Becoming Neo: Using Flow to Mitigate Homesickness

For most people, the idea of living alone, thousands of miles away from friends and family is intimidating. The loss of daily interactions with familiar faces and overcoming the challenges posed by living in a different culture with the support of family and friends can induce feelings of helplessness, anxiety and general homesickness.

Having lived alone in Asia since 2014, I have marinated in my own sense of loneliness and homesickness in both Hong Kong and Vietnam. In the past, my solution to overcome those feelings were typical of a 20-something male: suppression and beer.

Surprise! That solution didn’t work.

Thankfully, I have since come across the incredibly enlightening Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Specifically, it is his book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness that has helped me to structure my life in a far more productive way as well as help me mitigate the feelings of homesickness I once felt.

I suggest you get the book for yourself, but to entice you, below is a very simplistic summary of “flow,” why it is so effective at calming feelings of homesickness, and how to build flow into your life.

What is Flow?

Though you may not have heard the term “flow” before, you have probably heard of the concept which is often colloquially referred to as “being in the zone.” It is an experience of deep immersion in a task or activity, and certain activities lend themselves to experiencing flow better than others.  

Flow activities have some very distinct characteristics. Csikszentmihalyi describes the main characteristics of flow activities as the following:

  • They have rules that require the learning of skills
  • They set up goals
  • They provide feedback
  • They make control possible
  • They facilitate concentration
  • They are distinct from other everyday activities
  • They require deep but effortless involvement
  • They are also autotelic, meaning that they can be done for the sake of doing them.

If you are having trouble zeroing in on what a specific flow activity might looks like, here is a list of a few from the book and my own experience:

  • Most, if not all, sports
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Art (painting, sculpting, etc.)
  • Gardening
  • Walking your dog (without other stimuli like music)
  • Yoga
  • Sailing
  • Martial arts
  • Weight lifting

All of these activities share the characteristics mentioned above. They all include goals, they are all structured in some way, they require physical and/or emotional effort, and they can be done just for the sake of doing them. And, importantly, they are activities that you can get lost in.

Csikszentmihalyi describes the experience of flow itself as one that “…removes from awareness the worries and frustration of everyday life..” and “concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.” You may also feel that “…the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.”

Reading is a fantastic flow activity.

The experience of flow as described by Csikszentmihalyi may sound a bit new agey, but you have probably experienced flow before. If you have ever had an intimate conversation with a friend that felt like minutes but actually stretched for hours or have become so engrossed in a book you finished half of it without even realizing it, you have experienced flow.

But if all of these activities are flow activities, what activities don’t induce flow?

Why Netflix, Binge Eating, and Alcohol are Bad Solutions to Homesickness

Before we talk about how flow activities can help with homesickness, let’s take a look at some of the typical homesickness solutions and why they don’t induce flow and thus don’t solve our homesickness problem.  

Everyone copes with homesickness differently but most people turn to indulging in what Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “pleasures.” These include “good food, good sex, and all the comforts money can buy.” These are activities that give us “a feeling of contentment.” You can reflect for yourself about what your pleasures might be, but they can include big bowls of ice cream, watching six hours of Breaking Bad, using drugs, or heavy drinking.

The issue with pleasures is that, as Csikszentmihalyi writes, “they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”

This is the great shortcoming of pleasures. After moving to a new culture, the first few months are a major adjustment period. You are faced with an endless number of new situations, problems, and challenges you need to be able to rise to and learn from. Tackling loneliness and adjusting to a new environment requires you to be proactive and to “add complexity to the self” in order to successfully adjust. This includes learning cultural norms, learning new ways of doing daily tasks, and adjusting to other unique aspects of your new environment.

The big bowl of ice cream and Netflix binge might make you feel better in the short term by making you feel like you are back home (maintaining order), but eventually, you need to face your new environment and the feelings of loneliness you are having and begin to sort all of it out. Pleasures simply do not help you do that.

Thankfully, flow is the psychological magic bullet for truly facing and wrestling with your new environment, culture, and situation.

Why Flow Solves Homesickness

Think back to our list of characteristics of flow. The words that stand out to me are “goals,” “feedback,” “control,” and “concentration.” The first few months of living in a new country and culture, everything is chaotic and everything feels out of your control. Life moves incredibly fast, you are meeting new people, learning new rules of a culture, and learning new ways of carrying out basic daily functions.

That is why flow activities are such great weapons to use against homesickness. Rather than passively removing yourself from your environment, flow activities allow you deeply engage in a task and narrowing your focus towards clear goals. The concerns or worries you have get lost in the activity, you feel a sense of control over your environment, and you are empowered in a way that allows you to begin to work through your situation psychologically.

It is a bit like the scene from the Matrix where Neo is able to stop bullets in mid-air, pick one out of the air, and examine it. In the same way, flow allows for the ability to slow down reality, control it, and then begin to examine it with clarity.

Replacing “Pleasures” with “Flow”

Integrating flow into your daily schedule can be relatively easy once you know how to identify it. When I started actively trying to add more flow to my daily life several months ago, my strategy was to look for pockets of time where I was indulging in “pleasure” (my vice is Youtube) and substituting those pleasures for flow.

The first place I made a replacement was during my morning coffee. Rather than flicking through Twitter and Facebook over coffee, I began bringing my Kindle with me to my morning coffee spot and reading over coffee. That 30 minutes of stimulating my brain in the morning rather than thumbing through the madness of social media actually made a huge difference in how I felt during the following few hours.

Another place where I have worked hard to replace pleasure for flow has been weekends. Living alone, it is easy to fall out of a regular schedule and get lost waking up early, surfing the internet or watching television to pass the time. This pretty well describe how I used to spend Saturday and Sunday.

Nowadays, you will find me up at 6 am on Saturday mornings in the gym, followed by a swim in the ocean, and then a few hours of reading, writing and coffee. I have scheduled my entire weekends around flow activities, and it has given me a huge boost to my morale, and I am almost never bored, lonely or homesick.  

After making those one or two small changes and noticing how much more psychologically and emotionally refreshed I felt as opposed to when I droned away on my phone, I have continued to weed out pleasures in my freetime and replace them with reading, writing, sports or exercise. Not only do I not get homesick as often, but I am far healthier overall, motivating me even more to seek flow every and any chance I get.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.