The Way of Flow
By Hyatt Carter
Were you ever so absorbed in a good book that you lost all track of time? So caught up in the story that even your sense of self vanished? While playing some sport such as tennis or basketball, did you ever experience moments when the level of your skills so matched the challenges of the event that you excelled with almost effortless ease? That in each instant you felt such a sense of control that you knew exactly what to do and the next instant confirmed that your action had been exactly right? Were you so carried away that your very veins thrilled with exhilaration? And did you later feel that such an experience was so deeply enjoyable that the experience itself was its own reward?
Both of these are examples of what is known as the experience of flow. Flow probably goes back in history as far as the very beginnings of humanity. But a Hungarian with what looks like an unpronounceable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, was the first to formally name the experience flow, and he has been studying it now for more than thirty years.
Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheek-sent-me-high”) identifies eight elements that constitute the flow experience:
1. Clear goals and feedback
2. Balance between challenges and skills
3. Merging of action and awareness
4. Focusing on the present
5. Sense of control
6. Loss of self-consciousness
7. The sense of time is altered
8. The activity becomes autotelic
The word autotelic derives from two Greek roots, auto and telos, meaning “self” and “goal.” Therefore, when an activity is autotelic, this simply means that it is intrinsically rewarding, or worth doing for its own sake.
During episodes of flow, people function on a higher level, display more creativity, feel a deeper sense of involvement, enjoy what they are doing, and emerge from the experience with more self-esteem and confidence. And, since it feels so good, there is a deep desire to recapture the experience again and again.
Csikszentmihalyi’s book entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was published in 1990 and the possibilities for the practical application of flow first aroused interest in athletics and leisure activities. Jimmy Johnson, coach of the Dallas Cowboys, announced after the 1993 Super Bowl that Flow helped the team prepare for and win the big game. In the past few years, perhaps in light of such success, the idea is catching on within the business community. Some major companies, such as Microsoft and Toyota, are introducing the concept of flow into the workplace with impressive results.
Although flow is so positive that it accounts for many of the best moments of our lives, there are negative forces that can undermine flow, such as parasitic memes.
Memes and Minds
A meme is 1) a cultural artifact, or 2) a unit of cultural information or instruction, and a simple example of each would be: 1) a show lace, and 2) how to tie a shoelace. Children learn how to tie shoelaces from their parents and, with practice, it becomes second nature.
Csikszentmihalyi suggests this definition of a meme: “any permanent pattern of matter or information produced by an act of human intentionality. Thus a brick is a meme, and so is Mozart’s Requiem.”
Richard Dawkins coined the word meme on an analogy with genes and, like genes that transmit information from one generation to the next on the physical level, memes pass on their instructions on the level of consciousness. Whereas genes leap from body to body via sperm and egg, memes leap from mind to mind via example and imitation. Dawkins gives the example of a scientist who hears or reads about a good idea and then passes it on to his colleagues. He may write about it in articles and discuss it in his lectures and, if the idea catches on, a new meme will begin to propagate as it spreads from mind to mind. Unfortunately, the same thing can happen with bad ideas, such as the meme that spread throughout Germany before World War II and led to the extermination of millions of Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. This means that memes can be either parasitic or symbiotic.
Memes are said to be parasitic when, like actual parasites, they infect and exploit the energy of their hosts. The result is a lack of flow, and this lies behind the cause of many social problems. What is addiction but the attempt to recapture the flow of optimal experience by artificial means? With too little flow to engage them, people can become dependent on passive entertainment such as recorded music, TV, movies, pulp fiction, spectator sports, and sleazy magazines. Watching television is one of the least flowlike activities—it presents virtually no challenges and requires minimal skills—and yet many people spend most of their free time in front of a television set. TV thus has the dubious distinction of being one of the most parasitic memes on the planet. Lest you think I exaggerate, Csikszentmihalyi has researched this for decades and here’s what he has to say:
“Television is a dramatic example of a meme that invades the mind and reproduces there without concern for the well-being of its host. Like drugs, watching TV initially provides a positive experience. But after the viewer is hooked, the medium uses consciousness without providing further benefits. . . . All television does is replicate itself—screens get bigger, pixels multiply, sitcoms beget other sitcoms, talk shows generate further talk shows, all the while using our psychic energy as their medium of growth.”
The Rockies May Crumble
In opposition to flow, there is a counter-force, powerful and primordial, at work in the universe. It is the force behind the second law of thermodynamics which states that any system free of external influences becomes more disordered with time.
Cars end up in junkyards where they rust away; dropping dirt on the coffin, the pastor officiating at a burial solemnly says, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” Or, as the Gershwin song puts it: “In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble . . .” This steady deterioration is the process of entropy, from whose inexorable workings no finite entity ultimately escapes.
Although entropy is a technical term used in physics, Csikszentmihalyi borrows the word to describe a similar process that occurs in consciousness. He calls this psychic entropy.
Psychic entropy is characterized by disorder in consciousness. Some examples are: bad moods, passive feelings of incompetence, lack of motivation, and the inability to focus attention. Psychic entropy is a downward spiral that feels bad.
Some activities, such as watching TV, should be limited because they produce psychic entropy. It is not without reason that the term “couch potato” entered our vocabulary to designate someone who vegetates in front of a television set.
But it should be pointed out that psychic entropy also has a positive side. We are genetically hard-wired to feel pleasure when we get comfortable, relax, and wind down after any strenuous activity. Without this conservative urge, this “built-in mechanism,” we could, as Csikszentmihalyi points out, easily self-destruct by running ourselves ragged. An optimal balance must be found between conserving energy and using it constructively.
Left unchecked, however, entropy can take over consciousness. When the mind makes the shift to entropy, it can continue to idle, in neutral, unless interrupted by the counter force of flow. Flow activities move the mind in the opposite direction. When, instead of running down, order increases in a system, negentropy is busy at work. And so, in contrast to psychic entropy, flow is psychic negentropy. One is the direction of death and decay; the other, the direction of creation and growth.
Some examples of psychic negentropy: positive feelings toward self and others, an active sense of competence, identification with intentions and goals, and effective concentration. Psychic negentropy spirals upward and feels good, very good!
Csikszentmihalyi points out some practical implications of this: “Negative emotions like sadness, fear, anxiety, or boredom produce psychic entropy in the mind, that is, a state in which we cannot use attention effectively to deal with external tasks, because we need it to restore an inner subjective order. Positive emotions like happiness, strength, or alertness are states of psychic negentropy because we don’t need attention to ruminate and feel sorry for ourselves, and psychic energy can flow freely into whatever thought or task we choose to invest it in.”
With negentropy, mind and body are moving in measure, so harmoniously ordered that thoughts, feelings, and desires come together, mutually consistent, mutually supportive, intertwining in a seamless flow of unified action.
The Flow of Evolution
Is flow built into human nature just for our enjoyment and satisfaction, and as a counter force to entropy, or is there a purpose over and above this?
Let us look at the inner dynamics of the flow experience. First, flow is autotelic: that is, worth doing for its own sake. Because flow produces such positive feelings, people desire “repeat performances” to experience the satisfaction over and over. One way Nature gets us to do important things, such as reproduce, is to make it enjoyable. Would humans get all hot and bothered about sex if it didn’t feel so good? However, what constitutes flow on Monday may not do so on Thursday. Any experience that remains on the same level will eventually lead not to flow, but to boredom. To slightly rephrase the famous saying of the philosopher Heraclitus—you cannot, without some measure of diminishment, step twice into the same stream of flow.
A tennis player, for example, whose skills match those of his opponent will enjoy the contest, and the closer they match the better! However, when his skills improve and surpass those of his opponent, the play will lose its zest. To recapture flow, or the feeling of optimal experience, he must seek stronger opposition.
Thus, for the flow experience to be sustained, new challenges must be taken on, and skills improved to meet those challenges. The direction or curve of flow is an upward spiral of increasing complexity. There is a close correlation here with process thought which holds that the essence of all reality is not just process, but self-surpassing process.
Flow is one way we go beyond the status quo, established patterns of human behavior, and the routines of everyday life. It is a way of transcendence. What is being described here is evolution. Flow is built into the very nature of reality to encourage both personal and cultural evolution.
With the flow of evolution, whole new vistas of experience become available for our enjoyment and satisfaction. The discovery of the oxygen tank made possible underwater adventures where one could explore beautiful coral reefs and the mysteries deep down in the sea.
On a summer day in June in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers exhilarated the Parisian public with their first demonstration of a hot-air balloon, the meme for human flight took one small step. From this would follow airplanes, helicopters, and NASA spacecraft that would take us up, up, and away . . . from a giant leap to the moon to ever so far beyond!
And thus by flow do we expand the horizons of our human adventure.