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Ch-7: Harmonious Functioning Creates Peak Learning, Performance, and Happiness

Part 1: What is Harmonious Functioning?

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter  7,  Part 1,   from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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What is harmonious functioning?

Section Contents:
  Boredom or depression produce lowered arousal
 What is the most basic human motive?

Over 2,000 years ago Aristotle achieved this powerful insight about the relationship between excellent performance and happiness.

The function of man, then, is exercise of his vital facilities [or soul]. . .
in obedience to reason. . .a harpist's function is to harp,
and a good harpist's function is to harp well. . .
the good of man is exercise of his faculties in accordance with excellence. . . the manifestations of
excellence will be pleasant in themselves. . . the life of these men is in itself pleasant. . .
Happiness is, then, at once the best and noblest and pleasantest thing
in the world, and these are not separated. . .
For all these characteristics are united
in the best exercises of our faculties. . .
(Aristotle, Ethics)


Occasionally--for brief periods of time--everything in my mind and body is functioning harmoniously. I might be playing tennis and seem to be at one with the court, the ball, and the movement. I feel confident of hitting the ball where I want. My mind and body are highly energized, but not overly so. I am especially alert and able to focus on the ball and where I want to hit it. When I am in this state, I am totally involved in what I am doing and loving it. I am performing at my best.

This harmonious state occurs not only during tennis, but also during other activities such as dancing, conversing, solving an interesting problem, having a special sexual experience, or appreciating a beautiful sunset. During these experiences, I feel as if every cell in my mind and body is functioning at some optimal level doing what it was intended to do. This type of functioning is extremely healthy for both our psychological and our physical health. Whereas its opposites--prolonged anxiety, anger, or depression--are unhealthy states. Evidence is increasing that too much time spent in these negative emotional states is detrimental to both our mental and physical health.

These harmonious experiences may be similar to what Maslow referred to as "peak experiences." He found that self-actualizing people--especially those who focused more on mental activities--tended to have many more peak experiences than most people. He characterized these peak experiences as a feeling of inner harmony and oneness with themselves and the universe.

The person in the peak experience feels more integrated (unified, whole, all-of-a-piece),
 than at other times.  
He also looks (to the observer) more integrated in various ways. . ., 
e.g., less split or dissociated,
less fighting against himself, more at peace with himself,
 less split
between an experiencing self and an observing self, 
more one-pointed, more harmoniously organized, 
more efficiently organized with all his parts functioning very nicely with each other . . .
(A. Maslow, 1960, p.98)

Wouldn't it be wonderful if all humans could function at this higher level most of the time? We could create a much more harmonious and productive society from which we would all benefit.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could spend most of your time functioning at this higher level; and spend less time feeling bored, under stress, or unhappy? What if you were continually fascinated and performing at your best? What if instead of feeling bored or stressed about a task--avoiding it or doing it halfway--you could become fascinated with it? What if instead of dreading a task, you could create positive anticipation?

Wouldn't it be great if you had buttons in your head that you could push to feel more excited or more calm? The harmonious functioning model can help you understand the root causes of motivation and emotion--and suggest basic strategies for supercharging yourself. Return to beginning



 A state of harmonious functioning leads to the big three outcomes--peak learning, peak performance, and peak happiness.(1) We can create harmonious functioning in almost any situation. This state is not mystical or magical, but it may be what the mystic feels when he or she has a mystical experience.

Harmonious functioning is a special mind-body state in which all activated brain and body systems are operating in the maximum harmony possible for that particular situation. The most central of these systems are cognitive systems and conscious processes. We may experience this mind-body state as euphoria, nirvana, a peak experience, a flow experience. Whatever we call it, it feels wonderful!

Peak learning, performance, and happiness are interwoven aspects of the same underlying phenomenon. This phenomenon is the basis of all higher learning and motivation. It is rooted in brain physiology, but its branches extend into the higher informational/spiritual levels of existence.

What is this underlying phenomenon? Presently, no one can describe its exact nature--though many have tried. I propose that this phenomenon has to do with how we process information. Harmonious functioning has to do with the relationship between the inputs to the mind and its ability to cope with them. It is a complex relationship, but one I will try to describe in this chapter. Understanding how harmonious functioning works will change your life! Let's start with the following example.

A client came in for counseling. An intelligent and mature person, she normally functioned at a high level and was quite happy. However, she was undecided about her career direction, about where she wanted to live, and about her relationship. In addition she had financial and health problems that were potentially serious. She was from another state and had few friends in the area. If she had had problems in only one or two of these areas, she could have solved them herself without so much anxiety. Return to beginning

OVERSTIMULATION--Too much challenge causes confusion and anxiety(2). Whenever she focused on her problems, she got lost in their complexity. The complexity was too great for her mental organization powers to handle all at once. Feeling overwhelmed, she usually avoided her problems by doing compulsive busywork such as organizing her closet. But organizing her closet didn't solve the real problems. Therefore, she experienced the big three negative outcomes from too much input for her coping ability. These outcomes were high anxiety, low learning, and low performance.

UNDERSTIMULATION--Too little challenge causes boredom and depression. At other times--in the face of too much challenge--my client would mentally give up and tune out. When she tuned out, she narrowed her focus so much that she mentally shut down and became passive. That mental shut down created a low arousal state of depression or boredom. When she was in this state, she withdrew from others and became immobilized by her depression. Therefore, she was now experiencing the big three negative outcomes from too little input for her mental abilities--underarousal, low learning, and low performance.

Boredom or depression produce lowered arousal or apathy. We often confuse these lowered energy states with being tired or sick. These low energy states can further interfere with performance.

Cognitive overstimulation or cognitive understimulation was the underlying cause for her negative big three outcomes of negative emotions, low learning, and low performance. On the other hand, when there is optimal match between the complexity of a situation and our abilities, then we will experience the big three positive outcomes--peak learning, peak performance, and peak happiness.(3)
 Return to beginning


What is the most basic human motive? Many have attempted to answer that question. Freud thought that we had two basic motives--sex and aggression. Maslow thought that we began focusing on the biological lower needs--such as needs for food and sex, and gradually moved on to the higher needs--such as love, creativity, and ultimately self-actualization. I agree with Maslow's idea about the progression of needs to some extent, but think that there is a more basic human motive.

Growth is our strongest motivator. Does it seem strange to think that the most basic human motive might not be sex or aggression as Freud believed, but knowledge? After all, the brain is primarily a giant information processor. Estimates are that we have between 10 and 100 billion neurons with perhaps 20 quadrillion connections. Each of these connections is a potential storage unit of knowledge, and each cell is striving to be active and learn.

Why have our brains evolved so far beyond the lower animals? Clearly, there is evolutionary value to intelligence that gives humans advantages. Social evolutionary value also gives individuals, groups, and nations with greater knowledge advantages over those with less knowledge.

Our brains automatically strive to develop greater and better organized knowledge--to develop more elaborate cognitive systems. Our cognitive system tries to keep from being overwhelmed by too much information, on the one hand, and to keep from being deprived by too little on the other. Our cognitive system is functioning harmoniously during maximum learning and growth. Evolution has made this mental harmonious functioning state the most pleasant and desired state attainable, because knowledge has so much survival value. Harmonious functioning (happiness) is also the most rewarding and motivating force affecting our daily lives. 

Return to beginning
Go to next section of Chapter 7 


1. A diverse set of research findings support some of the main ideas of the harmonious functioning model. For example, research supports the famous Yerkes-Dobson Law that maximum performance of (especially complex) tasks occurs at an optimal level of motivational arousal--too low arousal leads to apathy, low energy, slowed performance and too high arousal leads to confusion, increased errors, distractions, or overshooting. (See Brehm, J. W. and Self, E. A. 1989)

Another supportive line of theory and research concerns the Behavioral Facilitation (or

activation) System BFS hypothesized by Schneirla (1959). There is some evidence of a general motivational and arousal system that controls a range of reactions from mania at one extreme to depression at the other. Moderate states may be consistent with harmonious functioning. (See Depue, Richard A. and Iacono, William G.,1989) Other theories will be discussed next.

2. Many people think that the word anxiety refers only to intense degrees of anxiety. However, I am using the term to include nervousness, stress, fear,guilt, and other similar emotional states.

3. Many people confuse the emotion depression with clinical depression. The emotion depression ranges from mild forms such as slight sadness or unhappiness to intense grief or severe depression. Almost every day we all probably feel some degree of depression for at least a short time. Clinical depression is a label used for a psychological disorder-prime features of which include prolonged, intense depression and suicidal thinking. Experiencing even intense depression does not necessarily indicate clinical depression. If concerned see a professional.

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