Many lives are disrupted by tragic accidents, and even the most fortunate are subjected to stresses of various kinds. Yet such blows do not necessarily diminish happiness. It is how people respond to stress that determines whether they will profit from misfortune or be miserable.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
I rarely read something and think, “Hey, I could’ve written that.” But that was my immediate reaction upon reaching page 7 of Flow. Csikszentmihalyi has spent much of his career exploring this concept, “the process of achieving happiness through control over one’s inner life.” A more mercenary author would have likely named this book 10 Steps to Happiness, creating a “how to” manual that (falsely) promised a roadmap to achieving flow. But Csikszentmihalyi rejects that approach, instead summarizing years of psychological research in a readable, entertaining format to explain the science behind why some people can find flow (and by extension, happiness) while others can’t.
As someone who survived a traumatic accident in my late 20’s, I found Chapter 9 – “Cheating Chaos” – particularly compelling. In it, he describes the reactions of people trying to rebound from life-altering disabilities like paraplegia and blindness. Again and again, the words on the page mapped so perfectly to my own experience that it felt like I was the one being described. For example, a man paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident describes the experience as “like being born again.”
I had to learn from scratch everything I used to know, but in a different way. I had to learn to dress myself, to use my head better. I had to become part of the environment and use it without trying to control it. … It took commitment, willpower, and patience.
A woman who lost her sight at age 12 states that “it made me mature in ways that I could never have become even with a college degree … for instance, problems no longer affect me with the pathos they used to, and the way that they affect so many of my peers.”
Csiksgentmihalyi asks, “[h]ow does it comes about that the same blow will destroy one person, while another will transform it into inner order?” The answer, he posits, is what psychologists call “coping ability” or “coping style.” He continues:
The ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it is a very rare gift. Those who possess it are called “survivors,” and are said to have “resilience,” or “courage.”
But why certain people can do this and others can’t isn’t widely understood. Csikszentmihalyi hypothesizes that positive transformations from negative events share three characteristics.
First, people in these situations believe that they can control their destiny. Interestingly, however, “they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.”
Second, these individuals tend not to focus obsessively on themselves, but rather, direct their attention on the world around them. “They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead, their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings.”
Third, people who positively cope with life-changing events “focus on the entire situation, including oneself, to discover whether alternative goals may not be more appropriate, and thus different solutions possible.”
* * *
When I consider my rehabilitation from limb loss and the three characteristics described by Csikszentmihalyi, the parallels are startling.
1: belief that you can control your destiny
As I’ve written about before, when doctors told me post-surgically that I would be able to walk with a cane within 6 months of my amputation, I rejected their estimates out of hand. I didn’t do this because I believed I was better than other above-knee amputees or because I had a built-in sense of superiority. In fact, I had no frame of reference whatsoever for making any estimate about when I’d be able to walk independently.
But I did believe that I could directly influence that timeline by focusing intensely on each element of my rehabilitation in an aggressive, positive way. I set small goals – i.e., I’m going to be home before Christmas – that I could achieve, over and over. This mindset forced me to put questions like, “why me?” in the background – I had a deadline to beat.
2: focus on the world around you
While I was admittedly self-obsessed in many ways after my surgery – How do I look? What will others think about me? – navigating the world first with crutches and then with a prosthesis forced me to look at my immediate environment in a completely different way than I ever had before. On crutches, a wet tile floor meant something completely different than it had when I walked over it with two shoes. (As I found out, violently, upon my first trip outside my house after returning home post-accident.) On a prosthesis, a slight uphill or downhill completely changed my walking dynamics, forcing me to monitor what lay ahead of me with careful consideration.
The world around me necessarily narrowed to those things that could threaten my stability and gait.
3. find new solutions
Before I even left inpatient rehab, I learned that something as simple as making a sandwich while using crutches required a different way of thinking than two-legged sandwich making. I had to think strategically if I didn’t want to drop a jar of peanut butter or if I aspired to pull multiple items out of the refrigerator simultaneously.
And I’ll never forget the afternoon when, unable to drag a large broken tree branch on my back lawn into the woods, I figured out a novel workaround that I never would have (had to) consider with two legs. I placed one end of the broken branch into the “V” formed by diverging branches of another tree and proceeded to step on it with all of my weight until it snapped into two smaller branches that I could more easily carry. The sense of achievement I felt from solving this combined mental/physical problem gave me as much pride as many key “professional” successes I’ve had over the last 17 years.
In the end, what makes Flow such a compelling read is its hypothesis that we possess the capacity to actively control how we perceive and respond to events around us. Shortly after losing my leg, I spoke to a group of teenagers on a religious retreat, and I remember saying, “Life is going to kick you in the teeth eventually. You can’t prevent that. It’s how you respond to it that defines who you are.” That’s not a novel or earth shattering concept. But I find it somewhat ironic that it took me roughly 15 years to find an explanation of why I see the world that way.