Our Tech Superpowers Are No Match for ‘Flow’

From jet planes to social media, modern technology gives us the alluring but empty sensation of power without effort.

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2022.

Effortless power is a defining feature of what we began, roughly 150 years ago, to call “modern” life. In countless domains, technology has equipped human beings to vastly increase the sensation of strength while vastly reducing the sensation of effort. A world-class weightlifter is physically powerful, but anyone can see that performing an Olympic deadlift requires tremendous physical, mental and even emotional strain, prepared for by years of training. Someone operating a forklift, on the other hand, can lift far more weight than any athlete with almost no exertion at all.

The sensation of extraordinary capacities without effort has a name, long applied to comic book heroes but now available to all of us: superpowers.

Social media, for example, has given almost everyone a taste of the kind of recognition and affirmation that used to be available only to a handful of movie stars and television personalities. From Facebook to Instagram to the latest app on a 15-year-old’s home screen, a series of platforms have granted us low-friction relationships, along with highly visible cues of our status and standing with others. They have given us recognition and influence at a distance: social superpowers.

Every exercise of superpowers involves a trade: You have to leave part of yourself behind.

It’s increasingly clear, however, that superpowers come at a cost. Every exercise of superpowers involves a trade: You have to leave part of yourself behind.

Picture yourself on a commercial aircraft, flying at such high speeds that for all practical purposes you might be experiencing the teleportation of science fiction—for what does it really matter if it takes minutes or hours to traverse a continent or an ocean? It’s a superpower.

But to have this experience, you must be willing to put essential parts of yourself on hold. Your body is designed for movement, but for the duration of the flight you will be expected to be unnaturally still (not to mention, at least in economy class, effectively confined to a tiny space). Your senses are dulled too. If you were to make the same journey of hundreds or thousands of miles by horse, bicycle or sailboat—all of them non-superpower modes of transport—those senses would be alive like few other times in your life, calling forth emotional, intellectual and even spiritual responses at the sight of mountains, the sharp snap of cold air, the bite of the wind, the brilliance of the stars.

Instead, on this journey your senses recede. Among the first to go at high altitude is taste, which is why the flavors of airline food and drink are made deliberately simple. Your mind, too, feels like it is slowly turning to mush, even before you distract yourself by turning on the romantic comedy offered by the in-flight entertainment system. It’s a movie you would never watch in any other circumstance, but somehow now it is strangely appealing.

To be sure, the superpower zone doesn’t always feel as passive as air travel has become. Indeed, it can be exhilarating, as when I floor the accelerator in my car or, for that matter, open up my notifications and swipe them away, one after another, with the flick of a finger. In these moments, the superpower zone resembles the times of peak performance—acting decisively and creatively, with focus and energy—that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularized years ago as “flow.”

The superpower zone, at its most beguiling, comes close to flow, which is why so much consumer spending is devoted to its pursuit. We buy a drone so we can vicariously fly; we buy headphones so we can be immersed in sound. We open up a news feed in our browser and find ourselves drawn in to novelty, amusement or outrage served up at whatever pace our appetite desires.

But the exhilaration of the superpower zone is quite different from flow—most clearly in the way it begins and the way it ends. The superpower zone begins with a sensation of rushing power, excitement and anticipation. Often we feel a sense of accomplishment even before anything has really happened—a surge of pleasure, for example, as the familiar title sequence of our current Netflix series begins to play.

Flow—which I experience most often on 20-mile bicycle rides through the Pennsylvania countryside, and just often enough when I sit down for writing and other creative tasks—begins very differently. Not infrequently, it begins with resistance: the fear of difficulty, effort and uncertain results. Only after I have overcome my initial reluctance and procrastination does my mood begin, subtly and almost imperceptibly, to shift.

And while the ending of flow—the conclusion of a bike ride or a writing session or a live performance—generally brings a sense of calm and gratitude, exiting the superpower zone is quite different. For one thing, we rarely do so willingly. Just watch a 10-year-old called away from his videogame to the family meal. He has been immersed in a world of superpowers, of lightning-fast reflexes and capacity for action. For a time he has had the abilities of an NFL quarterback or a Navy SEAL in combat; now it’s time to be a 10-year-old again. No wonder he dithers and delays, up to the point of defiant fury. (There is, after all, no dinner hour in the superpower zone.)

And yet, for all the ways we cling to the superpower zone as we are dragged off by a parent, a spouse or other responsibilities, when we look back, our memories of our time spent there are strangely inert. If we can remember the experience at all, it seems that we were in some kind of alternate universe that cannot touch or inform our own—which in fact is precisely true. We have none of the rich, grateful memories that we do of our moments of real flow. We can recall, perhaps, that we were feeling pleasure and potency, but the pleasure and potency themselves are absent. All that is left is a hollow sense of loss.

There’s another catch: Any superpower delivers its initial rush of excitement only a few times. In its early decades, air travel with all its passive luxury was an exhilarating experience, but it has dwindled into tedium. Perhaps you dream of becoming a regular traveler by private jet, but should that happen to you, the same exact pattern will play out. The first few trips will be thrilling, and you will hardly be able to resist taking out your smartphone to document the moment. Over time, though, travel by private jet subsides just as completely as commercial air travel to a distant, dull roar.

Flow, on the other hand, does not seem to subside in the same way. I experience just as much serenity and joy on my bike today—maybe more—as I did on my first long rides as a teenager nearly 40 years ago. Though it cannot be coerced or captured, flow is mysteriously, graciously renewed over the course of our lives.

The secret to being human in a technological age may come down to this: Every time we are tempted to acquire superpowers, we should choose the fullness of heart, soul, mind and strength instead.