Is Flow Responsible?

One method of flow is to do something as soon as you think of it. In our culture, this would normally be called impulsive, and most people would expect it to be selfish, irresponsible, and immature. Another method of flow is to do what you want. This too would be expected to be selfish, irresponsible, and immature. In our culture, being mature, responsible, and considerate of others is thought to require the opposite of flow: (1) a conscious consideration of the consequences of an action, including its effect on the future and on others, and (2) a conscious choice about what action would be best.

So people would not expect good things from flow in daily life. Students would stop going to school and start ingesting a variety of drugs. Parents would abandon their jobs and children. There would be drastic increase in looting and raping, and society as we know it would fall into chaos.

Obviously, this isn’t true. When Veronica flowed at the pool, she exercised more. When one student flowed while talking to his mother, things worked out well. That seems mature and responsible. Or recall the student who budgeted a day for flow and found that she wanted to work. My flow in daily life was responsible. I taught my classes. I raised my chilrend. I didn’t litter or commit any crimes. Sometimes I worked to make the world a better place. Of course, I sometimes behaved irresponsibly. For me, flow is not very good for making a dentist appointment. But nothing works very well for getting me to make a dentist appointment. Religious leaders from the East would not suggest flow if it was going to be irresponsible. Seung Sahn ends most of his letters to students with “get enlightenment and save all beings from suffering.” That’s lofty. And very responsible.

However, most people don’t know how to use their Inferential System. Incompetent use of the Inferential System probably does lead to selfish and irresponsible behavior. People should not be told just to do what they want or whatever comes to mind. And in fact, there are dangers to using your Inferential System in daily life. Sports, arts, and crafts are conducive to flow because there aren't many pitfalls for flow. Daily life has pitfalls, which you need to learn about.


Consider for a moment the nature of these Wants that can guide flow. People often think that Wants are primitive -- people want to eat, survive, etc. People do have primitive wants, and they are not particularly responsible. But Wants can also be learned and be quite sophisticated. Talented cooks have sophisticated Wants concerning cooking, talented artists have sophisticated Wants concerning their art, etc.

The learning of Wants occurs as your Inferential System tries to match up Wants with Enjoyments. Wants occur before an event. For example, my want to go hiking occurs before I go hiking. (If my Want occurs during hiking, it is a desire to continue hiking.) In contrast, Enjoyments occur during or after an event, in response to the event, such as when I enjoy hiking. Thus, the Want leads to performing or continuing the activity; the activity then leads to enjoyment.

Wants and Enjoyments tend to be the same, because your Inferential System is trying to match up the two. However, the match between the two obviously is not perfect-many times you wanted something that turned out to be unenjoyable or did not want something that turned out to be enjoyable. When your Want matches what you enjoy, the Want is accurate; when your Want does not match what you enjoy, it is inaccurate. Obviously, you want your Wants to be accurate. In general, with experience, your Inferential System learns to Want what you will enjoy. But there are blind spots in its learning, which lead to pitfalls in daily flow.

Problems in Learning

Your Inferential System learns from experience. One reason it might not know the consequences of an event are if it hasn’t had the proper experience. For example, I once visited Utah and went climbing on the rocks. I had read about something called “Slippery Rock”, so I knew I should be very careful when climbing. However, I had no experience with slipping on the rocks, so I did not especially want to be careful.

The Inferential System also has trouble learning the consequences of an action when those consequences are delayed. The longer the delay, the worse the problem. For example, you might enjoy staying up late, but the next morning you might be miserable. Your Inferential System would have difficulty learning the delayed consequence of morning misery. Therefore, you might experience a Want to stay up late, coupled with conscious knowledge that you shouldn’t.

In the activities that are conducive to flow, the consequences of an action are immediate -- you win the point at tennis, you make your painting better, you enjoy yourself at vacationing. This is one reason these activities are conducive to flow. In daily life, your actions often have delayed consequences. Suppose you don’t go to the dentist when you should. There are no immediate bad consequences, but there could be delayed consequences. Or, a remark to someone could start a friendship or end it, but at the time you usually are not aware of either of these consequences. Thus, in this regard, many situations of daily life are not conducive to flow.

The Conflict Between Shoulds and Wants

The battle between Shoulds and Wants is a battle between consciousness and the Inferential System. Your Inferential System and consciousness are presumably working towards the same goal-your overall benefit and enjoyment. Given this agreement in goals, the conflict between Wants and Shoulds is larger and more hostile than might be expected. I call this the schism between Wants and Shoulds.

This schism is a serious problem. It impairs enjoyment. If you do what you should, you are not doing what you want, which impairs enjoyment. However, if you do what you want, you are not doing what you should and hence likely to feel guilty or anxious. This isn’t good for enjoyment either. In contrast, when your Wants and Shoulds agree, you can do what you want, enjoy it, and not feel guilty.

This schism also impairs effectiveness. The Should is usually correct, so following the Want usually isn’t effective. But when you follow the Should, you are ignoring your Inferential System, not using it. You can’t be effective when you are ignoring your Inferential System. When your Wants and Shoulds agree, your Inferential System and conscious reasoning can work together to maximize effectiveness.

Finally, consider “energy”. If you don’t do what you want, your energy will probably be low. If you do what you want but not what you should, your energy will be sapped by worries, anxiety, or guilt. When Wants and Shoulds agree, your energy is the highest.

So, for the sake of enjoyment, effectiveness, and energy, you have to mend the schism between your Wants and Shoulds, so that they agree as often as possible. The goal is to create an internal sense of harmony.

Solution #1: Do What you Want

To mend the schism between Shoulds and Wants, you need to develop accurate Wants. Accurate Wants also allow you to safely use your Inferential System during flow.

The basic technique for developing accurate wants is experience. In other words, do what you want and see what happens. A student once described to me a conflict between her Inferential System and her conscious reasoning. She wanted to dye her hair blond, but she consciously calculated that she shouldn’t, because it wouldn’t look good. She decided to follow her conscious reasoning and not dye her hair. As it turned out, this was the correct decision. A triumph of conscious reasoning. Her Inferential System had no experience with blond hair, so it did not have an accurate Want.

But I wondered, how did she know that dying her hair blond wasn’t good? I asked her, and she said that she had this conflict several times. One time she chose to dye her hair blond, and it turned out horrible.

Well, that’s a different story. This woman lived with a conflict between Wants and Shoulds. The conflict was resolved when she did what she wanted and experienced that dyed hair wouldn’t look good. The previous “victories” for conscious reasoning served only to prolong the conflict between Wants and Shoulds. Furthermore, until she died her hair, she couldn’t be sure that it wouldn’t lood good. It could have been that her Should was wrong. That too would be good to know, as soon as possible.

So, doing what you want works even when it doesn’t work. If you want to do an alternative, your Inferential System thinks that alternative leads to enjoyment. Perhaps it is right. But even when it is wrong, your Inferential System learns that that alternative does not produce enjoyment. This makes your Wants more accurate, which is good, and it resolves the conflict between Wants and Shoulds.

I apply this principle even to very serious endeavors. One of my jobs once was to supervise graduate students teaching a class. I could have just told them what to do, and I did have a lot more experience than they did. However, I realized the importance of them doing what they wanted. First, what they wanted might work out well. But even if it didn't, the only way to learn the effectiveness of what they thought was right was to try their idea. They would not learn from following my instructions, because they would always think that their own idea was more effective. If their idea doesn’t work, they might be more open to my suggestions. Or maybe they will come up with something new that will work. (I didn’t allow them to try what they wanted when it would have very serious negative consequences.)

Solution #2: Imaginary Learning

If the only way to learn accurate Wants was through actual experience, you would need to have some painful experiences in order to learn, and some things might not be worth learning. You don’t want to touch a hot stove just to learn that you don’t enjoy touching hot stoves.

Fortunately, imagined experiences function much like real experiences (Finke, 1980; Johnson, Taylor, & Raye, 1977). Therefore, if you consciously know something and want to insert this learning into your Inferential System, all you have to do is imagine the appropriate experience. For example, suppose you are told not to touch poison ivy. To insert this knowledge into your Inferential System, you could imagine touching the poison ivy and then imagine a bad outcome.

The imaginary practice cannot be skipped or short-changed. If you consciously know that the outcome of an action is undesirable, but you do not perform the imaginary practice, you will have only conscious knowledge. To learn, your Inferential System requires either real or imagined experience. For example, my wife sometimes leaves her keys in the door as she enters a room. Consciously, she knows that this is bad. But her Inferential System still doesn’t see any problem, and it can’t be blamed-it learns from experience, and leaving her keys in the door has never led to anything worse than occasionally not finding them or being nagged by her husband. Assuming she feels that this problem is worth correcting, she should imagine bad consequences for leaving her keys in the door. She could imagine that her keys in the door are a ticking time bomb about to go off at any moment, or the house burning down because she left her keys in the door. Then her Inferential System won't want to leave the keys in the door.

One danger with imaginary experience is that it can work even when it shouldn't. If you imagine getting a ticket every time you park in a no parking zone, you won't want to park in a no parking zone, even if in reality the police never give tickets for that. Try not to misinform your Inferential System.

Solution #3: Getting the Big Picture

Your Wants depend on what you are attending to. (Psychologists call this framing.) For example, suppose a student has a test the next day. If the student doesn’t think about the test, the student might want to have fun; if the student thinks about the test, the student is likely to want to study. The next time you find yourself in a conflict between your Shoulds and Wants, see what happens to your Want when you change what your are attending to.

In games, sports, arts, and vacationing, you can and should attend to just the present. And you can attend only to yourself. If real life, this narrow focus is not good. Instead, to be responsible and accurate in your flow, you have to get the big picture. This means that you must attend to other people. Of course, your actions won’t be that effective if you are ignoring others. When you attend to others, you consider your actions on them and learn about the consequences of your actions on them.

You also must include the future in your big picture. Sure, your flow can lead you to playing games rather than doing something you should, if you ignore the future. But if you start thinking about the future and the consequences of what you are doing, what does your flow lead to then?

Focusing only on the future, or only on others, isn’t correct either. The big picture includes the future and the present; it includes others and it includes yourself.

Getting the big picture requires mental effort. I think this will impair your enjoyment of flow. However, it is necessary for your flow to be effective. Meanwhile, flow allows you to get the big picture by freeing up your conscious mind.