flow & meaning

The past few books I’ve read have been playing on my mind:

  • Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari
  • Man’s Search for Meaning - Victor Frankl
  • Flow - Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi


Often on my mind are the themes of meaning, what it is to be human, subjectivity, free will. Flow really put a lot of that together, an intersection of cognitive science, philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology. It put into words some of the existential angst I’ve been feeling lately. Whether the book’s given me any answers or consolation, I’m not sure yet. After I finished reading it, I wished I’d taken notes along the way, so I flipped back to the beginning. I think the first and last chapters are the most important.

The lack of inner order manifests itself in the subjective condition that some call ontological anxiety, or existential dread. Basically, it is a fear of being, a feeling that there is no meaning to life and that existence is not worth going on with. Nothing seems to make sense… we are just forgotten specks drifting in the void… As people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they sooner or later face and increasingly nagging question: “Is this all there is?” - Chapter 1, Happiness Revisited

The author’s answer to this is flow. We can live a happy and enjoyable existence by ridding ourselves of the anxieties and fears of daily life by taking control of our consciousness - by becoming immersed in every moment of our lives and uniting it to the ~flow of the universe~. Our mental energy ought to be spent in this state of deep enjoyment, creativity, and total involvement, which builds complexity in our character. In order to be in flow, we need to expend our mental energy on self-directed and self-originating goals that challenge us - goals that are not shaped merely by our biological needs and social pressures.

Humans of New York posted a story today -

“I’m afraid I’ll live a useless life and nobody will remember me. I don’t feel a strong interest toward anything. If I do, it’s just a momentary thing, and then I drop it. I tried acting. I tried swimming. I tried dancing. But I got bored with all of it. If I don’t choose something soon then I’ll leave nothing behind. We only have a certain amount of energy in life. If you don’t put it somewhere then it’s wasted. I feel like one of the little yellow minions from that movie. They get sad if they don’t have a villain to serve. When I have a goal, and I’m moving toward it, and I reach it, then I feel a little relief. That’s what life is to me. A series of goals that you move toward. I don’t think it’s possible to just become happy. Life’s not that easy. But if you keep moving, you can forget that you’re sad.”

Exactly. A young woman in Russia said that. I feel her. Perhaps we all feel that way.

Is this all there is? We fill our consciousness with enough enjoyment that we forget the existential uncertainty? This is where we see the incongruence between the experiencing & narrating self (Kaheman). Although my experiencing self is enjoying herself during her work, my narrating self lacks the so what of the narrative. Emerging from the flow of experience, what is there to show for it? For what purpose have I become a more ~complex~ self? Is this all there is?

Is happiness really the greatest good that ought to be sought for itself? Happiness may be enjoyment which may be optimal experience, but it isn’t fulfillment and it isn’t joy. Fulfillment requires meaning and purpose. What of meaning, then? Is this all there is?

Csikszentmihalyi attempts to tackle the problem of meaning in his final chapter. This is as close to a secular framework for meaning as I’ve come to understand.

Meaning is up to each of us to create:

“The meaning of life is meaning: whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.” “Creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one’s actions into a unified flowing experience.” “Purpose, resolution, and harmony unify life and give it meaning by transforming it into a seamless flow experience.”

Each of us needs to cultivate purpose, whether that purpose is “a cause, an idea, [or] a transcendental entity” and strive towards that purpose, “leaving as little room as possible for noticing the entropy of normal life”. This purpose is our life theme.

“The most promising faith for the future might be based on the realization that the entire universe is a system related by common laws and that it makes no sense to impose our dreams and desires on nature without taking them into account. Recognizing the limitations of human will, accepting a cooperative rather than a ruling role in the universe, we should feel the relief of the exile who is finally returning home. The problem of meaning will then be resolved as the individual’s purpose merges with the universal flow”.

Wait, what? Universal flow? Chapter 1 introduced that complexity is both differentiation and integration of the self. It’s the simultaneous separating of ourselves from external influences while uniting ourselves with those around us. While meaning is created by each individual for themselves, it is ultimately still in each person’s connection to something greater, outside of one’s self that meaning must be grounded. It’s this last bit that isn’t done justice in the book. Most of the book gives examples of experiencing flow in different activies - work, exercise, relationships, friendships, solitude, hardships, etc - and each type of flow contributes to overall optimal experience. Then at the end, wham, ~universal flow~.

Is this all there is? We want the answer to be no. We want to be connected to some universal thing beyond ourselves and the meaning we create for ourselves. We want to be convinced of it, don’t we? We need to believe that all our lives and effort is not for naught. Is this all there is? Is this all there is?

Tags: flow meaning life books journal

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