What is FLOW and why getting into it will make you happier.

Ever felt like you were wasting your time and your life away, doing meaningless things week after week? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow might be the answer.

(Originally posted on www.kayatoastforthesoul.com)


Have you ever found yourself sitting in front of the TV or scrolling through Instagram looking for something to entertain you. Yet, as time goes by, you can't help but feel more and more frustrated and restless?


Let me introduce you to a chim but cool-sounding psychological term, Psychic Entropy.


Despite sounding cool, it's really not such a good thing.


Psychic Entropy comes about when we become aware of a lack of meaningful content in our existence. This means that whatever we've been doing with our time hasn't felt meaningful to us at all.


But yet we still keep on doing it.


Just like in the above scenario, it arises when we know that the activities we have engaged in are incongruent with our goals and purpose at this point in life.




Psychic Entropy is a sad, sad condition. Yet too many of us fall into this trap.


Of course, it's entirely okay to engage in meaningless activities from time to time, we need to relax and chill out right?


But when it becomes excessive, this internal incongruence starts to grow.


Our minds become a battlefield, with one side being aware of the more important things we should be doing, while another contradictory side of our minds chooses to persist in meaningless behaviours.


We might fail to take up more meaningful activities for any number of reasons:

  • We know what is a better use of our time, but because it takes effort we choose not to do so.

  • We procrastinate and leave it for later

  • We might be feeling tired, or even hungover from partying

  • We might even suffer from depression, and lack the energy and motivation to get up and do something

When we experience Psychic Entropy, our thoughts are unable to flow in a concrete fashion.


Because of the internal struggle going on in our minds, we are left with a vastly reduced ability to deal with complex tasks. It might cause you to struggle on focusing on your work and personal goals. We also struggle to think and reflect with clarity.


Psychic Entropy makes our thoughts go haywire and we can't determine where we should turn our attention to. This is especially because we have not provided ourselves with useful goals to direct ourselves to.


As such, Psychic Entropy is characterised by a state of inner frustration and a sense of Emptiness in our lives.


Often, it might even lead to depression, anger or anxiety.




We deal with Psychic Entropy rather poorly.


To get rid of that negative feeling arising from Psychic Entropy, one misguided way is to distract our minds with whatever information is readily available.


It doesn't matter how silly or pointless it is, just as long as it distracts us from turning our attention inwards and onto our negative feelings.


This explains why such a huge proportion of our time is invested into watching television and Netflix. We marathon through a variety of Korean Dramas or eight seasons of How I Met Your Mother in a single day.


Or scroll through social media, even when it makes us more and more bored.


Such distractions provide us with an endless stream of easily accessible information we can use to fill our attention. And we do this even when we no longer enjoy it.




We do this all the while waiting for a sense of wholeness or peace of mind or purpose to arrive.


Yet, it is so clear that these distractions, avoidances and indulgences will not change anything of importance.


"Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it." -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


On the other hand, take a second and think about the last time you were really engaged in an activity that you were entirely absorbed in doing.


You immersed your entire consciousness into the activity, and the only thing that mattered was the activity itself and getting to some near-term goal you've set for yourself.


All sense of Time seemed to flow away from your consciousness, and along with that, your sense of self. Any thoughts, worries and concerns outside of the activity were superseded and forgotten for the moment.


The conditions of the task required it.


It was challenging, but not too daunting that would cause you any stress. Moreover, it seemed to be just the right amount of challenge that required you to stretch your skill and mind.


After hours, minutes, seconds passing by in an instant, you finally emerge from the activity and a sense of accomplishment and reward washes over you. It feels like you've stretched your competencies to the next level.


Looking back in retrospect, you can't help but feel a sense that you thoroughly enjoyed the experience.



In Psychology, such experiences are called Flow States.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I still can't pronounce his name) is a Hungarian Psychologist and a lifelong researcher on such experiences of Flow.


He has spent many decades studying the Psychic Entropy condition. More importantly, he is globally acknowledged for recognising and naming the psychological concept of Flow.


From what we talked about above, we now know that any habits that depend on external stimulation aren't helpful in bringing back order to our consciousness and order to our lives.


It becomes apparent that we need to focus on habits that we can internally control in order to regain our lives.


Building a life of engagement through Flow then becomes the answer to rediscovering Happiness.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow is experienced universally, and occurs across all genders, ages and cultures. The number of activities it encompasses is limitless.


In his book, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, Mihaly shares a myriad of examples how people can enter these states of Flow.


These are:

  • The composer, melding himself into the symphony he orchestrates in his mind.

  • The violinist, mastering an intricate new piece of music.

  • The swimmer, battling the open sea to beat his best record.

  • The artist, bringing his mind's creation onto canvas.

  • The writer, getting absorbed in the very story he weaves.

  • Even the factory worker, who gamifies his work to assemble in the most efficient manner he knows possible.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow

According to Mihaly:

"When the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly. There is no need to worry, no reason to question one’s adequacy.


But whenever one does stop to think about oneself, the evidence is encouraging: “You are doing all right.”


The positive feedback strengthens the self, and more attention is freed to deal with the outer and the inner environment."



It should be noted that during such states of Flow, we don't actually feel any sense of Happiness.


To experience emotions like Happiness requires us to turn our attention inward, which would then take away our attention from the task at hand.


Rather, it is only after the task is completed that we have the pleasure to look back on what has happened. It is then when we become flooded with gratitude and the purposefulness of the experience.


Through Flow, we attain Happiness by our own making.



We can create Flow by setting up an activity with the following Three conditions.


  1. The activity must be challenging based on your current skill level.

  2. There are immediate goals and feedback for each session.

  3. You feel intrinsically rewarded by growing your physical or intellectual skills.


Note to the tight-butts out there: Mihaly originally details eight conditions. The remaining five that I won't go into are the effects during a state of Flow, such as a distorted perception of time which I've already described above.


1. The activity must be challenging based on your current skill level.


This swee swee diagram below is often shared by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to explain the balance between challenge and skill in Flow.


As you can see, different emotional states can arise depending on the relationship between our skill level and the challenge on the task.



If someone said to me,


"Hey bro, let's go throw rocks in a longkang this whole afternoon".


I'd likely feel apathy after while, given there is no challenge nor would there be much skill involved. It's also just really stupid.


On the other hand, if someone had told me


"Hey bro, I've signed you up for a professional ballet dancing competition this afternoon".


First I might piak that person. Then I might start panicking since I have no skill whatsoever in ballet, and the challenge (not to mention the humiliation) would be way above my head.

To have Flow, you need to feel you are capable of doing the task ahead of you, and also that it is a worthwhile endeavour because of the challenge as well.

2. There are immediate goals and feedback for each session.


Having clarity of goals provide structure and direction to the activity. Some activities have goals inherently built into them.


For example, playing Chess has been well documented as a Flow activity. You either aim to win or get closer to winning. There is also a continued adjustment between challenge and skill, as you seek better players with an increase in your skill.


On the other hand, other activities require you to define that goal yourself. Of course, these have to be realistic as well.


In learning to play the guitar for example, you probably won't be able to play the solo to Stairway to Heaven on your first try.


Instead, a more realistic immediate goal might be to learn to strum a the chords of an easier song, like playing wonderwall by Oasis (almost everybody can play this song lol).



While goals provide you with direction, feedback tells you how close you are to your goal and if you're on the right track.


Like goals, some activities provide you with automatic feedback. In Chess, you either win or you lose. Some are not so clear cut but are comparably more intuitive.


Such as learning tennis or golf, you know when you've hit the ball well. In learning the ukulele, you know if what you play sounds right or not.

There are yet others you have to create your own intuition, just like me writing this right now.


I can write and write but have no feedback from people till much later, but my intuition tells me if my writing flows well or not (I think).


Without feedback, we don't know how we are performing and interest might start to waver.

3. You feel intrinsically rewarded by growing your physical or intellectual skills.


Flow is characterised by a sense of a forward movement, a sense of novelty and accomplishment.


You feel rewarded from playing a close game of tennis, or reading a book that sparks your imagination. Learning how to speak to someone in a new language like Japanese or picking up a new skill like programming stretches us intellectually.


All these activities make us look back and think that we've spent our time wisely because we've grown in some respect.