The Flow of Life: It Matters What You Do Before Arriving
Imagine life as a journey around the world. How would you approach it? As Fitzhugh Dodson argues, “Without goals, and plans to reach them, we are like a ship that has set sail with no destination”: We need to know where to go to make a journey successful. Yet, the destination is not its only important element. Once we have set sail towards our destination, the daily tasks of how to reach it become the focus of our attention. Some of these tasks may be so engaging as to be deeply meaningful in themselves. In other words, the specific destination we want to arrive at may matter less, but more so the process—the journey itself. This creates a paradox: To make our metaphorical journey successful, we strive for goals in the future; to make it meaningful, we try to live in the here and now. How do we resolve this contradiction, making our lives successful and meaningful?
To begin, we require some psychological theory: How do we set goals and create plans that give direction to our journey? A useful start are superordinate goals, abstract visions of a future self we strive to be, motivated by personal values. Figuratively, superordinate goals lay out a broad map of the journey ahead. In 2010, Jessica Watson became the then-youngest human ever to sail solo around the world at age 16 (portrayed in the recent Netflix film True Spirit). Why did she initiate such an ambitious journey? As she puts it: “For me, it was always about the challenge of making this voyage. You are only as big as the dreams you dare to live.” Why superordinate goals, if originating from such authentic dreams, can be so strong: They deeply reflect our passions and interests. You have to care for what you do! That intrinsic motivation creates stronger effort and a sense of fulfillment when achieving a goal.
However, knowing what to strive for, we are yet left with the question of how to proceed in detail. Classically, goal-setting theory advises us to set subordinate goals that concretely define what to do and how to do it. Those goals represent intermediate destinations we reach on our journey. In this way, a superordinate goal encapsulates a map of subordinate goals.
Most important, however, is the path we take towards these destinations: specifying each step. Only by planning and implementing specific actions, we gradually progress on our way around the world. Therefore, the more specific our subordinate goal, the easier we turn intentions into actions.
Moreover, what motivates effort is an adequate level of challenge. Importantly, no matter how difficult the task actually is, we must perceive the challenge posed by the task to be met by our skills: If the challenge outweighs our skills, we feel overloaded; if our skills predominate, we feel bored; but a perceived balance creates strong motivation.
Clearly, few of us will set sail for a world expedition soon. Luckily, smaller-scale journeys can be meaningful too! To give a more everyday example, suppose we commit to living a healthier life. Even though this superordinate goal creates an initial intention, we may be uncertain how to start and continue along this path—if it wasn’t for subordinate goals. By specifying the when, where, how, and what of particular actions, those provide a step-by-step procedure of approaching long-term visions. Say, we plan and implement ten push-ups each morning after getting out of bed, something that is easy to keep track of and eventually creates a good habit.
However, as the broad map laid out by our superordinate goal reminds us, a healthy lifestyle involves many more steps: We initially decide to introduce specific breakfast diets and a consistent sleep schedule, eventually we adjust our routines to match our current skills (by increasing the number of push-ups or by going for additional twenty-minute runs on Tuesdays and Saturdays, for example). In this way, superordinate goals provide long-term orientation in our goal pursuit. In short, how we find our way along the map: Deeply authentic superordinate goals motivate our effort, specific (and challenging) subordinate goals put that into practice—step by step!
So far, good goal setting gave us the ingredients to make our journey successful. What eventually makes it meaningful, however, is the journey itself: It is not the outcome that makes a journey what it is, but the process, each step taken across our broad map. That is, good goal setting makes a journey, but what makes a good journey is the initial goals losing importance as the journey becomes an end in itself. In scientific terms, this is described as an autotelic experience, from the Greek αὐτοτελής (autos as “self” and telos as “goal”). Captured well is this characteristic in the experience of flow: such an intense absorption in the present moment that we lose track of time, all our activity flows effortlessly and is inherently pleasurable.4 In other words, we take each step on our journey for its own sake, fully focusing on the process itself—a process that continuously takes place in the here and now, as behaviors carried out in the pursuit of a subordinate goal. Life happens in the present moment, so why don’t we give it our full attention?
What is yet missing? A bridging element: How can goal setting facilitate flow? The decisive hint can be found in the previous lines: Flow can only be realized in a concrete activity—a behavior aimed at achieving a subordinate goal. The more specific and optimally challenging the goal, the more likely a flow state is reached. However, focusing on the present step is easier, too, when we care for what we do: If they are authentic, superordinate goals make us intrinsically motivated. In sum: Flow is experienced in the actual pursuit of a subordinate goal, but subordinate goals acquire meaning only within a greater vision, the superordinate goal.
Taken together, we can resolve life’s paradox: Smartly set goals allow us to deeply focus our attention on the present activity, to experience flow. Metaphorically: Set good goals to start the journey of life, but remember to forget them by making the journey a goal in itself! Like this, you may eventually experience runner’s high in your pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, an intense euphoric state with effortless sporting activity. In turn, that benefits your goal pursuit.
Importantly, flow can be experienced in any activity. But: It is never guaranteed.5 If you approached this (admittedly complex) reading in the mindset you just learnt about, you may have found yourself having a flowingly easy time! In brief: Whether running, reading or sailing, all make us realize what a meaningful life means—flowing by fully being in the here and now. As John Lennon beautifully describes it: Imagine all the people, living for today.
Photo by Artak Petrosyan
 Höchli, B., Brügger, A., & Messner, C. (2018). How focusing on superordinate goals motivates broad, long-term goal pursuit: A theoretical perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01879
 Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: The self-concordance model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 482–497. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1242
 Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2013). Goal setting theory, 1990. In E. A. Locke & G. P. Latham (Eds.), New developments in goal setting and task performance. (pp. 3–15). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.
 Norsworthy, C., Jackson, B., & Dimmock, J. A. (2021). Advancing our understanding of psychological flow: A scoping review of conceptualizations, measurements, and applications. Psychological Bulletin, 147(8), 806–827. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000337.supp (Supplemental)