Flow and Culture
Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos, designed to reduce the impact of randomness on experience…cultures prescribe norms, evolve goals, build beliefs that help us tackle the challenges of existence. In so doing they must rule out many alternative goals and beliefs, and thereby limit possibilities; but this channeling of attention to a limited set of goals and means is what allows effortless action within self-centered boundaries. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 81)
Moneta (2004a) asserted, “we still know little about the features, situational/personal determinants, and behavioral/psychological implications as well as consequences of flow in non-Western cultures” (p. 146). Therefore, there may be validity concerns when applying flow theory with its Western model of self, that is fundamentally independent or autonomous, to Eastern models of self that are interdependent or collectivist (Asakawa, 2010). Due to different conceptualization of self, flow may be culturally biased and may not accurately assess optimal psychology in Eastern collectivist cultures.
Flow and culture: Western flow versus Eastern flow. Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2002) emphasized “the [flow] experience is the same across lines of culture, class, gender, and age, as well as across kinds of activity” (p. 90). Asakawa (2010) argued, “cultures affect how people experience flow” (p. 220). Moneta (2004a; 2004b) claimed that internalization of cultural values and self-perception moderate the flow model. Diversity of cultural values, including differing ways of conceptualizing and engaging with a sense of self, make flow dynamic; how one experiences it changes depending on their culture. Most researchers of culture and flow highlighted difference in how people experience flow in the Eastern cultures of China and Japan compared to the Western cultures of North American.
Westerners conceptualize the self as fundamentally independent; Easterners’ model of self is fundamentally interdependent (Moneta, 2004a; 2004b). A Western conception of self reflects a tendency to construe personal existence as separate from the social context and others (Moneta, 2004a; 2004b). On the other hand, Eastern sense of self is interdependent and reflects the tendency to construe individual existence as a holistic part of the social context united with others (Moneta, 2004a; 2004b). A Western sense of self favors the pursuit of unique goals that occurs through the skill-stretching process of flow (Moneta, 2004a; 2004b). An Eastern sense of self may result in a weaker desire to be unique and less inclination toward the challenge-skill balance. Moneta (2004a; 2004b) asserted that Easterners have a greater need to maintain social harmony.
Moneta (2010b) explained that Chinese individuals often seek a state of optimal functioning that differs from the Anglo-Saxon Western concept of flow. Chinese people experience flow informed by “Taoist and Confucianism principles of prudence, attention to detail, balance between proactivity and receptiveness, and inter-connectedness with others” (Iyengar & Lepper, 1999, p. 125). Chinese cultures promote social harmony and values or behaviors that achieve it (Moneta, 2010b). These cultures encourage conforming behavior over adventure or exploration, which are the epitome of North American concepts of flow. The Chinese approach to challenges may change their optimal challenge/skill balance to be heavily biased toward skills. Unlike more autonomous American individuals, Chinese athletes may feel motivated by safer mastery-practice approaches to challenges.
Japan and self-criticism. Asakawa (2010) noted that Japanese people experience flow in a uniquely cultural way. Japanese college students experienced Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow significantly less than their Western counterparts. Asakawa (2010) explained that North American and Western European cultures have a self-enhancement tendency and people in Asian cultures have a self-criticism tendency (Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto, & Norasakkunkit, 1997; Markus & Kitayama 1991). Kitayama et al. (1997) stated, “in Japanese culture self-criticism represents a constructive process, allowing Japanese individuals to obtain information vital to maintaining and supporting the social group norms that are valued over Western concept of individuality, autonomy, or uniqueness” (p. 115). Japanese people often focus on their shortcomings and try to fix weaknesses for group cohesion. Therefore, Japanese people may experience less of a Western version of flow because they concentrate less on individualized activity and more on social impact. Therefore, Japanese people may not lose their sense of self-consciousness in activities in the same way Anglo-Saxon individualistic Westerners do. Flow theory may not apply for people from more collectivist cultures (Asakawa, 2010).