We are born. We live. End.
Although this may sound like a trivializing take on human existence, it is by no means intended to be so and solely represent a broad order of events stripped away from its significance. Just like what you choose to put in between two slices of bread significantly defines and shapes your sandwich, just like the books that you keep in between your two bookends significantly shape your life, the same way it is the part where we live that we define and characterize our selves. And again, just like we hold the ability to choose the sandwich we intend to make and the books we keep on our bookshelf, we all have the ability to decide how we want to shape ourselves.
A circumstance is defined as a fact or condition connected with or relevant to an event or action. Some circumstances in life have a subliminal effect on us, an effect that we may only notice in retrospect. However, some circumstances in life such as the death of a close one may also shake our very beliefs about the world that we live in and even make us question our very own existence. Irrespective of whether the circumstances are associated with a positive or a negative connotation, they consist of certain conditions, which may be seen as the rules of the game that we ought to play, given the circumstance we are in.
It is here, in this game, where we can set for ourselves realistic goals as to what we are able to control and do. Then, we can set up challenges for ourselves and come out of the experience having learned a lot about the world as well as ourselves. With the skill and challenge level balanced, and the cycle of knowing-and-doing set in motion, one can turn any difficult situation into a flow process. It is also important to note here that when a difficult situation is likened to a game, it does not imply that the game is an easy one or is one of low significance. If anything, the games of life can be many times more significant, as well as formidable, than what the final game of the FIFA World Cup means to the players involved.
As you may have experienced by now, one tends to lose a sense of self when in Flow. As one gets better and better at it, it may be really easy to slip into a flow state whenever one is involved in a task. As one learns to use attention as a resource and is able to direct it where need be, it may be tempting to cheat oneself out of discomfort, or, for the lack of a better word, negative emotional experiences by directing one’s attention to something else in order to shield oneself from going through those emotions. However, as efficient as it may be, it is important to remind ourselves that a good life involves “inevitable dialectics between positive and negative aspects of living” (Ryff & Singer, 2003, p. 272). By using flow to cheat chaos (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), one may end up ignoring aspects of life that tend to resurface, only to demand a form of addressal.
“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out
for some new delight… Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond”. -Rumi
It may also be helpful at this point to ask ourselves what makes negative emotions negative and if there is a context for said negative emotions to play a vital and significant role in our personal growth and development. One such example that highlights the importance of context is the phenomenon of unrealistic optimism. When optimism, a positive emotion, is left unchecked, one may tend to have a weaker sense of judgment and develop an idealistic view of the future which may or may not happen. Given a thought, it may now be easy to see how this would actually do more harm than good.
Light is, because there is darkness. Similarly, positive emotions are, because there are negative emotions. As one starts to inspect the dichotomy, it may appear that the two are inseparable, even complementary in nature. It is the mutual dependence of opposites that starts to come towards the forefront of attention the further one pays attention to the role positive emotions play to support negative emotions, and negative to support the positive. Putting it another way, the very concept of positive only makes sense when juxtaposed with the concept of negative. If one was to label one side of the coin as positive and the other as negative, trying to get rid of the negative would involve an attempt to vertically slice the coin in half, in vain. In the same way, we may be able to label certain emotions as positive and others as negative, however, we can never really get rid of the negative. Buddhist school of thought suggests that pain only turns into suffering when one tries to get rid of it, and in this case, it may be extremely taxing to try and get rid of one half of the human experience.
As much as we encourage you to craft your own path of life governed by what is most meaningful to you, an alternate path that one may take after understanding the inseparability of positive and negative emotions is exercising one of the fundamental notions of freedom known to humankind, the ability to decide how to act. As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” As humans, we hold the power to exercise agency, which renders us with the ability to not be mere victims of our environment. We can make the choice. We can act. We can find flow. We can find meaning. We can flourish. Together.
May the Flow be with you!
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.
Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. (2003). Ironies of the human condition. Well-being and health on the way to mortality. In L. G. Aspinwall & U. M. Staudinger (Eds.), A Psychology of Human Strengths (pp. 271–287). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.