The Influence of Culture on Flow Experiences

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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What is the influence of culture on flow experiences? What do some cultures do to promote flow? What are some cultural norms that may discourage flow?

Culture has a huge influence on flow. Some cultures provide ample opportunities for people to fulfill themselves while some are more structured and limit the people’s opportunities. Additionally, research actually shows that more leisure time does not lead to more flow.

Keep reading to learn about the cultural influence on flow.

Culture and Flow

The influence of culture changes how you experience flow. Cultures are structured to minimize disorder with norms, beliefs, and opportunities for fulfillment. For example, successful governments convince people that supporting the government will help them achieve happiness. While cultural structure can limit people’s opportunities, it can also streamline their success by helping people channel their energy into achieving a narrow set of goals. When people work toward specific, challenging goals, they’re more likely to enter flow.

The degree to which cultures actually help people succeed in pursuing their goals and experiencing flow varies widely. It’s easy to judge the success of a culture based on your own culturally shaped values about what success means. To avoid this, and focus on the goals of the people living in a given culture, evaluate success based on:

  • Whether the culture provides opportunities that align with peoples’ goals
  • Whether as many people as possible have the ability to work toward their goals and become complex and skilled over time

Two Cultures That Promote Flow

Some cultures provide ample access to flow experiences. Here are two examples:

  • The Shushwap region in British Columbia provided an abundance of resources for local native tribes. People lived in the same villages for 25-30 years, enjoying access to plentiful resources such as salmon and tubers. Eventually, the elders of the tribe recognized that their tribe’s level of enjoyment had waned: Life was too predictable and no one felt challenged. To overcome this experience, the elders relocated their village to another area where they had to learn how to survive in new terrain, such as the routes prey traveled, where to gather tubers, and the best fishing spots in nearby rivers. The move also helped the previous area they’d lived in recover from their use.
  • One pygmy group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo expects all members to contribute to the enrichment of each other and the tribe. In addition to activities for survival, such as hunting or fishing, members of the group are expected to make art, tell stories, sing, and more.

Why Some Cultures Fall Short

Why do some cultures fall short in offering flow experiences? Here are five scenarios:

  • The government or culture makes it difficult to survive. When people are focused on survival, they don’t have time or energy to grow their skills and become more complex.
  • There’s too much structure. Similarly, if the culture or government creates too much structure in everyday life, there isn’t time or opportunity for people to seek out meaningful, enjoyable activities.
  • Societies respond to adverse situations in ways that don’t benefit the people in the long term. Over time, these responses can become ingrained in cultural customs because people think it’s their only option. For example, Dobu Islanders were steeped in a culture of fear: They believed they could be subjected to sorcery or betrayal from the environment, family, or community at any time. Dobu leaders weren’t trying to make life difficult for their people when they created these customs—they were just responding to their circumstances. 
  • Members of society are forced to do things that don’t align with their goals. This creates alienation. For example, a factory worker who has to do the same menial task for hours each day and does so only because they need to feed their family is less likely to experience flow than someone holding a job they like. Alienation is akin to boredom. 
  • Members of society experience a loss of order or meaning in everyday life. This is called anomie. When it isn’t clear what rules people should follow or what people value, those who depend on societal order for their own personal order start worrying. For example, this can occur when prosperity increases quickly and a long-held value like hard work becomes less relevant. It can also occur during an economic downturn when it can be harder to find work, which makes it harder to meet basic needs.

Measuring Success

We don’t have a definitive way to measure how successful different cultures are at providing flow experiences, but surveys offer clues. For example, development, wealth, and the stability of a government increase the likelihood that a country’s residents will report living more fulfilling lives. Despite high rates of divorce and crime compared to other developed countries, the U.S. ranks high for the level of satisfaction among its residents. Csikszentmihalyi attributes this to how much time and money we spend on happiness-enhancing activities—the average U.S. resident spends their waking hours each week in the following ways:

  • 30 hours working
  • 10 hours “working” (talking to coworkers, daydreaming, and other goofing off)
  • 20 hours doing leisure activities like watching TV, socializing, exercising, or reading
  • 50-60 hours on bodily maintenance and unstructured free time

Note: Leisure time doesn’t translate to time in a flow state. As we’ve discussed, the leisure activities many gravitate toward, like watching TV, don’t produce a flow state. You’re four times more likely to experience flow doing your work than watching TV. This is one of the biggest paradoxes of our times: We have more time for leisure activities, yet we don’t seem to enjoy our lives more than previous generations. This is because having opportunities for enjoyment isn’t enough—developing the skills to enjoy opportunities and developing the ability to control consciousness are just as important. Without these abilities, we can end up overwhelmed with the resources available to us or bored because we don’t push ourselves to develop our skills.

The Influence of Culture on Flow Experiences

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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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