Flow is one of those concepts I’d been talking about for years with friends without actually having read the original book. After going back and reading it this week, I was pretty disappointed.
I feel the definition put forward by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is too broad to be useful. It basically encompasses all motivated and growth experiences. To Csikszentmihalyi, the universe is a nail and flow is his hammer.
Further, he goes to the extent of almost equating flow with happiness, which I disagree with. I think flow is an important aspect of living, and contributes to happiness, but isn’t happiness itself.
So I’m going to add what I believe to be a missing piece to the definition of flow and then give a complete definition of it. All this builds towards a theory of flow and awareness that has tangible implications for living a good life.
What is flow?
Flow is that feeling you get when you are “in the zone” doing something you really enjoy. It usually occurs when solving a problem that is optimally difficult for your skill level. The rest of the world (including your inner voice) fades away and time passes with an unsual speed. The most common areas where we experience flow are sports, music, art, and work.
Here is Csikszentmihalyi (who coined the term) explaining the conditions, properties, and effects of flow:
“First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.”
The missing piece
I’m going out on a limb here. I think one of the key aspects of flow that was missed in its original definition (potentially because the understanding of consciousness was less advanced back then) is the idea of conceptualisation.
When in flow, we don’t seem to be acting on reality, rather we are acting on the highly conceptualised world that we are simulating in our mind. The obvious examples include musicians, artists, or programmers, who have complex mental models built up of what they are doing and their body simply follows along as they play the music (or solve the problem) in their heads.
As the inputs come in from reality they are spot-checked against the mental model that has been built up in our mind of the problem, and then any adjustments necessary are made to the model. If things go so badly wrong as to ruin the model completely, then we often break out of flow and come “back to reality”.
You could think of it as how a self-driving car works. The computer inside the car is getting a whole bunch of information from external sensors. From this, it builds up a model of reality inside the computer and then plans the actions needed to navigate reality. Then at a regular interval, new inputs come into the computer system, which it uses to refine the internal model of reality and make any changes if necessary.
Why is this important?
If you just understand flow as the feeling of being really focused and engaged with a problem then it’s easy to over-glorify it. This is where I think Csikszentmihalyi went wrong.
Flow is a really powerful state of mind, but I don’t think being in flow constantly would be a good thing.
In this article I explore how when you are living in a highly-conceptualised reality, you tend to miss a lot of the details that make life beautiful. And that’s exactly the downside of flow. It’s amazing for being productive, efficient, and growing mentally, but it’s not very good for enabling happiness.
If anything, because when in flow your self-conscious mind is quietened, it can be used as a form of escapism from reality.
Complete definition of flow
Before we look at a balanced approach to flow, here is a complete definition.
Conditions of flow:
- Optimal challenge – The problem that you are tackling needs to feel achievable. Too hard or easy and you lose interest from either hopelessness or boredom.
- Clear direction – The task needs to have clearly defined rules and “win states” so you know what success looks like.
- Immediate feedback – The task needs to have immediate feedback as to whether you are getting closer or further from that task.
State of flow:
- Attention (concentration) – You concentrate intensely on the task at hand. Your mind doesn’t wander but is consumed wholly by the task.
- Focus (input filtering) – As a result of the above your consciousness filters out non-critical information so that you can focus only on what is necessary.
- High conceptualisation – You move away from reality and into the land of high-conceptualisation. You have a detailed model of the problem you are solving in your mind and spot-check information coming in from the world to check that things align.
Effects of flow:
- Reduced self-consciousness – With all mental resources being allocated to these other aspects of consciousness, the chirping of self-consciousness is quietened during a flow experience.
- Sense of control – Because of the clear direction and immediate feedback you feel in control of the task.
- Altered experience of time – Because of the focus, attention and high-conceptualisation you lose track of time; sometimes hours passing in seconds, sometimes a second of intense concentration feels slowed down.
Can flow make you happy?
In his book, Csikszentmihalyi makes the argument that essentially flow is happiness. That when in the experience of flow our consciousness becomes more “ordered” which is to say more aligned and less internal conflict.
However, I strongly disagree that flow is happiness. I think if you were to engineer a human being who operated in flow 100% of the time, they wouldn’t be capable of being happy like you and I are.
The reason I believe this is that I think appreciation is the basis of happiness, and that is something that you can’t really accomplish in flow.
- During flow our concepts of how we understand the world become more integrated and differentiated (complex)
- This creates a richer experience of the world 👍
- However, I don’t think that this alone constitutes happiness,
- Since a more complex consciousness is also capable of greater suffering.
Awareness, an important tangent
To better understand why flow is important in our lives we need to quickly understand awareness.
- Basically, awareness is a state of being where you are extremely present to everything that is happening in the current moment.
- It’s the moments in life when you notice the wind on your skin, the sunlight bouncing off trees, the anxiety in your chest, the smile on your colleagues face, etc.
- Awareness is something that you can actively practice and strengthen through meditation.
- It is a mode of being that is less-conceptualised. You don’t view people as “dickheads” but rather complex beings capable of a range of behaviours.
- This enables you to appreciate the subtle beauties and interconnection of the world.
- It also allows you to be freed from some of the suffering that living in high-conceptualisation often brings with it (desire, craving, hatred, prejudice, etc).
- In many ways, it’s the opposite to flow.
The funnel of consciousness
Here is where I am going with all this. It seems that flow and awareness are opposite ways of being. Opposite ends of a consciousness funnel.
- You cannot be in flow and awareness at the same time. As soon as you become aware, flow drops off.
- When you are aware, your consciousness (the big blue ball) is very large and experiencing more of what is happening in the present moment.
- When you are in flow, your consciousness becomes extremely focused and narrow. You take in smaller amounts of information but integrate it into higher level concepts.
- I think the two defining characteristics that describe this funnel are: filtering of information (focus) and detail of experience (conceptualisation).
- When in flow, you filter heavily and use high-level concepts.
- When being mindful, you don’t filter and use lower-level concepts.
In daily life, we mostly sit somewhere in the middle of the funnel.
I think that middle spot is deeply unfulfilling as we are neither really aware and present in the moment, but not really in a state of flow either. We just lull along with life neither appreciating it nor fully engaging with it.
That middle spot is epitomised by times where we mindlessly consume entertainment, busy ourselves at work, and engage in senseless banter over topics we’re not really interested in.
Coming back to happiness
So to tie this all back to something that really matters, how do we use this mental model of flow←→awareness to live better?
- I think that in heightened states of awareness are more conducive to happiness as you are better able to appreciate things.
- But in order to live richer lives we need to expand consciousness by going into flow (integrating more concepts).
TL;DR: (it was long 🤷♂️)
So the “ideal life” is one where we experience flow on a regular basis in order to grow into more intelligent and complex beings, but also strengthen our awareness in order to practice happiness through appreciation.