There is nothing unexpected about feeling negative when reflecting on who we are. It’s normal. It’s understandable. None of us are perfect, yet we live in a world which so easily offers the ideal of perfection; even going as far as to suggest we should strive for it because, ‘Look, others have it.’
So when we look at ourselves and draw the conclusion that we are not perfect, we may experience doubt, disappointment, even dismay. Emotions which are further compounded when we compare ourselves with others. (As I have already written here and here, comparisons with other people are to be avoided.) But it usually goes further than a lack of perfection. There can be negativity about particular characteristics of our personality; a sentiment I felt when I wrote the very early journal entry, ‘Not as Good as I Think I Am’.
However, there’s a good argument which suggests that self-awareness can turn that around. Certainly, it is my view that if we are not engaged in some form of personal development, then we are missing out on a big opportunity to discover who we are, both individually and collectively. But what if the work itself can make us happy? Not the results, the work itself.
The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book ‘Flow – the classic work on how to achieve happiness‘, outlines the type of experiences which can create happiness. He talks about surgeons, rock climbers, athletes and chess players being focused on challenging activities with such an intensity that time is distorted and they forget their worries and concerns. He explains that flow is more common at work than during our leisure time yet, paradoxically, we think we would be happier doing nothing than working.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, a flow experience has the following characteristics:
- A challenging activity that requires skills
- Concentration on the task at hand
- Clear goals
- Clear feedback
- Awareness merges with action
- Sense of control
- Loss of self-consciousness
- Sense of time is altered
All of this suggests that we have to work for our happiness. If we can find a hobby which provides the right opportunities, or we can focus on tasks at work to such an extent that our mind is quiet and the above criteria are satisfied, then we can make ourselves happy. Certainly, there is a difficulty associated with flow tasks, but success is most definitely within reach.
So why not work on ourselves? It may not involve the intense periods of focus felt by a painter, a computer programmer or a gymnast. Indeed, there is a difference in the timescales involved. Csikszentmihalyi’s examples are measured in seconds, minutes and hours. Personal growth is measured in weeks, months and years. But there is something of each of the above eight elements in the work we do on ourselves.
What at first seems like a daunting task, is well within our capabilities. We set our goals and receive feedback from our environment, our own feelings and from people we trust. Eventually our awareness becomes second nature, we have more control over ourselves and our interactions, and gradually become less self-conscious. And, during those scattered episodes where everything just falls into place and it all makes sense, we do lose track of time.
Reflect on who you are. You will find beauty. And you will undoubtedly find something to work on, which may leave you feeling downhearted. If it does, know that, irrespective of the outcome, the mere act of working on yourself can make you happy.