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.