration i.e. a connectedness with other people with shared goals and interests.
Just like any other activity, relationships of any kind with people can also be turned into life-long flow processes. As we have learnt so far, the conditions required to enter Flow are the balance between the perceived level of challenge and perceived level of skill, as well as the presence of clear goals and proximal feedback. The balance between the challenge and skill level can be found if one sets up realistic goals for the relationship in question, in tandem with the provision of feedback via each and every interaction. Whereas the whole relationship can be seen as a flow process on one hand, the smaller goals and activities within this process can also be made conducive to enter flow. Let us imagine a conversation between two friends, Mary and Lucy. As Mary hurriedly starts to recite to Lucy how much of an awkward start her day had had, Lucy asks her about the finer details, and also shares her story of the time when she had to catch a flight to Hawaii but couldn’t make it to the airport in time as she had left her passport at home. She then asks Mary to take a few deep breaths and prioritize the rest of her day, after which they share a hug and part ways. If one was to view this conversation under a lens, one would inevitably see that Mary’s goal here is to share with Lucy how she was feeling about her day so far to get things off her mind whereas Lucy’s goal is to help her friend feel calmer and better than before. With clear goals, consistent feedback, and directing attention towards one another, this small little conversation represents a good example of a flow process. Using the same framework on a macroscopic scale, relationships themselves can be fine-tuned in a way that makes it easier to find one’s flow. For a romantic relationship to thrive, there tends to emerge the need for readjustment of some goals, while accepting the differentiating ones. As two people start to spend more of their time together, goals and activities tend to change and if one was to not reorganize their goals, the relationship would only lead to entropy in the mind as expected patterns of behavior would conflict with what was actually demanded for by the new circumstances. For example, if Franco wanted to watch the new Spiderman movie whereas Jeanne wants to go check out the new restaurant on Harvard and 5th, there would have to be a reorganization of goals where both of them decide to take out time for one another’s interests and then add to the structure of their lives, their shared goals and activities. If one’s interests were neglected at the cost of the others’, one would not expect the relationship to survive long enough.
In today’s world of increasing intolerance and discrimination, it is appropriate for us to think about what other people mean to us, known or unknown, sharing the same ethnicity, nationality, culture, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation or not. Although the development of the ego from a center of coherence to the belief of it being a solid individual entity of its own may have us believe that we can be truly independent, a closer look reveals the extent of interdependence of every organism of the whole wide universe. This very process of reading this article on your smartphone or tablet has been a possible reality due to the presence of those who designed the product, those who helped manufacture it, those who designed the technology, those who provide access to the internet, those who create content for this platform, those who have created this platform, namely, The Mindfulness App, and many many more people who had a part to play in making the crafting of this experience a possibility. Even when we feel proud of being better than someone else in a particular domain, the very feeling is possible only because there is someone who is not as good as you. Thus, even the very concept of one-upmanship exists because it relies on the notion of interdependency. As various countries boast about their nuclear powers, while others rally to relinquish nuclear weapons altogether, we may now want to ask ourselves whether we as humans have conflicting goals that are more important than the very goal of ensuring our survival as a species. And if there is none, it may also be timely to reflect on how the complexity of goals could be acknowledged and respected in order to make this world a safer, happier and a much more accepting place to live in.
What you have to do!
As we enter Week 8 of Finding Flow, we hope you have been able to incorporate Flow into your everyday life and we will be glad to know if it has made even the slightest difference in improving the quality of your everyday life. For this week, we ask you to choose one person who’s close to you and set an intention to invest more attention in them and try to create flow experiences for both of you. Additionally, we would also like you to pen down your thoughts about the times when you felt bored with this person, the times when you were really engaged, and the times there was a little anxiety in the air. Did the reorientation of goals help balance out the boredom or anxiety?
Awareness Game of the Week
This week’s Awareness Game is called Free the World (O’Connor, 2016). To play, set the world free from your judgments of it. Set the world free from your opinion of it. Set the world free from your expectations of it.
Is this a game? Is this a time-out?
May the Flow be with you!
Keywords: people, others, goals, reorganization, complexity, shared, interests, friendship, relationship
Ajit Mann is a Master’s Candidate in Positive Developmental Psychology and Evaluation at Claremont Graduate University.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
O’Connor, B. T. (2016). Awareness Games: Playing with Your Mind to Create Joy. Slippery Mind.