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Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's famous investigations of "optimal experience" have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. In this new edition of his groundbreaking classic work, Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience teaches how, by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness and greatly improve the quality of our lives.

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The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

For Isabella, and Mark and Christopher



1 Happiness Revisited



The Roots of Discontent

The Shields of Culture

Reclaiming Experience

Paths of Liberation

2 The Anatomy of Consciousness

The Limits of Consciousness

Attention as Psychic Energy

Enter the Self

Disorder in Consciousness: Psychic Entropy

Order in Consciousness: Flow

Complexity and the Growth of the Self

3 Enjoyment and the Quality of Life

Pleasure and Enjoyment

The Elements of Enjoyment

The Autotelic Experience

4 The Conditions of Flow

Flow Activities

Flow and Culture

The Autotelic Personality

The People of Flow

5 The Body in Flow

Higher, Faster, Stronger

The Joys of Movement

Sex as Flow

The Ultimate Control: Yoga and the Martial Arts

Flow through the Senses: The Joys of Seeing

The Flow of Music

The Joys of Tasting

6 The Flow of Thought

The Mother of Science

The Rules of the Games of the Mind

The Play of Words

Befriending Clio

The Delights of Science

Loving Wisdom

Amateurs and Professionals

The Challenge of Lifelong Learning

7 Work as Flow

Autotelic Workers

Autotelic Jobs

The Paradox of Work

The Waste of Free Time

8 Enjoying Solitude and Other People

The Conflict between Being Alone and Being with Others

The Pain of Loneliness

Taming Solitude

Flow and the Family

Enjoying Friends

The Wider Community

9 Cheating Chaos

Tragedies Transformed

Coping with Stress

The Power of Dissipative Structures

The Autotelic Self: A Summary

10 The Making of Meaning

What Meaning Means

Cultivating Purpose

Forging Resolve

Recovering Harmony

The Unification of Meaning in Life Themes




About the Publisher


THIS BOOK SUMMARIZES, for a general audience, decades of research on the positive aspects ; of human experience—joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow. To take this step is somewhat dangerous, because as soon as one strays from the stylized constraints of academic prose, it is easy to become careless or overly enthusiastic about such a topic. What follows, however, is not a popular book that gives insider tips about how to be happy. To do so would be impossible in any case, since a joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe. This book tries instead to present general principles, along with concrete examples of how some people have used these principles, to transform boring and meaningless lives into ones full of enjoyment. There is no promise of easy short-cuts in these pages. But for readers who care about such things, there should be enough information to make possible the transition from theory to practice.

In order to make the book as direct and user-friendly as possible, I have avoided footnotes, references, and other tools scholars usually employ in their technical writing. I have tried to present the results of psychological research, and the ideas derived from the interpretation of such research, in a way that any educated reader can evaluate and apply to his or her own life, regardless of specialized background knowledge.

However, for those readers who are curious enough to pursue the scholarly sources on which my conclusions are based, I have included extensive notes at the end of the volume. They are not keyed to specific references, but to the page number in the text where a given issue is discussed. For example, happiness is mentioned on the very first page. The reader interested in knowing what works I base my assertions on can turn to the notes section beginning and, by looking under the reference, find a lead to Aristotle’s view of happiness as well as to contemporary research on this topic, with the appropriate citations. The notes can be read as a second, highly compressed, and more technical shadow version of the original text.

At the beginning of any book, it is appropriate to acknowledge those who have influenced its development. In the present case this is impossible, since the list of names would have to be almost as long as the book itself. However, I owe special gratitude to a few people, whom I wish to take this opportunity to thank. First of all, Isabella, who as wife and friend has enriched my life for over twenty-five years, and whose editorial judgment has helped shape this work. Mark and Christopher, our sons, from whom I have learned perhaps as much as they have learned from me. Jacob Getzels, my once and future mentor. Among friends and colleagues I should like to single out Donald Campbell, Howard Gardner, Jean Hamilton, Philip Hefner, Hiroaki Imamura, David Kipper, Doug Kleiber, George Klein, Fausto Massimini, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, Jerome Singer, James Stigler, and Brian Sutton-Smith—all of whom, in one way or another, have been generous with their help, inspiration, or encouragement.

Of my former students and collaborators Ronald Graef, Robert Kubey, Reed Larson, Jean Nakamura, Kevin Rathunde, Rick Robinson, Ikuya Sato, Sam Whalen, and Maria Wong have made the greatest contributions to the research underlying the ideas developed in these pages. John Brockman and Richard P. Kot have given their skillful professional support to this project and have helped it along from start to finish. Last but not least, indispensable over the past decade has been the funding generously provided by the Spencer Foundation to collect and analyze the data. I am especially grateful to its former president, H. Thomas James, to its present one, Lawrence A. Cremin, and to Marion Faldet, vice-president of the foundation. Of course, none of those mentioned above are responsible for what might be unsound in the book—that is exclusively my own doing.

Chicago, March 1990




TWENTY-THREE HUNDRED YEARS AGO Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal—health, beauty, money, or power—is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy. Much has changed since Aristotle’s time. Our understanding of the worlds of stars and of atoms has expanded beyond belief. The gods of the Greeks were like helpless children compared to humankind today and the powers we now wield. And yet on this most important issue very little has changed in the intervening centuries. We do not understand what happiness is any better than Aristotle did, and as for learning how to attain that blessed condition, one could argue that we have made no progress at all.

Despite the fact that we are now healthier and grow to be older, despite the fact that even the least affluent among us are surrounded by material luxuries undreamed of even a few decades ago (there were few bathrooms in the palace of the Sun King, chairs were rare even in the richest medieval houses, and no Roman emperor could turn on a TV set when he was bored), and regardless of all the stupendous scientific knowledge we can summon at will, people often end up feeling that their lives have been wasted, that instead of being filled with happiness their years were spent in anxiety and boredom.

Is this because it is the destiny of mankind to remain unfulfilled, each person always wanting more than he or she can have? Or is the pervasive malaise that often sours even our most precious moments the result of our seeking happiness in the wrong places? The intent of this book is to use some of the tools of modern psychology to explore this very ancient question: When do people feel most happy? If we can begin to find an answer to it, perhaps we shall eventually be able to order life so that happiness will play a larger part in it.

Twenty-five years before I began to write these lines, I made a discovery that took all the intervening time for me to realize I had made. To call it a “discovery” is perhaps misleading, for people have been aware of it since the dawn of time. Yet the word is appropriate, because even though my finding itself was well known, it had not been described or theoretically explained by the relevant branch of scholarship, which in this case happens to be psychology. So I spent the next quarter-century investigating this elusive phenomenon.

What I “discovered” was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.

Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. “Ask yourself whether you are happy,” said J. S. Mill, “and you cease to be so.” It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, summarized it beautifully in the preface to his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”

So how can we reach this elusive goal that cannot be attained by a direct route? My studies of the past quarter-century have convinced me that there is a way. It is a circuitous path that begins with achieving control over the contents of our consciousness.

Our perceptions about our lives are the outcome of many forces that shape experience, each having an impact on whether we feel good or bad. Most of these forces are outside our control. There is not much we can do about our looks, our temperament, or our constitution. We cannot decide—at least so far—how tall we will grow, how smart we will get. We can choose neither parents nor time of birth, and it is not in your power or mine to decide whether there will be a war or a depression. The instructions contained in our genes, the pull of gravity, the pollen in the air, the historical period into which we are born—these and innumerable other conditions determine what we see, how we feel, what we do. It is not surprising that we should believe that our fate is primarily ordained by outside agencies.

Yet we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.

This is what we mean by optimal experience. It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt—sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile. Such events do not occur only when the external conditions are favorable, however: people who have survived concentration camps or who have lived through near-fatal physical dangers often recall that in the midst of their ordeal they experienced extraordinarily rich epiphanies in response to such simple events as hearing the song of a bird in the forest, completing a hard task, or sharing a crust of bread with a friend.

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.

Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmer’s muscles might have ached during his most memorable race, his lungs might have felt like exploding, and he might have been dizzy with fatigue—yet these could have been the best moments of his life. Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery—or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life—that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.

In the course of my studies I tried to understand as exactly as possible how people felt when they most enjoyed themselves, and why. My first studies involved a few hundred “experts”—artists, athletes, musicians, chess masters, and surgeons—in other words, people who seemed to spend their time in precisely those activities they preferred. From their accounts of what it felt like to do what they were doing, I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

With the help of this theoretical model my research team at the University of Chicago and, afterward, colleagues around the world interviewed thousands of individuals from many different walks of life. These studies suggested that optimal experiences were described in the same way by men and women, by young people and old, regardless of cultural differences. The flow experience was not just a peculiarity of affluent, industrialized elites. It was reported in essentially the same words by old women from Korea, by adults in Thailand and India, by teenagers in Tokyo, by Navajo shepherds, by farmers in the Italian Alps, and by workers on the assembly line in Chicago.

In the beginning our data consisted of interviews and questionnaires. To achieve greater precision we developed with time a new method for measuring the quality of subjective experience. This technique, called the Experience Sampling Method, involves asking people to wear an electronic paging device for a week and to write down how they feel and what they are thinking about whenever the pager signals. The pager is activated by a radio transmitter about eight times each day, at random intervals. At the end of the week, each respondent provides what amounts to a running record, a written film clip of his or her life, made up of selections from its representative moments. By now over a hundred thousand such cross sections of experience have been collected from different parts of the world. The conclusions of this volume are based on that body of data.

The study of flow I began at the University of Chicago has now spread worldwide. Researchers in Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Australia have taken up its investigation. At present the most extensive collection of data outside of Chicago is at the Institute of Psychology of the Medical School, the University of Milan, Italy. The concept of flow has been found useful by psychologists who study happiness, life satisfaction, and intrinsic motivation; by sociologists who see in it the opposite of anomie and alienation; by anthropologists who are interested in the phenomena of collective effervescence and rituals. Some have extended the implications of flow to attempts to understand the evolution of mankind, others to illuminate religious experience.

But flow is not just an academic subject. Only a few years after it was first published, the theory began to be applied to a variety of practical issues. Whenever the goal is to improve the quality of life, the flow theory can point the way. It has inspired the creation of experimental school curricula, the training of business executives, the design of leisure products and services. Flow is being used to generate ideas and practices in clinical psychotherapy, the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents, the organization of activities in old people’s homes, the design of museum exhibits, and occupational therapy with the handicapped. All this has happened within a dozen years after the first articles on flow appeared in scholarly journals, and the indications are that the impact of the theory is going to be even stronger in the years to come.


Although many articles and books on flow have been written for the specialist, this is the first time that the research on optimal experience is being presented to the general reader and its implications for individual lives discussed. But what follows is not going to be a “how-to” book. There are literally thousands of such volumes in print or on the remainder shelves of book-stores, explaining how to get rich, powerful, loved, or slim. Like cookbooks, they tell you how to accomplish a specific, limited goal on which few people actually follow through. Yet even if their advice were to work, what would be the result afterward in the unlikely event that one did turn into a slim, well-loved, powerful millionaire? Usually what happens is that the person finds himself back at square one, with a new list of wishes, just as dissatisfied as before. What would really satisfy people is not getting slim or rich, but feeling good about their lives. In the quest for happiness, partial solutions don’t work.

However well-intentioned, books cannot give recipes for how to be happy. Because optimal experience depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity. What a book can do, however, and what this one will try to accomplish, is to present examples of how life can be made more enjoyable, ordered in the framework of a theory, for readers to reflect upon and from which they may then draw their own conclusions.

Rather than presenting a list of dos and don’ts, this book intends to be a voyage through the realms of the mind, charted with the tools of science. Like all adventures worth having it will not be an easy one. Without some intellectual effort, a commitment to reflect and think hard about your own experience, you will not gain much from what follows.

Flow will examine the process of achieving happiness through control over one’s inner life. We shall begin by considering how consciousness works, and how it is controlled (chapter 2), because only if we understand the way subjective states are shaped can we master them. Everything we experience—joy or pain, interest or boredom—is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our lives will be like.

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives (chapter 3). A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual.

To understand why some things we do are more enjoyable than others, we shall review the conditions of the flow experience (chapter 4). “Flow” is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake. In reviewing some of the activities that consistently produce flow—such as sports, games, art, and hobbies—it becomes easier to understand what makes people happy.

But one cannot rely solely on games and art to improve the quality of life. To achieve control over what happens in the mind, one can draw upon an almost infinite range of opportunities for enjoyment—for instance, through the use of physical and sensory skills ranging from athletics to music to Yoga (chapter 5), or through the development of symbolic skills such as poetry, philosophy, or mathematics (chapter 6).

Most people spend the largest part of their lives working and interacting with others, especially with members of their families. Therefore it is crucial that one learn to transform jobs into flow-producing activities (chapter 7), and to think of ways of making relations with parents, spouses, children, and friends more enjoyable (chapter 8).

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. Chapter 9 describes ways in which people manage to enjoy life despite adversity.

And, finally, the last step will be to describe how people manage to join all experience into a meaningful pattern (chapter 10). When that is accomplished, and a person feels in control of life and feels that it makes sense, there is nothing left to desire. The fact that one is not slim, rich, or powerful no longer matters. The tide of rising expectations is stilled; unfulfilled needs no longer trouble the mind. Even the most humdrum experiences become enjoyable.

Thus Flow will explore what is involved in reaching these aims. How is consciousness controlled? How is it ordered so as to make experience enjoyable? How is complexity achieved? And, last, how can meaning be created? The way to achieve these goals is relatively easy in theory, yet quite difficult in practice. The rules themselves are clear enough, and within everyone’s reach. But many forces, both within ourselves and in the environment, stand in the way. It is a little like trying to lose weight: everyone knows what it takes, everyone wants to do it, yet it is next to impossible for so many. The stakes here are higher, however. It is not just a matter of losing a few extra pounds. It is a matter of losing the chance to have a life worth living.

Before describing how the optimal flow experience can be attained, it is necessary to review briefly some of the obstacles to fulfillment implicit in the human condition. In the old stories, before living happily ever after the hero had to confront fiery dragons and wicked warlocks in the course of a quest. This metaphor applies to the exploration of the psyche as well. I shall argue that the primary reason it is so difficult to achieve happiness centers on the fact that, contrary to the myths mankind has developed to reassure itself, the universe was not created to answer our needs. Frustration is deeply woven into the fabric of life. And whenever some of our needs are temporarily met, we immediately start wishing for more. This chronic dissatisfaction is the second obstacle that stands in the way of contentment.

To deal with these obstacles, every culture develops with time protective devices—religions, philosophies, arts, and comforts—that help shield us from chaos. They help us believe that we are in control of what is happening and give reasons for being satisfied with our lot. But these shields are effective only for a while; after a few centuries, sometimes after only a few decades, a religion or belief wears out and no longer provides the spiritual sustenance it once did.

When people try to achieve happiness on their own, without the support of a faith, they usually seek to maximize pleasures that are either biologically programmed in their genes or are out as attractive by the society in which they live. Wealth, power, and sex become the chief goals that give direction to their strivings. But the quality of life cannot be improved this way. Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment.


The foremost reason that happiness is so hard to achieve is that the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind. It is almost immeasurably huge, and most of it is hostilely empty and cold. It is the setting for great violence, as when occasionally a star explodes, turning to ashes everything within billions of miles. The rare planet whose gravity field would not crush our bones is probably swimming in lethal gases. Even planet Earth, which can be so idyllic and picturesque, is not to be taken for granted. To survive on it men and women have had to struggle for millions of years against ice, fire, floods, wild animals, and invisible microorganisms that appear out of nowhere to snuff us out.

It seems that every time a pressing danger is avoided, a new and more sophisticated threat appears on the horizon. No sooner do we invent a new substance than its by-products start poisoning the environment. Throughout history, weapons that were designed to provide security have turned around and threatened to destroy their makers. As some diseases are curbed, new ones become virulent; and if, for a while, mortality is reduced, then overpopulation starts to haunt us. The four grim horsemen of the Apocalypse are never very far away. The earth may be our only home, but it is a home full of booby traps waiting to go off at any moment.

It is not that the universe is random in an abstract mathematical sense. The motions of the stars, the transformations of energy that occur in it might be predicted and explained well enough. But natural processes do not take human desires into account. They are deaf and blind to our needs, and thus they are random in contrast with the order we attempt to establish through our goals. A meteorite on a collision course with New York City might be obeying all the laws of the universe, but it would still be a damn nuisance. The virus that attacks the cells of a Mozart is only doing what comes naturally, even though it inflicts a grave loss on humankind. “The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly,” in the words of J. H. Holmes. “It is simply indifferent.”

Chaos is one of the oldest concepts in myth and religion. It is rather foreign to the physical and biological sciences, because in terms of their laws the events in the cosmos are perfectly reasonable. For instance, “chaos theory” in the sciences attempts to describe regularities in what appears to be utterly random. But chaos has a different meaning in psychology and the other human sciences, because if human goals and desires are taken as the starting point, there is irreconcilable disorder in the cosmos.

There is not much that we as individuals can do to change the way the universe runs. In our lifetime we exert little influence over the forces that interfere with our well-being. It is important to do as much as we can to prevent nuclear war, to abolish social injustice, to eradicate hunger and disease. But it is prudent not to expect that efforts to change external conditions will immediately improve the quality of our lives. As J. S. Mill wrote, “No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.”

How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depend directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences. Whether we are happy depends on inner harmony, not on the controls we are able to exert over the great forces of the universe. Certainly we should keep on learning how to master the external environment, because our physical survival may depend on it. But such mastery is not going to add one jot to how good we as individuals feel, or reduce the chaos of the world as we experience it. To do that we must learn to achieve mastery over consciousness itself.

Each of us has a picture, however vague, of what we would like to accomplish before we die. How close we get to attaining this goal becomes the measure for the quality of our lives. If it remains beyond reach, we grow resentful or resigned; if it is at least in part achieved, we experience a sense of happiness and satisfaction.

For the majority of people on this earth, life goals are simple: to survive, to leave children who will in turn survive, and, if possible, to do so with a certain amount of comfort and dignity. In the favelas spreading around South American cities, in the drought-stricken regions of Africa, among the millions of Asians who have to solve the problem of hunger day after day, there is not much else to hope for.

But as soon as these basic problems of survival are solved, merely having enough food and a comfortable shelter is no longer sufficient to make people content. New needs are felt, new desires arise. With affluence and power come escalating expectations, and as our level of wealth and comforts keeps increasing, the sense of well-being we hoped to achieve keeps receding into the distance. When Cyrus the Great had ten thousand cooks prepare new dishes for his table, the rest of Persia had barely enough to eat. These days every household in the “first world” has access to the recipes of the most diverse lands and can duplicate the feasts of past emperors. But does this make us more satisfied?

This paradox of rising expectations suggests that improving the quality of life might be an insurmountable task. In fact, there is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chance of contentment.

Though the evidence suggests that most people are caught up on this frustrating treadmill of rising expectations, many individuals have found ways to escape it. These are people who, regardless of their material conditions, have been able to improve the quality of their lives, who are satisfied, and who have a way of making those around them also a bit more happy.

Such individuals lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live. They enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult; they are hardly ever bored, and they can take in stride anything that comes their way. Perhaps their greatest strength is that they are in control of their lives. We shall see later how they have managed to reach this state. But before we do so, we need to review some of the devices that have been developed over time as protection against the threat of chaos, and the reasons why such external defenses often do not work.


Over the course of human evolution, as each group of people became gradually aware of the enormity of its isolation in the cosmos and of the precariousness of its hold on survival, it developed myths and beliefs to transform the random, crushing forces of the universe into manageable, or at least understandable, patterns. One of the major functions of every culture has been to shield its members from chaos, to reassure them of their importance and ultimate success. The Eskimo, the hunter of the Amazon basin, the Chinese, the Navajo, the Australian Aborigine, the New Yorker—all have taken for granted that they live at the center of the universe, and that they have a special dispensation that puts them on the fast track to the future. Without such trust in exclusive privileges, it would be difficult to face the odds of existence.

This is as it should be. But there are times when the feeling that one has found safety in the bosom of a friendly cosmos becomes dangerous. An unrealistic trust in the shields, in the cultural myths, can lead to equally extreme disillusion when they fail. This tends to happen whenever a culture has had a run of good luck and for a while seems indeed to have found a way of controlling the forces of nature. At that point it is logical for it to begin believing that it is a chosen people who need no longer fear any major setback. The Romans reached that juncture after several centuries of ruling the Mediterranean, the Chinese were confident of their immutable superiority before the Mongol conquest, and the Aztecs before the arrival of the Spaniards.

This cultural hubris, or overweening presumption about what we are entitled to from a universe that is basically insensitive to human needs, generally leads to trouble. The unwarranted sense of security sooner or later results in a rude awakening. When people start believing that progress is inevitable and life easy, they may quickly lose courage and determination in the face of the first signs of adversity. As they realize that what they had believed in is not entirely true, they abandon faith in everything else they have learned. Deprived of the customary supports that cultural values had given them, they flounder in a morass of anxiety and apathy.

Such symptoms of disillusion are not hard to observe around us now. The most obvious ones relate to the pervasive listlessness that affects so many lives. Genuinely happy individuals are few and far between. How many people do you know who enjoy what they are doing, who are reasonably satisfied with their lot, who do not regret the past and look to the future with genuine confidence? If Diogenes with his lantern twenty-three centuries ago had difficulty finding an honest man, today he would have perhaps an even more troublesome time finding a happy one.

This general malaise is not due directly to external causes. Unlike so many other nations in the contemporary world, we can’t blame our problems on a harsh environment, on widespread poverty, or on the oppression of a foreign occupying army. The roots of the discontent are internal, and each person must untangle them personally, with his or her own power. The shields that have worked in the past—the order that religion, patriotism, ethnic traditions, and habits instilled by social classes used to provide—are no longer effective for increasing numbers of people who feel exposed to the harsh winds of chaos.

The lack of inner order manifests itself in the subjective condition that some call ontological anxiety, or existential dread. Basically, it is a fear of being, a feeling that there is no meaning to life and that existence is not worth going on with. Nothing seems to make sense. In the last few generations, the specter of nuclear war has added an unprecedented threat to our hopes. There no longer seems to be any point to the historical strivings of humankind. We are just forgotten specks drifting in the void. With each passing year, the chaos of the physical universe becomes magnified in the minds of the multitude.

As people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they sooner or later face an increasingly nagging question: “Is this all there is?” Childhood can be painful, adolescence confusing, but for most people, behind it all there is the expectation that after one grows up, things will get better. During the years of early adulthood the future still looks promising, the hope remains that one’s goals will be realized. But inevitably the bathroom mirror shows the first white hairs, and confirms the fact that those extra pounds are not about to leave; inevitably eyesight begins to fail and mysterious pains begin to shoot through the body. Like waiters in a restaurant starting to place breakfast settings on the surrounding tables while one is still having dinner, these intimations of mortality plainly communicate the message: Your time is up, it’s time to move on. When this happens, few people are ready. “Wait a minute, this can’t be happening to me. I haven’t even begun to live. Where’s all that money I was supposed to have made? Where are all the good times I was going to have?”

A feeling of having been led on, of being cheated, is an understandable consequence of this realization. From the earliest years we have been conditioned to believe that a benign fate would provide for us. After all, everybody seemed to agree that we had the great fortune of living in the richest country that ever was, in the most scientifically advanced period of human history, surrounded by the most efficient technology, protected by the wisest Constitution. Therefore, it made sense to expect that we would have a richer, more meaningful life than any earlier members of the human race. If our grandparents, living in that ridiculously primitive past, could be content, just imagine how happy we would be! Scientists told us this was so, it was preached from the pulpits of churches, and it was confirmed by thousands of TV commercials celebrating the good life. Yet despite all these assurances, sooner or later we wake up alone, sensing that there is no way this affluent, scientific, and sophisticated world is going to provide us with happiness.

As this realization slowly sets in, different people react to it differently. Some try to ignore it, and renew their efforts to acquire more of the things that were supposed to make life good—bigger cars and homes, more power on the job, a more glamorous life-style. They renew their efforts, determined still to achieve the satisfaction that up until then has eluded them. Sometimes this solution works, simply because one is so drawn into the competitive struggle that there is no time to realize that the goal has not come any nearer. But if a person does take the time out to reflect, the disillusionment returns: after each success it becomes clearer that money, power, status, and possessions do not, by themselves, necessarily add one iota to the quality of life.

Others decide to attack directly the threatening symptoms. If it is a body going to seed that rings the first alarm, they will go on diets, join health clubs, do aerobics, buy a Nautilus, or undergo plastic surgery. If the problem seems to be that nobody pays much attention, they buy books about how to get power or how to make friends, or they enroll in assertiveness training courses and have power lunches. After a while, however, it becomes obvious that these piecemeal solutions won’t work either. No matter how much energy we devote to its care, the body will eventually give out. If we are learning to be more assertive, we might inadvertently alienate our friends. And if we devote too much time to cultivating new friends, we might threaten relationships with our spouse and family. There are just so many dams about to burst and so little time to tend to them all.

Daunted by the futility of trying to keep up with all the demands they cannot possibly meet, some will just surrender and retire gracefully into relative oblivion. Following Candide’s advice, they will give up on the world and cultivate their little gardens. They might dabble in genteel forms of escape such as developing a harmless hobby or accumulating a collection of abstract paintings or porcelain figurines. Or they might lose themselves in alcohol or the dreamworld of drugs. While exotic pleasures and expensive recreations temporarily take the mind off the basic question “Is this all there is?” few claim to have ever found an answer that way.

Traditionally, the problem of existence has been most directly confronted through religion, and an increasing number of the disillusioned are turning back to it, choosing either one of the standard creeds or a more esoteric Eastern variety. But religions are only temporarily successful attempts to cope with the lack of meaning in life; they are not permanent answers. At some moments in history, they have explained convincingly what was wrong with human existence and have given credible answers. From the fourth to the eighth century of our era Christianity spread throughout Europe, Islam arose in the Middle East, and Buddhism conquered Asia. For hundreds of years these religions provided satisfying goals for people to spend their lives pursuing. But today it is more difficult to accept their worldviews as definitive. The form in which religions have presented their truths—myths, revelations, holy texts—no longer compels belief in an era of scientific rationality, even though the substance of the truths may have remained unchanged. A vital new religion may one day arise again. In the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.

The evidence that none of these solutions is any longer very effective is irrefutable. In the heyday of its material splendor, our society is suffering from an astonishing variety of strange ills. The profits made from the widespread dependence on illicit drugs are enriching murderers and terrorists. It seems possible that in the near future we shall be ruled by an oligarchy of former drug dealers, who are rapidly gaining wealth and power at the expense of law-abiding citizens. And in our sexual lives, by shedding the shackles of “hypocritical” morality, we have unleashed destructive viruses upon one another.

The trends are often so disturbing that we tend to become jaded and tune out whenever we hear the latest statistics. But the ostrich’s strategy for avoiding bad news is hardly productive; better to face facts and take care to avoid becoming one of the statistics. There are figures that may be reassuring to some: for instance, in the past thirty years, we have doubled our per-capita use of energy—most of it thanks to a fivefold increase in the use of electric utilities and appliances. Other trends, however, would reassure no one. In 1984, there were still thirty-four million people in the United States who lived below the poverty line (defined as a yearly income of $10,609 or less for a family of four), a number that has changed little in generations.

In the United States the per-capita frequency of violent crimes—murder, rape, robbery, assault—increased by well over 300 percent between 1960 and 1986. As recently as 1978 1,085,500 such crimes were reported, and by 1986 the number had climbed to 1,488,140. The murder rate held steady at about 1,000 percent above that in other industrialized countries like Canada, Norway, or France. In roughly the same period, the rate of divorce rose by about 400 percent, from 31 per 1,000 married couples in 1950 to 121 in 1984. During those twenty-five years venereal disease more than tripled; in 1960 there were 259,000 cases of gonorrhea, by 1984 there were almost 900,000. We still have no clear idea what tragic price that latest scourge, the AIDS epidemic, will claim before it’s over.

The three to fourfold increase in social pathology over the last generation holds true in an astonishing number of areas. For instance, in 1955 there were 1,700,000 instances of clinical intervention involving mental patients across the country; by 1975 the number had climbed to 6,400,000. Perhaps not coincidentally, similar figures illustrate the increase in our national paranoia: during the decade from 1975 to 1985 the budget authorized to the Department of Defense climbed from $87.9 billion a year to $284.7 billion—more than a threefold increase. It is true that the budget of the Department of Education also tripled in the same period, but in 1985 this amounted to “only” $17.4 billion. At least as far as the allocation of resources is concerned, the sword is about sixteen times mightier than the pen.

The future does not look much rosier. Today’s teenagers show the symptoms of the malaise that ails their elders, sometimes in an even more virulent form. Fewer young people now grow up in families where both parents are present to share the responsibilities involved in bringing up children. In 1960 only 1 in 10 adolescents was living in a one-parent family. By 1980 the proportion had doubled, and by 1990 it is expected to triple. In 1982 there were over 80,000 juveniles—average age, 15 years—committed to various jails. The statistics on drug use, venereal disease, disappearance from home, and unwed pregnancy are all grim, yet probably quite short of the mark. Between 1950 and 1980 teenage suicides increased by about 300 percent, especially among white young men from the more affluent classes. Of the 29,253 suicides reported in 1985, 1,339 were white boys in the 15–19 age range; four times fewer white girls of the same age killed themselves, and ten times fewer black boys (young blacks, however, more than catch up in the number of deaths from homicide). Last but not least, the level of knowledge in the population seems to be declining everywhere. For instance, the average math score on the SAT tests was 466 in 1967; in 1984 it was 426. A similar decrease has been noted in the verbal scores. And the dirgelike statistics could go on and on.

Why is it that, despite having achieved previously undreamed-of miracles of progress, we seem more helpless in facing life than our less privileged ancestors were? The answer seems clear: while humankind collectively has increased its material powers a thousandfold, it has not advanced very far in terms of improving the content of experience.


There is no way out of this predicament except for an individual to take things in hand personally. If values and institutions no longer provide as supportive a framework as they once did, each person must use whatever tools are available to carve out a meaningful, enjoyable life. One of the most important tools in this quest is provided by psychology. Up to now the main contribution of this fledgling science has been to discover how past events shed light on present behavior. It has made us aware that adult irrationality is often the result of childhood frustrations. But there is another way that the discipline of psychology can be put to use. It is in helping answer the question: Given that we are who we are, with whatever hang-ups and repressions, what can we do to improve our future?

To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. This challenge is both easier and more difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within each person’s hands; difficult because it requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present. And before all else, achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.

We grow up believing that what counts most in our lives is that which will occur in the future. Parents teach children that if they learn good habits now, they will be better off as adults. Teachers assure pupils that the boring classes will benefit them later, when the students are going to be looking for jobs. The company vice president tells junior employees to have patience and work hard, because one of these days they will be promoted to the executive ranks. At the end of the long struggle for advancement, the golden years of retirement beckon. “We are always getting to live,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson used to say, “but never living.” Or as poor Frances learned in the children’s story, it is always bread and jam tomorrow, never bread and jam today.

Of course this emphasis on the postponement of gratification is to a certain extent inevitable. As Freud and many others before and after him have noted, civilization is built on the repression of individual desires. It would be impossible to maintain any kind of social order, any complex division of labor, unless society’s members were forced to take on the habits and skills that the culture required, whether the individuals liked it or not. Socialization, or the transformation of a human organism into a person who functions successfully within a particular social system, cannot be avoided. The essence of socialization is to make people dependent on social controls, to have them respond predictably to rewards and punishments. And the most effective form of socialization is achieved when people identify so thoroughly with the social order that they no longer can imagine themselves breaking any of its rules.

In making us work for its goals, society is assisted by some powerful allies: our biological needs and our genetic conditioning. All social controls, for instance, are ultimately based on a threat to the survival instinct. The people of an oppressed country obey their conquerors because they want to go on living. Until very recently, the laws of even the most civilized nations (such as Great Britain) were enforced by the threats of caning, whipping, mutilation, or death.

When they do not rely on pain, social systems use pleasure as the inducement to accept norms. The “good life” promised as a reward for a lifetime of work and adherence to laws is built on the cravings contained in our genetic programs. Practically every desire that has become part of human nature, from sexuality to aggression, from a longing for security to a receptivity to change, has been exploited as a source of social control by politicians, churches, corporations, and advertisers. To lure recruits into the Turkish armed forces, the sultans of the sixteenth century promised conscripts the rewards of raping women in the conquered territories; nowadays posters promise young men that if they join the army, they will “see the world.”

It is important to realize that seeking pleasure is a reflex response built into our genes for the preservation of the species, not for the purpose of our own personal advantage. The pleasure we take in eating is an efficient way to ensure that the body will get the nourishment it needs. The pleasure of sexual intercourse is an equally practical method for the genes to program the body to reproduce and thereby to ensure the continuity of the genes. When a man is physically attracted to a woman, or vice versa, he usually imagines—assuming that he thinks about it at all—that this desire is an expression of his own individual interests, a result of his own intentions. In reality, more often than not his interest is simply being manipulated by the invisible genetic code, following its own plans. As long as the attraction is a reflex based on purely physical reactions, the person’s own conscious plans probably play only a minimal role. There is nothing wrong with following this genetic programming and relishing the resulting pleasures it provides, as long as we recognize them for what they are, and as long as we retain some control over them when it is necessary to pursue other goals, to which we might decide to assign priority.

The problem is that it has recently become fashionable to regard whatever we feel inside as the true voice of nature speaking. The only authority many people trust today is instinct. If something feels good, if it is natural and spontaneous, then it must be right. But when we follow the suggestions of genetic and social instructions without question we relinquish the control of consciousness and become helpless playthings of impersonal forces. The person who cannot resist food or alcohol, or whose mind is constantly focused on sex, is not free to direct his or her psychic energy.

The “liberated” view of human nature, which accepts and endorses every instinct or drive we happen to have simply because it’s there, results in consequences that are quite reactionary. Much of contemporary “realism” turns out to be just a variation on good old-fashioned fatalism: people feel relieved of responsibility by recourse to the concept of “nature.” By nature, however, we are born ignorant. Therefore should we not try to learn? Some people produce more than the usual amount of androgens and therefore become excessively aggressive. Does that mean they should freely express violence? We cannot deny the facts of nature, but we should certainly try to improve on them.

Submission to genetic programming can become quite dangerous, because it leaves us helpless. A person who cannot override genetic instructions when necessary is always vulnerable. Instead of deciding how to act in terms of personal goals, he has to surrender to the things that his body has been programmed (or misprogrammed) to do. One must particularly achieve control over instinctual drives to achieve a healthy independence of society, for as long as we respond predictably to what feels good and what feels bad, it is easy for others to exploit our preferences for their own ends.

A thoroughly socialized person is one who desires only the rewards that others around him have agreed he should long for—rewards often grafted onto genetically programmed desires. He may encounter thousands of potentially fulfilling experiences, but he fails to notice them because they are not the things he desires. What matters is not what he has now, but what he might obtain if he does as others want him to do. Caught in the treadmill of social controls, that person keeps reaching for a prize that always dissolves in his hands. In a complex society, many powerful groups are involved in socializing, sometimes to seemingly contradictory goals. On the one hand, official institutions like schools, churches, and banks try to turn us into responsible citizens willing to work hard and save. On the other hand, we are constantly cajoled by merchants, manufacturers, and advertisers to spend our earnings on products that will produce the most profits for them. And, finally, the underground system of forbidden pleasures run by gamblers, pimps, and drug dealers, which is dialectically linked to the official institutions, promises its own rewards of easy dissipation—provided we pay. The messages are very different, but their outcome is essentially the same: they make us dependent on a social system that exploits our energies for its own purposes.

There is no question that to survive, and especially to survive in a complex society, it is necessary to work for external goals and to postpone immediate gratifications. But a person does not have to be turned into a puppet jerked about by social controls. The solution is to gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one’s own powers. This is not to say that we should abandon every goal endorsed by society; rather, it means that, in addition to or instead of the goals others use to bribe us with, we develop a set of our own.

The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders. Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces. It is no longer necessary to struggle for goals that always seem to recede into the future, to end each boring day with the hope that tomorrow, perhaps, something good will happen. Instead of forever straining for the tantalizing prize dangled just out of reach, one begins to harvest the genuine rewards of living. But it is not by abandoning ourselves to instinctual desires that we become free of social controls. We must also become independent from the dictates of the body, and learn to take charge of what happens in the mind. Pain and pleasure occur in consciousness and exist only there. As long as we obey the socially conditioned stimulus-response patterns that exploit our biological inclinations, we are controlled from the outside. To the extent that a glamorous ad makes us salivate for the product sold or that a frown from the boss spoils the day, we are not free to determine the content of experience. Since what we experience is reality, as far as we are concerned, we can transform reality to the extent that we influence what happens in consciousness and thus free ourselves from the threats and blandishments of the outside world. “Men are not afraid of things, but of how they view them,” said Epictetus a long time ago. And the great emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.”


This simple truth—that the control of consciousness determines the quality of life—has been known for a long time; in fact, for as long as human records exist. The oracle’s advice in ancient Delphi, “Know thyself,” implied it. It was clearly recognized by Aristotle, whose notion of the “virtuous activity of the soul” in many ways prefigures the argument of this book, and it was developed by the Stoic philosophers in classical antiquity. The Christian monastic orders perfected various methods for learning how to channel thoughts and desires. Ignatius of Loyola rationalized them in his famous spiritual exercises. The last great attempt to free consciousness from the domination of impulses and social controls was psychoanalysis; as Freud pointed out, the two tyrants that fought for control over the mind were the id and the superego, the first a servant of the genes, the second a lackey of society—both representing the “Other.” Opposed to them was the ego, which stood for the genuine needs of the self connected to its concrete environment.

In the East techniques for achieving control over consciousness proliferated and achieved levels of enormous sophistication. Although quite different from one another in many respects, the yogi disciplines in India, the Taoist approach to life developed in China, and the Zen varieties of Buddhism all seek to free consciousness from the deterministic influences of outside forces—be they biological or social in nature. Thus, for instance, a yogi disciplines his mind to ignore pain that ordinary people would have no choice but to let into their awareness; similarly he can ignore the insistent claims of hunger or sexual arousal that most people would be helpless to resist. The same effect can be achieved in different ways, either through perfecting a severe mental discipline as in Yoga or through cultivating constant spontaneity as in Zen. But the intended result is identical: to free inner life from the threat of chaos, on the one hand, and from the rigid conditioning of biological urges, on the other, and hence to become independent from the social controls that exploit both.

But if it is true that people have known for thousands of years what it takes to become free and in control of one’s life, why haven’t we made more progress in this direction? Why are we as helpless, or more so, than our ancestors were in facing the chaos that interferes with happiness? There are at least two good explanations for this failure. In the first place, the kind of knowledge—or wisdom—one needs for emancipating consciousness is not cumulative. It cannot be condensed into a formula; it cannot be memorized and then routinely applied. Like other complex forms of expertise, such as a mature political judgment or a refined aesthetic sense, it must be earned through trial-and-error experience by each individual, generation after generation. Control over consciousness is not simply a cognitive skill. At least as much as intelligence, it requires the commitment of emotions and will. It is not enough to know how to do it; one must do it, consistently, in the same way as athletes or musicians who must keep practicing what they know in theory. And this is never easy. Progress is relatively fast in fields that apply knowledge to the material world, such as physics or genetics. But it is painfully slow when knowledge is to be applied to modify our own habits and desires.

Second, the knowledge of how to control consciousness must be reformulated every time the cultural context changes. The wisdom of the mystics, of the Sufi, of the great yogis, or of the Zen masters might have been excellent in their own time—and might still be the best, if we lived in those times and in those cultures. But when transplanted to contemporary California those systems lose quite a bit of their original power. They contain elements that are specific to their original contexts, and when these accidental components are not distinguished from what is essential, the path to freedom gets overgrown by brambles of meaningless mumbo jumbo. Ritual form wins over substance, and the seeker is back where he started.

Control over consciousness cannot be institutionalized. As soon as it becomes part of a set of social rules and norms, it ceases to be effective in the way it was originally intended to be. Routinization, unfortunately, tends to take place very rapidly. Freud was still alive when his quest for liberating the ego from its oppressors was turned into a staid ideology and a rigidly regulated profession. Marx was even less fortunate: his attempts to free consciousness from the tyranny of economic exploitation were soon turned into a system of repression that would have boggled the poor founder’s mind. And as Dostoevsky among many others observed, if Christ had returned to preach his message of liberation in the Middle Ages, he would have been crucified again and again by the leaders of that very church whose worldly power was built on his name.

In each new epoch—perhaps every generation, or even every few years, if the conditions in which we live change that rapidly—it becomes necessary to rethink and reformulate what it takes to establish autonomy in consciousness. Early Christianity helped the masses free themselves from the power of the ossified imperial regime and from an ideology that could give meaning only to the lives of the rich and the powerful. The Reformation liberated great numbers of people from their political and ideological exploitation by the Roman Church. The philosophes and later the statesmen who drafted the American Constitution resisted the controls established by kings, popes, and aristocracy. When the inhuman conditions of factory labor became the most obvious obstacles to the workers’ freedom to order their own experience, as they were in nineteenth-century industrial Europe, Marx’s message turned out to be especially relevant. The much more subtle but equally coercive social controls of bourgeois Vienna made Freud’s road to liberation pertinent to those whose minds had been warped by such conditions. The insights of the Gospels, of Martin Luther, of the framers of the Constitution, of Marx and Freud—just to mention a very few of those attempts that have been made in the West to increase happiness by enhancing freedom—will always be valid and useful, even though some of them have been perverted in their application. But they certainly do not exhaust either the problems or the solutions.

Given the recurring need to return to this central question of how to achieve mastery over one’s life, what does the present state of knowledge say about it? How can it help a person learn to rid himself of anxieties and fears and thus become free of the controls of society, whose rewards he can now take or leave? As suggested before, the way is through control over consciousness, which in turn leads to control over the quality of experience. Any small gain in that direction will make life more rich, more enjoyable, more meaningful. Before starting to explore ways in which to improve the quality of experience, it will be useful to review briefly how consciousness works and what it actually means to have “experiences.” Armed with this knowledge, one can more easily achieve personal liberation.



AT CERTAIN TIMES in history cultures have taken it for granted that a person wasn’t fully human unless he or she learned to master thoughts and feelings. In Confucian China, in ancient Sparta, in Republican Rome, in the early Pilgrim settlements of New England, and among the British upper classes of the Victorian era, people were held responsible for keeping a tight rein on their emotions. Anyone who indulged in self-pity, who let instinct rather than reflection dictate actions, forfeited the right to be accepted as a member of the community. In other historical periods, such as the one in which we are now living, the ability to control oneself is not held in high esteem. People who attempt it are thought to be faintly ridiculous, “uptight,” or not quite “with it.” But whatever the dictates of fashion, it seems that those who take the trouble to gain mastery over what happens in consciousness do live a happier life.

To achieve such mastery it is obviously important to understand how consciousness works. In the present chapter, we shall take a step in that direction. To begin with, and just to clear the air of any suspicion that in talking about consciousness we are referring to some mysterious process, we should recognize that, like every other dimension of human behavior, it is the result of biological processes. It exists only because of the incredibly complex architecture of our nervous system, which in turn is built up according to instructions contained in the protein molecules of our chromosomes. At the same time, we should also recognize that the way in which consciousness works is not entirely controlled by its biological programming—in many important respects that we shall review in the pages that follow, it is self-directed. In other words, consciousness has developed the ability to override its genetic instructions and to set its own independent course of action.

The function of consciousness is to represent information about what is happening outside and inside the organism in such a way that it can be evaluated and acted upon by the body. In this sense, it functions as a clearinghouse for sensations, perceptions, feelings, and ideas, establishing priorities among all the diverse information. Without consciousness we would still “know” what is going on, but we would have to react to it in a reflexive, instinctive way. With consciousness, we can deliberately weigh what the senses tell us, and respond accordingly. And we can also invent information that did not exist before: it is because we have consciousness that we can daydream, make up lies, and write beautiful poems and scientific theories.

Over the endless dark centuries of its evolution, the human nervous system has become so complex that it is now able to affect its own states, making it to a certain extent functionally independent of its genetic blueprint and of the objective environment. A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening “outside,” just by changing the contents of consciousness. We all know individuals who can transform hopeless situations into challenges to be overcome, just through the force of their personalities. This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.

To develop this trait, one must find ways to order consciousness so as to be in control of feelings and thoughts. It is best not to expect that shortcuts will do the trick. Some people have a tendency to become very mystical when talking about consciousness and expect it to accomplish miracles that at present it is not designed to perform. They would like to believe that anything is possible in what they think of as the spiritual realm. Other individuals claim the power to channel into past existences, to communicate with spiritual entities, and to perform uncanny feats of extrasensory perception. When not outright frauds, these accounts usually turn out to be self-delusions—lies that an overly receptive mind tells itself.

The remarkable accomplishments of Hindu fakirs and other practitioners of mental disciplines are often presented as examples of the unlimited powers of the mind, and with more justification. But even many of these claims do not hold up under investigation, and the ones that do can be explained in terms of the extremely specialized training of a normal mind. After all, mystical explanations are not necessary to account for the performance of a great violinist, or a great athlete, even though most of us could not even begin to approach their powers. The yogi, similarly, is a virtuoso of the control of consciousness. Like all virtuosi, he must spend many years learning, and he must keep constantly in training. Being a specialist, he cannot afford the time or the mental energy to do anything other than fine-tune his skill at manipulating inner experiences. The skills the yogi gains are at the expense of the more mundane abilities that other people learn to develop and take for granted. What an individual yogi can do is amazing—but so is what a plumber can do, or a good mechanic.

Perhaps in time we shall discover hidden powers of the mind that will allow it to make the sort of quantum leaps that now we can only dream about. There is no reason to rule out the possibility that eventually we shall be able to bend spoons with brain waves. But at this point, when there are so many more mundane but no less urgent tasks to accomplish, it seems a waste of time to lust for powers beyond our reach when consciousness, with all its limitations, could be employed so much more effectively. Although in its present state it cannot do what some people would wish it to do, the mind has enormous untapped potential that we desperately need to learn how to use.

Because no branch of science deals with consciousness directly, there is no single accepted description of how it works. Many disciplines touch on it and thus provide peripheral accounts. Neuroscience, neuroanatomy, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology are some of the most directly relevant fields to choose from; however, trying to summarize their findings would result in an account similar to the descriptions the blind men gave of the elephant: each different, and each unrelated to the others. No doubt we shall continue to learn important things about consciousness from these disciplines, but in the meantime we are left with the task of providing a model that is grounded in fact, yet expressed simply enough so that anyone can make use of it.

Although it sounds like indecipherable academic jargon, the most concise description of the approach I believe to be the clearest way to examine the main facets of what happens in the mind, in a way that can be useful in the actual practice of everyday life, is “a phenomenological model of consciousness based on information theory.” This representation of consciousness is phenomenological in that it deals directly with events—phenomena—as we experience and interpret them, rather than focusing on the anatomical structures, neurochemical processes, or unconscious purposes that make these events possible. Of course, it is understood that whatever happens in the mind is the result of electrochemical changes in the central nervous system, as laid down over millions of years by biological evolution. But phenomenology assumes that a mental event can be best understood if we look at it directly as it was experienced, rather than through the specialized optics of a particular discipline. Yet in contrast to pure phenomenology, which intentionally excludes any other theory or science from its method, the model we will explore here adopts principles from information theory as being relevant for understanding what happens in consciousness. These principles include knowledge about how sensory data are processed, stored, and used—the dynamics of attention and memory.

With this framework in mind, what, then, does it mean to be conscious? It simply means that certain specific conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occurring, and that we are able to direct their course. In contrast, when we are dreaming, some of the same events are present, yet we are not conscious because we cannot control them. For instance, I may dream of having received news of a relative’s being involved in an accident, and I may feel very upset. I might think, “I wish I could be of help.” Despite the fact that I perceive, feel, think, and form intentions in the dream, I cannot act on these processes (by making provisions for checking out the truthfulness of the news, for example) and hence, I am not conscious. In dreams we are locked into a single scenario we cannot change at will. The events that constitute consciousness—the “things” we see, feel, think, and desire—are information that we can manipulate and use. Thus we might think of consciousness as intentionally ordered information.

This dry definition, accurate as it is, does not fully suggest the importance of what it conveys. Since for us outside events do not exist unless we are aware of them, consciousness corresponds to subjectively experienced reality. While everything we feel, smell, hear, or remember is potentially a candidate for entering consciousness, the experiences that actually do become part of it are much fewer than those left out. Thus, while consciousness is a mirror that reflects what our senses tell us about what happens both outside our bodies and within the nervous system, it reflects those changes selectively, actively shaping events, imposing on them a reality of its own. The reflection consciousness provides is what we call our life: the sum of all we have heard, seen, felt, hoped, and suffered from birth to death. Although we believe that there are “things” outside consciousness, we have direct evidence only of those that find a place in it.

As the central clearinghouse in which varied events processed by different senses can be represented and compared, consciousness can contain a famine in Africa, the smell of a rose, the performance of the Dow Jones, and a plan to stop at the store to buy some bread all at the same time. But that does not mean that its content is a shapeless jumble.

We may call intentions the force that keeps information in consciousness ordered. Intentions arise in consciousness whenever a person is aware of desiring something or wanting to accomplish something. Intentions are also bits of information, shaped either by biological needs or by internalized social goals. They act as magnetic fields, moving attention toward some objects and away from others, keeping our mind focused on some stimuli in preference to others. We often call the manifestation of intentionality by other names, such as instinct, need, drive, or desire. But these are all explanatory terms, telling us why people behave in certain ways. Intention is a more neutral and descriptive term; it doesn’t say why a person wants to do a certain thing, but simply states that he does.

For instance, whenever blood sugar level drops below a critical point, we start feeling uneasy: we might feel irritable and sweaty, and get stomach cramps. Because of genetically programmed instructions to restore the level of sugar in the blood, we might start thinking about food. We will look for food until we eat and are no longer hungry. In this instance we could say that it was the hunger drive that organized the content of consciousness, forcing us to focus attention on food. But this is already an interpretation of the facts—no doubt chemically accurate, but phenomenologically irrelevant. The hungry person is not aware of the level of sugar in his bloodstream; he knows only that there is a bit of information in his consciousness that he has learned to identify as “hunger.”

Once the person is aware that he is hungry, he might very well form the intention of obtaining some food. If he does so, his behavior will be the same as if he were simply obeying a need or drive. But alternatively, he could disregard the pangs of hunger entirely. He might have some stronger and opposite intentions, such as losing weight, or wanting to save money, or fasting for religious reasons. Sometimes, as in the case of political protesters who wish to starve themselves to death, the intention of making an ideological statement might override genetic instructions, resulting in voluntary death.

The intentions we either inherit or acquire are organized in hierarchies of goals, which specify the order of precedence among them. For the protester, achieving a given political reform may be more important than anything else, life included. That one goal takes precedence over all others. Most people, however, adopt “sensible” goals based on the needs of their body—to live a long and healthy life, to have sex, to be well fed and comfortable—or on the desires implanted by the social system—to be good, to work hard, to spend as much as possible, to live up to others’ expectations. But there are enough exceptions in every culture to show that goals are quite flexible. Individuals who depart from the norms—heroes, saints, sages, artists, and poets, as well as madmen and criminals—look for different things in life than most others do. The existence of people like these shows that consciousness can be ordered in terms of different goals and intentions. Each of us has this freedom to control our subjective reality.


If it were possible to expand indefinitely what consciousness is able to encompass, one of the most fundamental dreams of humankind would come true. It would be almost as good as being immortal or omnipotent—in short, godlike. We could think everything, feel everything, do everything, scan through so much information that we could fill up every fraction of a second with a rich tapestry of experiences. In the space of a lifetime we could go through a million, or—why not?—through an infinite number of lives.

Unfortunately, the nervous system has definite limits on how much information it can process at any given time. There are just so many “events” that can appear in consciousness and be recognized and handled appropriately before they begin to crowd each other out. Walking across a room while chewing gum at the same time is not too difficult, even though some statesmen have been alleged to be unable to do it; but, in fact, there is not that much more that can be done concurrently. Thoughts have to follow each other, or they get jumbled. While we are thinking about a problem we cannot truly experience either happiness or sadness. We cannot run, sing, and balance the checkbook simultaneously, because each one of these activities exhausts most of our capacity for attention.

At this point in our scientific knowledge we are on the verge of being able to estimate how much information the central nervous system is capable of processing. It seems we can manage at most seven bits of information—such as differentiated sounds, or visual stimuli, or recognizable nuances of emotion or thought—at any one time, and that the shortest time it takes to discriminate between one set of bits and another is about 1/18 of a second. By using these figures one concludes that it is possible to process at most 126 bits of information per second, or 7,560 per minute, or almost half a million per hour. Over a lifetime of seventy years, and counting sixteen hours of waking time each day, this amounts to about 185 billion bits of information. It is out of this total that everything in our life must come—every thought, memory, feeling, or action. It seems like a huge amount, but in reality it does not go that far.

The limitation of consciousness is demonstrated by the fact that to understand what another person is saying we must process 40 bits of information each second. If we assume the upper limit of our capacity to be 126 bits per second, it follows that to understand what three people are saying simultaneously is theoretically possible, but only by managing to keep out of consciousness every other thought or sensation. We couldn’t, for instance, be aware of the speakers’ expressions, nor could we wonder about why they are saying what they are saying, or notice what they are wearing.

Of course, these figures are only suggestive at this point in our knowledge of the way the mind works. It could be argued justifiably that they either underestimate or overestimate the capacity of the mind to process information. The optimists claim that through the course of evolution the nervous system has become adept at “chunking” bits of information so that processing capacity is constantly expanded. Simple functions like adding a column of numbers or driving a car grow to be automated, leaving the mind free to deal with more data. We also learn how to compress and streamline information through symbolic means—language, math, abstract concepts, and stylized narratives. Each biblical parable, for instance, tries to encode the hard-won experience of many individuals over unknown eons of time. Consciousness, the optimists argue, is an “open system”; in effect, it is infinitely expandable, and there is no need to take its limitations into account.

But the ability to compress stimuli does not help as much as one might expect. The requirements of life still dictate that we spend about 8 percent of waking time eating, and almost the same amount taking care of personal bodily needs such as washing, dressing, shaving, and going to the bathroom. These two activities alone take up 15 percent of consciousness, and while engaged in them we can’t do much else that requires serious concentration. But even when there is nothing else pressing occupying their minds, most people fall far below the peak capacity for processing information. In the roughly one-third of the day that is free of obligations, in their precious “leisure” time, most people in fact seem to use their minds as little as possible. The largest part of free time—almost half of it for American adults—is spent in front of the television set. The plots and characters of the popular shows are so repetitive that although watching TV requires the processing of visual images, very little else in the way of memory, thinking, or volition is required. Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television. The other leisure activities people usually do at home are only a little more demanding. Reading most newspapers and magazines, talking to other people, and gazing out the window also involve processing very little new information, and thus require little concentration.

So the 185 billion events to be enjoyed over our mortal days might be either an overestimate or an underestimate. If we consider the amount of data the brain could theoretically process, the number might be too low; but if we look at how people actually use their minds, it is definitely much too high. In any case, an individual can experience only so much. Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and the quality of life.


Information enters consciousness either because we intend to focus attention on it or as a result of attentional habits based on biological or social instructions. For instance, driving down the highway, we pass hundreds of cars without actually being aware of them. Their shape and color might register for a fraction of a second, and then they are immediately forgotten. But occasionally we notice a particular vehicle, perhaps because it is swerving unsteadily between lanes, or because it is moving very slowly, or because of its unusual appearance. The image of the unusual car enters the focus of consciousness, and we become aware of it. In the mind the visual information about the car (e.g., “it is swerving”) gets related to information about other errant cars stored in memory, to determine into which category the present instance fits. Is this an inexperienced driver, a drunken driver, a momentarily distracted but competent driver? As soon as the event is matched to an already known class of events, it is identified. Now it must be evaluated: Is this something to worry about? If the answer is yes, then we must decide on an appropriate course of action: Should we speed up, slow down, change lanes, stop and alert the highway patrol?

All these complex mental operations must be completed in a few seconds, sometimes in a fraction of a second. While forming such a judgment seems to be a lightning-fast reaction, it does take place in real time. And it does not happen automatically: there is a distinct process that makes such reactions possible, a process called attention. It is attention that selects the relevant bits of information from the potential millions of bits available. It takes attention to retrieve the appropriate references from memory, to evaluate the event, and then to choose the right thing to do.

Despite its great powers, attention cannot step beyond the limits already described. It cannot notice or hold in focus more information than can be processed simultaneously. Retrieving information from memory storage and bringing it into the focus of awareness, comparing information, evaluating, deciding—all make demands on the mind’s limited processing capacity. For example, the driver who notices the swerving car will have to stop talking on his cellular phone if he wants to avoid an accident.

Some people learn to use this priceless resource efficiently, while others waste it. The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.

Two very different individuals come to mind to illustrate how attention can be used to order consciousness in the service of one’s goals. The first is E., a European woman who is one of the best-known and powerful women in her country. A scholar of international reputation, she has at the same time built up a thriving business that employs hundreds of people and has been on the cutting edge of its field for a generation. E. travels constantly to political, business, and professional meetings, moving among her several residences around the world. If there is a concert in the town where she is staying, E. will probably be in the audience; at the first free moment she will be at the museum or library. And while she is in a meeting, her chauffeur, instead of just standing around and waiting, will be expected to visit the local art gallery or museum; for on the way home, his employer will want to discuss what he thought of its paintings.

Not one minute of E.’s life is wasted. Usually she is writing, solving problems, reading one of the five newspapers or the earmarked sections of books on her daily schedule—or just asking questions, watching curiously what is going on, and planning her next task. Very little of her time is spent on the routine functions of life. Chatting or socializing out of mere politeness is done graciously, but avoided whenever possible. Each day, however, she devotes some time to recharging her mind, by such simple means as standing still for fifteen minutes on the lakeshore, facing the sun with eyes closed. Or she may take her hounds for a walk in the meadows on the hill outside town. E. is so much in control of her attentional processes that she can disconnect her consciousness at will and fall asleep for a refreshing nap whenever she has a moment free.

E.’s life has not been easy. Her family became impoverished after World War I, and she herself lost everything, including her freedom, during World War II. Several decades ago she had a chronic disease her doctors were sure was fatal. But she recovered everything, including her health, by disciplining her attention and refusing to diffuse it on unproductive thoughts or activities. At this point she radiates a pure glow of energy. And despite past hardships and the intensity of her present life, she seems to relish thoroughly every minute of it.

The second person who comes to mind is in many ways the opposite of E., the only similarity being the same unbending sharpness of attention. R. is a slight, at first sight unprepossessing man. Shy, modest to the point of self-effacement, he would be easy to forget immediately after a short meeting. Although he is known to only a few, his reputation among them is very great. He is master of an arcane branch of scholarship, and at the same time the author of exquisite verse translated into many languages. Every time one speaks to him, the image of a deep well full of energy comes to mind. As he talks, his eyes take in everything; every sentence he hears is analyzed three or four different ways even before the speaker has finished saying it. Things that most people take for granted puzzle him; and until he figures them out in an original yet perfectly appropriate way, he will not let them be.

Yet despite this constant effort of focused intelligence, R. gives the impression of restfulness, of calm serenity. He always seems aware of the tiniest ripples of activity in his surroundings. But R. does not notice things in order to change them or judge them. He is content to register reality, to understand, and then, perhaps, to express his understanding. R. is not going to make the immediate impact on society that E. has. But his consciousness is just as ordered and complex; his attention is stretched as far as it can go, interacting with the world around him. And like E., he seems to enjoy his life intensely.

Each person allocates his or her limited attention either by focusing it intentionally like a beam of energy—as do E. and R. in the previous examples—or by diffusing it in desultory, random movements. The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used. Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested. The names we use to describe personality traits—such as extrovert, high achiever, or paranoid—refer to the specific patterns people have used to structure their attention. At the same party, the extrovert will seek out and enjoy interactions with others, the high achiever will look for useful business contacts, and the paranoid will be on guard for signs of danger he must avoid. Attention can be invested in innumerable ways, ways that can make life either rich or miserable.

The flexibility of attentional structures is even more obvious when they are compared across cultures or occupational classes. Eskimo hunters are trained to discriminate between dozens of types of snow, and are always aware of the direction and speed of the wind. Traditional Melanesian sailors can be taken blindfolded to any point of the ocean within a radius of several hundred miles from their island home and, if allowed to float for a few minutes in the sea, are able to recognize the spot by the feel of the currents on their bodies. A musician structures her attention so as to focus on nuances of sound that ordinary people are not aware of, a stockbroker focuses on tiny changes in the market that others do not register, a good clinical diagnostician has an uncanny eye for symptoms—because they have trained their attention to process signals that otherwise would pass unnoticed.

Because attention determines what will or will not appear in consciousness, and because it is also required to make any other mental events—such as remembering, thinking, feeling, and making decisions—happen there, it is useful to think of it as psychic energy. Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.


But what do those first-person pronouns refer to in the lines above, those we s and our s that are supposed to control attention? Where is the I, the entity that decides what to do with the psychic energy generated by the nervous system? Where does the captain of the ship, the master of the soul, reside?

As soon as we consider these questions for even a short while, we realize that the I, or the self as we shall refer to it from now on, is also one of the contents of consciousness. It is one that never strays very far from the focus of attention. Of course my own self exists solely in my own consciousness; in that of others who know me there will be versions of it, most of them probably unrecognizable likenesses of the “original”—myself as I see me.

The self is no ordinary piece of information, however. In fact, it contains everything else that has passed through consciousness: all the memories, actions, desires, pleasures, and pains are included in it. And more than anything else, the self represents the hierarchy of goals that we have built up, bit by bit, over the years. The self of the political activist may become indistinguishable from his ideology, the self of the banker may become wrapped up in his investments. Of course, ordinarily we do not think of our self in this way. At any given time, we are usually aware of only a tiny part of it, as when we become conscious of how we look, of what impression we are making, or of what we really would like to do if we could. We most often associate our self with our body, though sometimes we extend its boundaries to identify it with a car, house, or family. Yet however much we are aware of it, the self is in many ways the most important element of consciousness, for it represents symbolically all of consciousness’s other contents, as well as the pattern of their interrelations.

The patient reader who has followed the argument so far might detect at this point a faint trace of circularity. If attention, or psychic energy, is directed by the self, and if the self is the sum of the contents of consciousness and the structure of its goals, and if the contents of consciousness and the goals are the result of different ways of investing attention, then we have a system that is going round and round, with no clear causes or effects. At one point we are saying that the self directs attention, at another, that attention determines the self. In fact, both these statements are true: consciousness is not a strictly linear system, but one in which circular causality obtains. Attention shapes the self, and is in turn shaped by it.

An example of this type of causality is the experience of Sam Browning, one of the adolescents we have followed in our longitudinal research studies. Sam went to Bermuda for a Christmas holiday with his father when he was fifteen. At the time, he had no idea of what he wanted to do with his life; his self was relatively unformed, without an identity of its own. Sam had no clearly differentiated goals; he wanted exactly what other boys his age are supposed to want, either because of their genetic programs or because of what the social environment told them to want—in other words, he thought vaguely of going to college, then later finding some kind of well-paying job, getting married, and living somewhere in the suburbs. In Bermuda, Sam’s father took him on an excursion to a coral barrier, and they dove underwater to explore the reef. Sam couldn’t believe his eyes. He found the mysterious, beautifully dangerous environment so enchanting that he decided to become more familiar with it. He ended up taking a number of biology courses in high school, and is now in the process of becoming a marine scientist.

In Sam’s case an accidental event imposed itself on his consciousness: the challenging beauty of life in the ocean. He had not planned to have this experience; it was not the result of his self or his goals having directed attention to it. But once he became aware of what went on undersea, Sam liked it—the experience resonated with previous things he had enjoyed doing, with feelings he had about nature and beauty, with priorities about what was important that he had established over the years. He felt the experience was something good, something worth seeking out again. Thus he built this accidental event into a structure of goals—to learn more about the ocean, to take courses, to go on to college and graduate school, to find a job as a marine biologist—which became a central element of his self. From then on, his goals directed Sam’s attention to focus more and more closely on the ocean and on its life, thereby closing the circle of causality. At first attention helped to shape his self, when he noticed the beauties of the underwater world he had been exposed to by accident; later, as he intentionally sought knowledge in marine biology, his self began to shape his attention. There is nothing very unusual about Sam’s case, of course; most people develop their attentional structures in similar ways.

At this point, almost all the components needed to understand how consciousness can be controlled are in place. We have seen that experience depends on the way we invest psychic energy—on the structure of attention. This, in turn, is related to goals and intentions. These processes are connected to each other by the self, or the dynamic mental representation we have of the entire system of our goals. These are the pieces that must be maneuvered if we wish to improve things. Of course, existence can also be improved by outside events, like winning a million dollars in the lottery, marrying the right man or woman, or helping to change an unjust social system. But even these marvelous events must take their place in consciousness, and be connected in positive ways to our self, before they can affect the quality of life.

The structure of consciousness is beginning to emerge, but so far we have a rather static picture, one that has sketched out the various elements, but not the processes through which they interact. We need now consider what follows whenever attention brings a new bit of information into awareness. Only then will we be ready to get a thorough sense of how experience can be controlled, and hence changed for the better.


One of the main forces that affects consciousness adversely is psychic disorder—that is, information that conflicts with existing intentions, or distracts us from carrying them out. We give this condition many names, depending on how we experience it: pain, fear, rage, anxiety, or jealousy. All these varieties of disorder force attention to be diverted to undesirable objects, leaving us no longer free to use it according to our preferences. Psychic energy becomes unwieldy and ineffective.

Consciousness can become disordered in many ways. For instance, in a factory that produces audiovisual equipment, Julio Martinez—one of the people we studied with the Experience Sampling Method—is feeling listless on his job. As the movie projectors pass in front of him on the assembly line, he is distracted and can hardly keep up the rhythm of moves necessary for soldering the connections that are his responsibility. Usually he can do his part of the job with time to spare and then relax for a while to exchange a few jokes before the next unit stops at his station. But today he is struggling, and occasionally he slows down the entire line. When the man at the next station kids him about it, Julio snaps back irritably. From morning to quitting time tension keeps building, and it spills over to his relationship with his co-workers.

Julio’s problem is simple, almost trivial, but it has been weighing heavily on his mind. One evening a few days earlier he noticed on arriving home from work that one of his tires was quite low. Next morning the rim of the wheel was almost touching the ground. Julio would not receive his paycheck till the end of the following week, and he was certain he would not have enough money until then to have the tire patched up, let alone buy a new one. Credit was something he had not yet learned to use. The factory was out in the suburbs, about twenty miles from where he lived, and he simply had to reach it by 8:00 A.M. The only solution Julio could think of was to drive gingerly to the service station in the morning, fill the tire with air, and then drive to work as quickly as possible. After work the tire was low again, so he inflated it at a gas station near the factory and drove home