Dr. Eckart von Hirschhausen
“It takes courage to embrace failure as part of the process.”
05. July 2010 | « previous | next »
The 15th German Trend Day is dedicated to the theme of “Flow Control“. Your own book about happiness is a bestseller. Can happiness be equated with flow?
The central idea in my book “Glück kommt selten allein” is that happiness isn’t just one feeling but five different ones. Flow can be equated with one kind of happiness: accomplished activity. But flow has little to do with the happiness of serene relaxation or the happiness of community. Mountaineers are a classic example of flow: when they’re climbing a mountain face, they’re totally in their element and so concentrated on the here and now that they forget all about time and space and their tax declarations. But at moments like that, people aren’t subjectively happy, they’re much too focused to even ask themselves that question. The sense of happiness doesn’t come until afterwards, in retrospect.
Can happiness be managed? Can flow be controlled? How?
Definitely! The better you know yourself and your strengths, the better you can adapt the tasks and challenges you face to them – in an ideal world, that is. Obviously it’s easier if you’re independent and your work is creative than it is in a situation controlled by others. It’s the feeling of self-efficacy and control over the ground rules and feedback that are key. Let me give you an example: people who ride motorbikes often tell of flow experiences. No wonder: gripping the handlebars, a motorcyclist has got everything under control. He can accelerate on the straights and slow down on the bends. And he gets feedback on how good he is at it very quickly. And if he’s not that good at it, the neurosurgeon has a flow experience that day too, then it’s his turn to concentrate. Looking at it from the outside, the motorcyclist and his buddy on the passenger seat experience the same landscape. But two parallel realities exist in their heads. The driver is in flow, the passenger in fear. He has no control at all, he’s totally dependent on somebody else’s skill. That’s roughly the same difference as between a freelancer and a salaried employee.
You compare your own career change from physician to cabaret artist with leaping into the right element – a bit like a penguin that seems to feel so much more at home in water than on land. When you look back, what was difficult for you? What stops a lot of penguins/people diving into their element?
It helped that I wanted to move towards something rather than get away from something. Even while I was still at university I was interested in cabaret for many years and made my stage début as a compère and magician. I started being successful when I realised that I could combine my medical knowledge and experience as a comedian and come up with something that didn’t exist at that point: medical cabaret as a show, book and TV format.
It helps to have places where you can put yourself to the test without putting your entire livelihood at stake. For me, that meant playing on small stages in Berlin where I could get better through trial and error. It takes courage to put yourself to the test and courage to embrace failure as part of the process. If we didn’t learn to walk until adulthood, we’d be surrounded by people crawling around and whinging: “I’ve really tried to get the hang of this walking thing, but now I’ve given it three goes it’s time to face up to it: standing just isn’t my thing.”
But you also coach managers and decision-makers. What do your students learn about being happy at work?
Contentedness with oneself and one’s work sets in when I recognise a higher meaning in what I do. I know why I make the effort, I have a goal, I create something that transcends me and exists beyond myself. I experience my vocation as a calling to some extent. There are many cases where you can replace the word “happiness” with the word “meaning”, and it still makes sense. Victor Frankl considered this dimension extremely important. It’s something a lot of executives are lacking, they play a role because they think that’s how they ought to be and end up losing touch with their own profundity and “diversity”.
And what can managers do for the flow experience of their staff?
They’re already doing pretty well if they manage not to demotivate people! It’s essential for decisions and promotions to be transparent and to observe the four levels of esteem: money, appreciation, security and the opportunity for advancement. Feedback is also vital: the type of feedback, how soon it comes and how personal and concrete it is. Poor delegating is when the boss has an idea of how something ought to be done but only lets on afterwards, when it’s been done differently. Flow cannot occur under fear and outside control, but only when the employee can exercise self-determination within the range of expectations instead of being left dangling and worrying about whether he’s loved or not. Because that’s something we all want.
The last 60 years have been shaped by fundamental and radical changes in society, business and technology. How have our notions of happiness changed over the last decades?
Have they actually changed? A lot of what makes people happy can already be found in the teachings of Jesus or Aristotle. It’s the comparison that’s changed. It used to be enough to be the most attractive man or woman in the village. These days we all want to look like top international models and actors. Because the media are constantly showing us totally “unrepresentative” models for a seemingly happy life, it’s become more difficult to counter with your own model and your own element. Take sexual liberation, for instance: if you don’t have a fulfilled sex life, it’s very much easier to blame society, the church and public morality than it is to admit you’re allowed to do whatever you like with whoever you like but nobody wants you. For many people, the multi-option society is too much of a challenge, it just intimidates them.
Overload as a result of media ubiquity has been a popular topic in the feature pages for some time now. As a doctor, what influence do you think today’s media have on the way our brains work?
On the Internet, spatial closeness is replaced by closeness of content. I can network and exchange ideas with like-minded people all over the world. But when there’s a power cut and I’m laying in bed with lumbago, my 500 friends on Facebook are no good to me at all. The “digital divide” is splitting society even further apart. Stupid people aren’t getting any smarter, but luckily the new media aren’t making caring, mentally alert people any lonelier, either – quite the contrary, in fact. The attention economy is a serious problem. How long should I devote myself to concentrating on one thing, on a complex task? Great mental achievements call for a degree of complexity that cannot withstand constant interruption from text messages, e-mails and the Blackberry. Moses went to the mountain to get better reception. These days people go to the mountains so they won’t have any.