Most of my memories of being a kid are good ones. I feel very fortunate in this regard. I distinctly remember the feeling of time and how the pace would vary. A rainy Saturday would feel more like a week. Three hours playing backyard football would fly by and feel more like half an hour. I think we all have these memories as kids and hopefully we are still having them as adults. But why are the memories from our past so vivid? Is it romanticism or distinct feelings of happiness? The best answer may be linked to the activities and our experience of “flow state.”
Flow State is a positive psychology term, maybe you have heard it referred to as “in the zone,” and it was coined by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Dr. MC). Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi began studying and writing about optimal experience in the early 1970’s. He set out to define and characterize happiness. Through his research, Dr. MC found the happiest people, regardless of their field or status, had one thing in common…more optimal experiences or flow state. Here is Csíkszentmihályi describing his work;,
“I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it, even at great costs for sheer sake of doing it.”
Ultimately, Dr. MC developed a state of mind model (illustration below), with FLOW at the intersection of high challenge – high skill. To simplify a bit, we need a challenge and the skill set to meet the challenge, in order to tap into “flow.” Most of us can recall the feeling of flow, even as adults. Maybe its a great conversation, painting, writing poetry, birth of a child, running a marathon. The optimal experience is subjective but the benefits of flow have been proven. For a deeper dive into flow state, check out Dr. MC’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (one of many) and his 2004 TEDtalk.
So its clear flow is good but the “feeling of flow” is still a bit hazy. Dr MC explains it this way:
“...being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
I am a football guy so a football scenario or analogy seems appropriate but instead, I’ll dive into how I prepare for and hack into flow.
For me, it starts with exercise. I like running, yoga and functional weight training (kettlebells, macebells) or body weight training. These activities do not always produce a “flow” moment but a lot of the time I do experience the “ego falling away” feeling. I have a lot of experience with sports training and heavy weight lifting but now my favorite approach is geared towards functional strength, mobility and cardio, all rolled into a workout with a flow to it. I really believe a continual, flowing type of exercise creates the optimal experience, along with great results! Next, is a mindful practice.
I like to get 20 minutes of meditation in each morning. Basically, I sit, breath deeply and try to quite my mind. If a thought comes to my mind, I visualize it floating by like a cloud and then I focus on breathe again.
The benefits are noticeable, including, more gratitude and being more present with others. Another option is to do twenty minutes of slow, deliberate yoga, while focusing on breath. This is a great way to work with your breath and get the body moving in the morning. Lastly, get outside in the elements and in nature. It is important to get fresh air, allow the sun to hit your skin and actually notice your environment. It's awe inspiring and I think we need it in our everyday lives. Plus, I enjoy exercising outside and we live in a beautiful place so this is usually an easy one to check off the list.
The great thing about exercise, meditation and time in nature is their benefits are not limited to the experience itself. Exercise is great for strength, stamina, metabolism, confidence, and firing up the nervous system receptors (endocabbinoid, serotonin, dopamine). The experience is great but the residual benefits help with performance and focus throughout the day. Meditation or a mindful practice has similar results. This practice will quiet the monkey brain, provide clarity and help in quieting the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). I appreciate it because it helps me be more present with family, friends and co-workers. Being more present, in the moment, always creates more appreciation and inevitably, more flow.
So whatever your process, I hope my experiences will help you recognize and start tapping into more flow. I leave you with this inspiring passage from Dr. MC:
“Flow is important because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows to develop skills and make significant contributions to mankind.”
Find what makes you the best version of yourself and do it more! Make changes, do the work, prepare to be your best self, find more FLOW.