Finding Purpose in Life—Flow Isn’t Everything

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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If you can regularly reach a state of flow in your life, does that mean you’ll always feel happy and fulfilled? What are the three kinds of life purpose?

Even if you’re often in a state of flow, that doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Finding purpose in life is just as important as finding flow. To live a balanced, meaningful life, cultivate a sense of purpose to guide the goals and activities you pursue.

Continue reading to learn why finding purpose in life is so important.

Finding Meaning in Life

Achieving flow in one or more activities doesn’t mean your life will feel unified and purposeful. For example, Bobby Fischer was an outstanding chess player but didn’t function well when he wasn’t playing. To live a balanced, meaningful life, cultivate a sense of purpose to guide the goals and activities you pursue and relate them to each other, making your life into one large flow experience. 

This article describes how to accomplish this, and includes three stages of finding meaning:

  1. Find an overarching purpose, or goal, for your life.
  2. Dedicate yourself to the goal.
  3. Achieve harmony.

We’ll now go over each of these and what they mean in detail.

1. Find an Overarching Purpose, or Goal, for Your Life

Although there isn’t one universally accepted meaning of life or supreme being, you can give meaning to your own life by choosing an overarching goal that has a clear outcome, rules of engagement, and requires significant energy. For example, you might want to raise children capable of living successful lives, or you might seek a cure for pancreatic cancer. 

This section will discuss types of life purposes and how individuals and cultures shape them.

Note: Having an overarching purpose that consumes most of your energy doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a good life. Mother Theresa dedicated her life to helping the poor, while Napoleon dedicated his to amassing power. Though both had purpose and likely experienced flow, how Napoleon spent his life raises ethical questions. This summary defines the purpose of life as finding meaning that gives order to your consciousness and life. 

Characteristics of a Beneficial Life Purpose

There are three kinds of life purposes:

  1. Authentic or discovered versus inauthentic. According to existential philosophers, you have an authentic life purpose when you’re motivated intrinsically to achieve your purpose. Your purpose aligns with your goals and beliefs, and you decide to pursue it based on personal experience, recognizing that it’s your choice to pursue it. An inauthentic purpose is when you do something because you think it’s what others expect of you or are doing themselves. 
  2. Accepted. Like an inauthentic life purpose, an accepted life purpose is when you accept a life purpose developed by someone else. For example, you may accept the meaning of life given to you by your religious institution. 
  3. Afterlife-inclusive. Social philosophers have argued that people need a purpose that encompasses how they think about life and the afterlife. For example, Ancient Greeks sought to achieve heroic deeds that would be commemorated in stories or songs that would survive them. Christians, on the other hand, opt for acts in service of God so they can go to heaven. Both are examples of making life into one large flow experience where all acts serve one unified purpose. 

The Phases of Life Purpose Development

Finding purpose in life involves alternating between focusing on yourself and focusing on the world around you, differentiating yourself from others in your community and becoming more ingrained in your community. Here are the four stages of developing your life’s purpose:

  1. Keeping yourself alive. This means satisfying your basic needs, including finding pleasure and comfort.
  2. Finding meaning in community. Once your basic needs are met, you seek communities to find meaning and purpose—for example, your family, religious groups, or your neighborhood. During this phase, you may conform to the norms in the community in order to fit in, but you still become more complex in the process.
  3. Regaining autonomy. In this phase, you continue to participate in your communities, but you’re no longer simply conforming to them: You return your attention to yourself and recognize the value your individuality brings to your groups. This leads to the desire to continue growing and improving yourself.
  4. Reintegration with the community. After working on self-improvement, you’re ready to integrate your interests with those of your communities.

Not everyone has the opportunity to progress through these phases. For example, if you’re focused on just getting enough to eat for you and your family, you may stay in the first phase for most of your life. Most people make it to the second phase, finding value in conforming to the communities around them but not attempting to differentiate themselves within them. Fewer still reach the third or fourth stages. 

How Culture Shapes Your Life Purpose  

In Chapter 9, we discussed how difficult circumstances can shape your life purpose. Additionally, culture can shape your purpose in life in two ways: valuing a certain life purpose, and offering art that imparts useful knowledge about life. 

Western Cultural Phases: Built-in Purpose

Sociologist Pitirim Sorokin identified three western cultural phases, each offering different meanings of life. Western societies rotate through the phases, though a phase can range from a few decades to a few centuries. 

Sorokin’s three phases are:

  1. Sensate. In sensate cultures, people find meaning in meeting others’ needs and making life easier and more pleasurable through tangible means, including religion, food, art, and music—though it doesn’t necessarily mean the culture is more materialistic. However, becoming materialistic can make people perpetually dissatisfied with what they have. Europe was a sensate culture between 440 B.C.E. and 200 C.E., and it has entered that phase again in the past century. 
  2. Ideational. Ideational cultures are the opposite of sensate cultures: People are more interested in abstract goals than tangible pleasures. Ideology and religion are valued because they provide a clear picture of how life should be and the commitment to achieving it. It’s not about making life easier, but about realizing a spiritual or ideological order. At its worst, ideational culture is extremely restrictive of materialism in favor of ideological pursuits. An example of this is Nazi Germany, which persecuted Jewish people as part of its quest to achieve a racially superior society. At its best, though it’s difficult to measure success in working toward abstract goals, it’s also difficult to measure failure. 
  3. Idealistic. An idealistic culture combines the best elements of sensate and ideational cultures while avoiding their pitfalls: Enjoying some tangible, sense-based and materialistic experience while also striving for spiritual fulfillment. Western Europe embodied these ideas in the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance. 

Elements of sensate and ideational cultures are present in most societies at any given time. For example, in the U.S., influencer culture focuses on selling products to consumers by marketing them as something that will enhance peoples’ lives, while more conservative religious groups encourage eschewing everyday pleasures to satisfy God’s will. Individuals can embody the ideals of each, as well. Entrepreneurs who try to make the world a better place embody sensate culture, while people like Hugh Heffner, founder of Playboy Magazine, embody the more indulgent aspects of it. 

As we’ve discussed, enjoyment also depends on adding complexity to tasks, so this is another way to evaluate the effectiveness of these cultures. For example, a sensate culture that is materialistic but thoughtfully ordered and provides opportunities for reflection is more valuable than an ideational culture that’s focused on conformity to religious ideals without offering time for reflection. 

Art: Useful Life Lessons

You may think you need to develop meaning and knowledge from scratch. While this can work, you can also find them through art that provides ways to order consciousness, or conveys lessons you can apply to your own life. Dance and drama are examples of enjoyable activities in which you may experience a flow state, while reading books may provide an enjoyable experience, and provide useful knowledge about how to live your life. For example, in Csikszentmihalyi’s research, a social scientist described how the fraught social and political circumstances in A Tale of Two Cities motivated him to research the roots of conflict. Learning about people who overcame challenges can offer you a guide for overcoming similar challenges.

Even having a parent or other trusted figure read to you or tell you a story at a young age could shape your life’s purpose. In Csikszentmihalyi’s research, people who didn’t develop goals or adopted a goal without asking questions didn’t remember their parents reading to them at a young age. 

2. Dedicate Yourself to the Goal

Once you know what your purpose is, find the time and energy to dedicate yourself to a specific goal that’ll help you fulfill it. Here are two challenges that may arise, and how to deal with them:

  1. You have too many goals competing for your attention. There are often many goals we can dedicate our attention to that’ll help fulfill our purpose. But when you face too many choices, you drain your energy deciding which one to pursue. Having a clear goal with clear rules to follow makes it easier to commit to working on it. Before deciding to commit to a goal, ask yourself whether it’s truly something you’ll enjoy doing.
  2. You know what you want to do, but lack the energy to do it. If you know what you’d like to do, but you can’t find the energy to do it, then you’ll waste time feeling upset that you can’t channel your energy into tangible action. But even if you don’t ultimately achieve the goal, working on the goal can help you gain valuable skills and experience, and it may help you decide what to do next. 

3. Achieve Inner Harmony.

Finding your purpose and dedicating yourself to specific goals helps you achieve inner harmony in two ways:

  1. You have more opportunities to act than you’re capable of taking on, yet you feel equipped to act on an above-average number of opportunities. Though you can’t accomplish everything, what you accomplish is significant because it exceeds expectations. However, you have to deal with an appropriate level of challenge—if you don’t feel challenged, you’ll be bored, but if you’re overly challenged, you’ll feel anxious.
  2. You lessen psychic entropy. Pursuing your goals focuses your attention on achieving those goals and away from underlying worries, such as loneliness.
Finding Purpose in Life—Flow Isn’t Everything

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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