Imagine that you are racing down a ski slope, snow-draped trees whooshing by as you maneuver between obstacles, frosted air whisking your cheeks, your focus intensely locked on the position of your body and skis. In this moment, you are not aware of the conflicts and contradictions that often preoccupy your thoughts, you are not concerned with the rigors and anxieties that daily life can bring. There simply isn’t room for these sorts of thoughts as your hurdle toward the bottom of the hill—you know that a distracting thought might lead to a trip to the hospital. The run is so perfect that you want it to last forever.
If skiing isn’t your thing, this complete immersion in an experience might occur while you are playing an instrument, rock-climbing, or reading a good book. If you enjoy your job, it might happen during a presentation or particularly engaging task. You might also reach this state during a social interaction, like talking with a close friend or while playing games with your child. These are the types of moments that are like flashes of intensity against the often-dull background of everyday life.
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed these moments “flow” experiences. Mihaly was fascinated by artists who were motivated not by money or praise, but by the reward of creation. He studied them and found that they had a tendency to “lose themselves” in their art and often reported higher levels of happiness than those who focused more on money or other material pursuits. He argued that the artists’ wellbeing was linked to the state of heightened experience they achieved while engaged in their work. He expanded his study to look at surgeons, computer programmers, and athletes, and found that they each exhibited the following characteristics of flow, to name just a few:
A task requiring skill and concentration
The flowing person ceases to be self-conscious. It feels like he or she has disappeared and only the activity is left.
Time seems to stand still
What I noticed when researching the idea of flow is how closely this state of being resembles the altered states we seek in drugs and alcohol. Perhaps this is why achieving flow in our new, sober lives can be so powerful – it’s a healthy replacement. So, whether you’re picking up surfboard or paintbrush, just go with the flow.