The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if 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 won record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person, there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expend ourselves.
Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmers 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 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.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow