Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Paradox of Control

If a person loses a chess game or botches his hobby he need not worry; in "real" life, however, a person who mishandles a business deal may get fired, lose the mortgage on the house, and end up on public assistance.

Thus the flow experience is typically described as involving a sense of control—or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about losing control that is typical in many situations of normal life.

"A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me, I have no worries of failure..."

What the response is describing is the possibility rather than the actuality, of control. The ballet dancer may fall, break her leg, and never make the perfect turn. But at least in principle, in the world of flow perfection is attainable.

This feeling is also reported in people who take high risk activities. Their enjoyment derives not from the danger itself, but from their ability to minimize it. So rather than a pathological thrill that comes from courting disaster, the positive emotion they enjoy is the perfectly healthy feeling of being able to control potentially dangerous forces.

There are two dangers involved "objective" and "subjective". Objective dangers are unpredictable events that may happen, a sudden storm, an avalanche, etc. Subjective dangers arise from the lack of skill—including the inability to estimate correctly the situation in relation to one's ability.

The whole point is to avoid objective dangers as much as possible and eliminate subjective dangers entirely by rigorous discipline and sound preparation.

What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.

It is not possible to experience a feeling of control unless one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines. Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake, and one is able to influence that outcome, can a person really know whether she is in control.

Almost any enjoyable activity can become addictive, in the sense that instead of being a conscious choice, it becomes a necessity that interferes with other activities.

When a person becomes so dependent on the ability to control an enjoyable activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, then he loses the ultimate control: the freedom to determine the content of consciousness.

Thus enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative aspect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes a captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.

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