Happiness / Flickr
Source: Happiness / Flickr

Spontaneity and Happiness

Despite considerable research on the topic, I've discovered very little explicitly relating spontaneity to happiness. Admittedly, it's doubtful that any straightforward, one-to-one correspondence actually exists. Still, what various theorists have said about this ideal state of consciousness suggests that, however indirectly, spontaneity does play a crucial role in its achievement. For whether these writers talk about the importance of living in the moment (or "mindfulness"), liberating oneself from self-consciousness, or even "being in the zone," the underlying notion of living more spontaneously to foster a greater state of well-being is generally not far below the surface.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has become eminent in the burgeoning field of happiness research for his ideas on "flow," which he defines as "the psychology of optimal experience." To the author, an individual "in flow" is so satisfyingly immersed in an activity (mental or physical) that all awareness of space and time simply disappears. Such a state is now commonly recognized as pivotal to a basic understanding of happiness dynamics. And Csikszentmihalyi's elaborate characterizations of this state reveal much about its essentially uncontrived, unforced nature. Similar to spontaneity and happiness, it can't be "commandered" into existence--but it can be cultivated, and the author suggests numerous ways of doing so.

By way of qualification, I should mention that our basic personality structure itself partly determines our potential for spontaneity. For example, the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory (MBTI) posits that there are essentially two ways of orienting toward the outer world. So-called "Judging" (J) types tend to live in a controlled, self-regulated, orderly fashion; more adaptive "Perceiving" (P) types prefer to live in a more flexible, unscheduled--i.e., spontaneous--way. Nonetheless, the very capacity for spontaneity hinges mostly on how much individuals are able to trust themselves. Absent this self-trust, neither a "J" nor "P" is likely to feel comfortable enough to demonstrate much willingness to act extemporaneously. As I've already indicated, becoming more self-confident, as well as developing more faith in one's decision-making, and being prepared to take some risk in this wondrous adventure called "life," all seem inextricably linked to happiness.

Whether we're "J's" or "P's" on the MBTI, happiness--like spontaneity--is nothing that we can ever take for granted, or directly plan for. Nor is it anything we can contrive, arrange, or manipulate. By its very nature, it's unforeseen and unpredictable. But although most theorists today have concluded that regularly experiencing this state is at least fifty percent biological, virtually all of these writers also believes (again, like spontaneity) that it can, to a considerable degree, be "courted" or "nurtured" into being.

Much of the abundant literature on Martin Seligman's Positive Psychology, for instance, focuses on helping individuals learn how to increase their odds of attaining happiness. There's also an increasing amount of literature on such things as volunteer work (and giving to others generally), and embracing an attitude of gratitude--as both these practices can assist us in experiencing an improved sense of well-being. Neither of these behaviors can bring about happiness directly, for (as has already been emphasized) such a mental/emotional/spiritual state doesn't directly depend on anything, nor does it have any formal prerequisites. But such pro-social, or life-affirming, practices do promote feelings of happiness, even though the state itself always exists in the spontaneous here-and-now.

happiness icon flowers and fruit It might be asked, "How does counseling or therapy relate to all of this?" If most people report feeling happier after undergoing therapy, it's not simply because they've learned new techniques and skills to cope more effectively with their problems. It's that the process of their self-work has led them to feel better about themselves in general. Liking themselves more, having higher self-esteem, their "enhanced," more assured sense of self permits them to become less rigid--or more spontaneous--in both word and deed. At the same time, this altered self-image also contributes to a greater sense of well-being. And, too, this new (or at least "restored") sense of who they are enables them to break free of irrational self-constraints, place more trust in their intuition, and express themselves more freely with others. In short, greater self-acceptance permits greater spontaneity.

Therapy at its best is a liberating experience. And it might be said that, as much as anything else, what is being freed is the individual's spontaneity. Herein lies the path to that self-actualization which I believe almost everyone implicitly links to happiness. And whether an individual finds this path through therapy, or quite independent of it, it is a path that reflects the ultimate wisdom of spontaneity: the faith and abiding trust in one's self from which only good things can come.

NOTE1: Here are links to Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 of this extended post.

NOTE 2: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, kindlly consider forwarding them its link.

NOTE 3: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2009 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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