Quarantine Conditions Conspire Against “Flow”

(p. A24) Because I’m a mother, and because I once wrote a book about modern parenthood, I’ve spent a lot of time these days trying to diagnose why it is, exactly, that the nerves of so many parents have been torn to ribbons in the age of quarantine.

. . .

. . . : “Flow” is that heavenly state of total absorption in a project. Your sense of time vanishes; it’s just you and the task at hand, whether it’s painting or sinking shots through a basketball hoop.

It turns out that flow is critical to our well-being during this strange time of self-exile. A few weeks ago I spoke to Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who recently collaborated on a survey of 5,115 people under quarantine in China. To her surprise, the people who best tolerated their confinement were not the most mindful or optimistic; they were the ones who’d found the most flow. She suspected it was why Americans have spent the last two months baking bread and doing puzzles. “They’re intuitively seeking out flow activities,” she said.

Flow, unfortunately, is rare in family life. The father of flow research, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, told me so point-blank when I wrote my book. When kids are small, their developing brains actually conspire against flow, because they’re wired to sweep in as much stimuli as possible, rather than to focus; even when they’re older, they’re still churning windmills of need.

And that’s during the best of times. Now, not only are we looking after our children, an inherently non-flow activity, and not only are we supervising their schoolwork and recreational pursuits — two things we used to outsource — but we’re working.

You need a stretch of continuous, unmolested time to do good work. Instead, your day is a torrent of interruptions, endlessly divided and subdivided, a Zeno’s paradox of infinite tasks. There’s no flow at all.

For the full commentary, see:

Jennifer Senior. “We’re Not Really Parenting. We’re Managing Parenthood in a Pandemic.” The New York Times (Monday, May 25, 2020): A24.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 24, 2020, and the title “Camp Is Canceled. Three More Months of Family Time. Help.”)

The book Senior mentions above, is:

Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.

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