The Dark Side of Flow (1/2)

The Dark Side of Flow (1/2)

The Dark Side of Flow (1/2)

Theorists often describe flow-state as an 'optimal' experience linked to positive consequences.  While this is true, it is not the whole story.

Let's explore the whole story; that is, the dichotomous consequences of flow.

While flow is an optimal state of body/mind functioning, it does not always lead to positive consequences in ones life.

Csikszentmihalyi warned early on in 1990 that “while flow is a powerful motivator, it does not guarantee virtue in those who experience it... like other forms of energy, from fire to nuclear fission, [flow] can be used for both positive and destructive ends.

Flow and self-regulation

The Dark Side of Flow became the focal point of my three year  dissertation study. My dissertation was titled, Shining Light on the Dark Side of Flow: Is Mindfulness in High-Flow-State Athletes Predictive of Improved Emotion-Regulation and Self-Control?.

I came to understood the Dark Side of Flow to be it's potential to cause negative consequences towards self-regulation.

Self-regulation represents our ability to stay engaged in long-term goals and personal values. Self-control, synonymous with self-regulation, is fundamental to goal attainment.

The Dark Side of Flow may result from the complete absorption of self and narrowing of attention which occurs when in flow-state.

With the self gone, we can loose emotional and behavioural flexibility needed to adjust effectively to our current context. Cognitive flexibility is the challenge. Our typical goal-oriented nature can get the best of us if we can't pump the breaks, and be cool with where were at.

Gift or curse?

Continually taking on increasing challenges in order to achieve flow can also place people in danger. This is flows gift but may also be its curse.

Flow leads to personal growth but we can also become too absorbed into actions. We can end up deviating from our long-term goals, values and concerns for our very survival.

The Dark Side of Flow is also fuelled by an addiction-flow link.

The sense of control and effortlessness experienced in flow is deeply rewarding.

This makes us want it more and more.

When in flow people can become so involved in an activity that nothing else can matter to them.

They enjoy the experience itself, so much that they are willing to do it even at great cost.

The experience itself is what rewards the action, not the consequence. This type of internal motivation is usually a benefit, but not always.

Add powerful neurochemicals and it becomes appropriate that flow is addictive.

This addiction may lead to an attachment to find flow. And an attachment to flow can create difficulties coping with the mundane activities of daily life.

Flow junkies and bliss junkies

In other words, the great highs in flow may lead to great lows. Steven Kotler (2014) explained “the dark night of the flow happens when people glimpse the state and can’t get back there which can turn flow junkies into bliss junkies.”  

We don't want to be bliss junkies. Bliss junkies have no self-control.  Bliss junkies are inevitably destined for self-destruction, not self-transcendence.

Everyone is susceptible to the negative consequences of the Dark Side of Flow. After all, flow by its very nature impairs our ability to remain self-aware.

Research into the dark side of flow

Here is a quick glance at the original research into the dark side of flow.  

Partington et al., (2009) found Flow correlated with dependence in big wave surfing.

Thatcher et al., (2008) found an addiction-flow link, namely  addiction in online gaming and Internet use.

Schüler and Nakamura (2013) found a decreased risk awareness and increased risky behavior.

Harari (2008), also noted how flow can be experienced in Anti-social behavior such as the act of killing another person.  

Based on this research, those who do not experience significant flow in their lives may utilize anti-social behaviours to find it.

So what?

Knowing of flow's dark side is not enough. High-Flow state individuals may benefit from deliberate practices to protect themselves from self-control failure.

In my future posts I will further shine light on flow's dark side. I intend to coach you up on how to maintain self-control while also leveraging flow in your business, sport and life.

Remember, we want flow. But we want to control flow. We don't want flow to control us.

Hint: In my future posts we will focus on the development of adaptive emotion-regulation. Adaptive emotion regulation appears to be your key to managing flow for good.

Check yourself.

In the mean time, see how much you agree with the statements below.

It's a quick way to gauge your relationship to the Dark Side of flow and self-control failure.

  • I have a difficult time stepping away from the internet, video games, and social media.
  • I get distracted easily by my emotions and often want to feel happier or more in the zone.
  • I say and do inappropriate things that are out of the norm for others.
  • I'm poor at refusing activities that are not inline with my values
  • I struggle at resisting temptation for immediate gratification
  • People would say that I have very poor self-discipline.
  • Seeking Flow-state sometimes keeps me from getting work done.
  • I enjoy high-risk situations and sometimes underestimate my vulnerability.
  • When I am in my groove, I can’t stop myself and want to keep that feeling going on forever.
  • I will do anything to get back into flow-state.
  • I often act in an unconscious rush without thinking through all the alternatives.

Actionable Step

Make a list of the contexts in which you are vulnerable to experience the dark side of flow. We can only  master that which we are aware of.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Harari, Y. N. (2008). Combat flow: Military, political, and ethical dimensions of subjective well- being in war. Review of General Psychology, 12, 253-264.

Kotler, S. (2014a). The rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance. Boston, MA: New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kotler, S. (2014b). How far will you go for greatness? The dark side of flow/rise of Superman [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjSbgQ46GjE

Partington, S., Partington, E., & Olivier, S. (2009). The dark side of flow: A qualitative study of dependence in big wave surfing. The Sport Psychologist, 23(2), 170.

Schüler. (2012). The dark side of the moon. In S. Engeser (Ed.), Advances in flow research (pp. 123-138). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Schüler, J., & Nakamura, J. (2013). Does flow experience lead to risk? how and for whom. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being, 5(3), 311-331.

Thatcher, A., Wretschko, G., & Fridjhon, P. (2008). Online flow experiences, problematic internet use and internet procrastination. Computers in Human Behavior 24, 2236-54.

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