The concept of flow

  • What is described in popular culture as being ‘in the zone’ or ‘in the groove’.
  • Makes use of an individual’s focused attention, referred to as ‘psychic energy’. Focused attention, not time or anything, is an individual’s most precious resource.
  • The labels applied to people (“extrovert”, “high achiever”, “paranoid”) really refer to the specific patterns that people have used to structure their attention. A paranoid person is paranoid because they focus a lot of attention and energy on worrying.
  • 8 conditions together leading to flow:
    1. Confront challenging but completable tasks
    2. Concentration
    3. Clear goals
    4. Immediate feedback
    5. Deep, effortless involvement (lack of awareness of worries and frustrations)
    6. Sense of control over actions
    7. Concern for self disappears (paradoxically awareness of self is heightened immediately after flow)
    8. Sense of duration of time is altered
  • Every flow activity transforms the self by making it more and more complex. e.g. the rock climber is a different person after scaling El Capitan at Yosemite. The chess player is a different person after playing a grandmaster tournament.
  • Most enjoyable activities are not natural – they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make.
  • Steps to achieving flow
    1. Set a goal.
    2. Concentrate your ‘psychic energy’ on achieving it.
    3. Pay attention to the feedback
    4. Make certain that the challenge is appropriate for one’s skill level.
  • The best moments usually occur when a person’s body and mind are stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

  • Flow occurs when attention can be freely invested to advance a person’s goals – there is no disorder to straighten or no threat for the self to defend against.
  • Destroyers of ‘focused attention’ or ‘psychic energy’ – emotions such as pain, fear, rage, anxiety and jealousy make your psychic energy unwieldy and ineffective.
  • Psychic entropy – information that disrupts consciousness by threatening its goals. Disorganization of the self that impairs its effectiveness. e.g. being bothered by a flat tire while at work, you think about how to get home and can’t focus on the job.
  • Why flow activities lead to discovery – we either increase the skill level or the challenge level.
    • High challenge, high skill – flow
    • High challenge, low skill – anxiety. Increase your skill level.
    • Low challenge, high skill – boredom. Find new challenges.
    • Low challenge, low skill – beginner/noob.
  • If you stop being a lifelong learner, your thinking will be directed by opinions of the neighbors, editorials in the press and by the appeals of television.
  • Take control, cultivate things in a direction of greater complexity.
  • Being ambitious for the sake of it, or competing for sake of winning works, but only in the short term. One is so drawn into the competitive struggle or rat race that there is no time to realize that the goal has not come any nearer.

The Autotelic individual

  • Auto = self, telos = goal, “having a purpose in itself”
  • The doing itself is the reward. e.g. playing the stock market to prove one’s skill at foretelling the future is autotelic.
  • Autotelic individuals lead vigorous lives, find ‘flow’ in most of their activities, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning till the day they die. They have strong ties and commitments to other people and the environment in which they live.
  • They change constraints into opportunities for expressing freedom and creativity.

Flow and Stress

  • Information appears without necessarily having a positive or negative value to it. It is the self that interprets raw information in the context of its own interests, and determines whether it is harmful or not.
  • Those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves and emerge stronger from the ordeal.
  • Worry/Fear/Paranoia: They all break ‘flow’.
    • Example: A crewman died due to a ‘parachute not opening’. On further investigation, it was revealed that the parachute was alright. He was a right-handed guy who had been handed a left-handed parachute. In his fear and frenzy, he had forgotten that the rip chord was to the left and was instead pulling at his clothes and flesh on the right side of his chest.
    • “His fear was so intense that it blinded him to the fact that safety was at his fingerprints.”
  • Importance of being calm – “If one continues to stay in touch with what is going on, new possibilities are likely to emerge, which might suggest new responses.” (see parachute example).
  • If you are consumed with worry instead, you will not have enough disposable attention available to seek out realistic options.
  • Two ways to deal with stress – the latter leads to more ‘flow’
    • Regressive coping (immature defense): Fiddling with the key, banging the dashboard when the car won’t start.
    • Transformational coping (mature defense): Figuring out what is wrong in the car, looking at alternate ways to get to work.
    • Courage, resilience, perseverance – these are essential for transformational coping.
  • Wrong way to deal with stress: giving up and responding by scaling down the complexity of one’s life forever.

Flow and Work

  • Set the challenge of reaching one’s goals while helping bosses and colleagues reach theirs.
  • Whether a job has variety or not depends on one’s approach to it.
  • Do two things simultaneously – (a) redesign your job to mimic a flow activity. (b) develop an autotelic personality.
  • Compete – comes from latin ‘con petire‘ – to seek together. Competition with the end goal of improving one’s skills is good.
  • Two key determinants to the quality of life – work and relationships with other people. Increasing interactions with humans and social issues leads to greater complexity and is a source of flow. Politics hence has the potential to provide a lot of ‘flow’.

Flow and Leisure

  • The future will belong to the man who is educated to use his leisure wisely.
  • Paradox about leisure – based on the experience sampling project conducted by the authors, people are more at ‘flow’ at work than during their leisure time (spent in TV, chatting etc). Yet they want ‘to be doing something else’ more at work, and less at leisure. Most people don’t challenge themselves hard enough.
  • Most people opt for passive leisure (e.g. watching TV) which rids them of flow.
  • Leisure that uses external resources, often requires less attention and as a consequence provides less memorable rewards (e.g. boating/power driving/watching TV compared to painting, knitting, programming)
    • More ‘flow’ => more creative, strong, active, concentrated and motivated.
    • Fill free time with activities that increase skill and require concentration.
  • Two kinds of activities – instrumental and expressive. A person who lives only by instrumental actions without experiencing the spontaneous flow of expressivity eventually becomes indistinguishable from a robot who has been programmed by aliens to mimic human behavior.

Flow and Family

  • Flow in the family
    • Have long-term and short-term goals
    • Provide clear feedback.
    • Partners need to invest psychic energy towards redirection of goals. Individual goals may be divergent – need to redirect to shared, coherent goals to ensure the relationship doesn’t fall apart.
    • Example – a bachelor whose goals included getting a sports car and taking strenuous hiking trips might have to redirect his goals after becoming a parent.
    • Restore ‘flow’ in a relationship by finding new challenges to it.
  • People report themselves as the happiest when with their friends, even more than when they are with their spouses. This evidence points to the growing advice to make the spousal relationship that of a best friend.
  • Unconditional acceptance is especially important to children. If parents threaten to withdraw their love from a child when he fails to measure up, the child’s natural playfulness will be replaced with chronic anxiety.
  • What leads to happy teenagers
    • Clarity – of the goals and expectations that the family has of them.
    • Centering – knowing that the parents’ attention is centered on them.
    • Choice – can make the choices they want as long as they face the consequences.
    • Commitment – unconditional commitment from the parents towards the child.
    • Challenge – parents provide increasingly complex challenges and opportunities for action to their children.

Flow and Culture

  • The West and East
    • The west has mastered control of material goodness.
    • The east (mainly India) has mastered control of consciousness (meditation, yoga)
    • A good mix of both is required for a good life.

Flow in the context of life situations/status

  • ‘Flow’ is NOT a frosting to be added to the top of the cake. Flow can and does happen in the absence of health, wealth and basics:
  • Paraplegics surveyed ended up happier after the tragic incidents. Most reported that ‘they had to learn to become part of the environment and use it, without trying to control it.’ It took commitment, will power and patience.
  • “I have decided to always try changing the situations I don’t like. I try to be tolerant with myself, so I can be more tolerant with others.”
  • They learnt to make ‘control of consciousness’ their goal in a stark, simplistic way.

Useful Quotes

  • Happiness is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person.
  • Don’t aim at success, they more you aim at it, and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.
  • Each of us has a picture, however vague, of what we would like to accomplish before we die. How close we get to attaining that goal becomes the measure for the quality of our lives. 
  • Control over consciousness is not a cognitive skill. As much as intelligence, it requires emotions and will. [e.g. Paraplegics who regained control over their lives by finding ‘flow’.]
  • Attention can be invested in innumerable ways – in ways that make life rich or miserable.
  • Human relations are malleable and if a person has the appropriate skills, their rules can be transformed.
  • Goals that have sustained action over a period turn out not to have enough power to give meaning to the entirety of life. [e.g.  Business executives getting into a midlife crisis after apparent professional success.]