Happiness and the Flow of Fiends

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April is Switcheroo Month here at the Gutter so alex is flipping from the big screen to the tiny screen and writing about the video game Best Fiends and self help books.

Recently I’ve had three different books recommended to me, all with the word happiness in the title, and all with distinctly different guidance on how to bring that magical creature into your life. Sometimes when I’m faced with a multitude of paths picking one feels like a bit of a crapshoot, so rather than reading any of them I’ve been spending a lot of time playing the original Best Fiends game on my phone and going for long walks. A lifetime of experience tells me that being outside and appreciating nature increases my happiness, but I find it less clear cut how much playing a puzzle game actually makes me happy and how much it replaces other things that might make me happier.

I found myself wondering just how many books have been written about happiness, so I did a search with some random topics as a comparison. Presumably some of the results are only dimly related, but here’s what I got:

Boredom – 1,295
Teeth – 18,000
Anxiety – 27,840
Chickens – 30,590
Sleep – 73,745
Happiness – 92,947
Death – 218,739

I imagine that the number for death is grossly inflated by murder mysteries, and I’m not clear on the breakdown between husbandry and cuisine in the category of chickens, but the ratio between boredom and happiness is roughly 1:72 and I find that encouraging. One of the common themes in many of the books I’ve read about happiness is that humans have a tendency to see it as a fixed point that can be arrived at, and to keep feeling as if having the next thing they want will get them there. We’re wired to feel like satiating desire will bring happiness – and sometimes it does – but often happiness is like a magician’s rabbit, appearing out of nowhere while we’re busy focusing our attention on an empty hat.

Two of the approaches to happiness that I find the most appealing and useful are Buddhist mindfulness practice and Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of Flow. Possibly that’s because they both come with specific, concrete things you can do to create conditions where you’re likely to feel good about what you’re doing in the world. As I understand them, both theories involve learning to experience a state of being that feels effortless, not because you aren’t making any effort but because you’ve achieved an equilibrium where you’re moving forward without struggling. When I apply them both to the question of what role Best Fiends plays in my life though, much like with the three different happiness books, I find I’m pulled in different directions.

When I talk about mindfulness here, the main element I’m thinking of is acknowledging the thoughts and distractions that naturally come along, then letting them go and gently bringing your attention back to the time and place that you’re in rather than engaging with them or assigning them a positive or negative value. Mindfulness practice involves focus and letting go of distractions, but not the type of focus that blocks out awareness of everything else. Flow involves being so consumed by the task you’re performing that you lose awareness of yourself and the passage of time, sometimes even to the point where you ignore the need to eat or sleep.

The theory of flow is that there’s a relative point between skill and challenge where a person’s abilities and the level of difficulty of a task are aligned to make it the perfect balance of rewarding and challenging. Conversely, an imbalance between skill and challenge produces some flavor of either anxiety or boredom. Csikszentmihalyi lists both sports and video games as examples of activities that are often linked to flow states, and the pre-conditions that he suggests for flow have actually been applied to video game design. He says that activities that are likely to lead to flow states:

  • Have concrete goals with manageable rules
  • Can be adjusted to match our capabilities
  • Provide clear information on how we’re doing
  • Screen out distractions

Looking at this list helps explain why video games are so appealing and rewarding: we live in a world where those conditions are rarely met. What it takes to level up in real life is so much less enjoyable than amassing enough gems and crystals to evolve your favorite fiend. Killing waves of zombies or fending off hordes of mutinous rabbits on screen is so much more fun than answering endless emails. There’s an immediate, visceral satisfaction in the burbling sound that rises in pitch the more green leaves or blue raindrops I string together in Best Fiends, or the oof-poof sound when I defeat one of the slugs, or in figuring out the right combination of fiend skills to complete a difficult level. It’s one of the only places in my life where I’m actually disappointed when I don’t fail at least a few times. They’ve done a really good job of combining cuteness with the elements of flow to create a game I’m happy to just keep playing.

I think there is a place where the theories of flow and mindfulness merge on the topic of video games though. Csikszentmihalyi warns that the kinds of activities that create flow also tend to be addictive, which moves you into a state where you lose conscious control, and that leads to unhappiness. Up to a point playing Best Fiends does make me happy, and beyond that it takes up time and energy that I would probably be better off applying to creating something in my life or the world that will last beyond the final boss battle. If I’m lucky, maybe I can find a way to make life mimic art and create something that applies the principles of flow as well as a really good game.

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alex MacFadyen notes that while the ratio of books on boredom to books on happiness was 1:72, the ratio of boredom to chickens was only 1:23, and the ratio of teeth to chickens was less than 1:2. And now all he can think about is those mutant chickens that actually have teeth, which would probably also be better than 5, 572 emails.

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