On Finding Your Flow
Josh Dickson is the Clinical Director of Resurface Surf-Therapy Retreats, which provides evidence-based week-long surf-therapy retreats and bespoke EMDR intensives for trauma, positive psychology, creativity and self-care (clinicians) in Morocco. Here he shares his thoughts and wisdom on how we can ‘find our flow’.
My arms burn and I don’t want to do this anymore. My hands and feet are numb with cold and the shore seems a long, long, way away. I’m in the right spot and I start paddling hard, as hard as I can. My heart rate is through the roof and everything has gone really quiet. A quick look back lets me know that this is going be a big one and as I turn back around, I push up and my feet somehow slide through as my knees bend and I hit the board. I’m standing up on several tonnes of shifting water. The next few seconds go so fast yet seem to last forever. I’m moving at one with the water, every ounce of focus driving me forward until it is too much and I flip forwards into the shallow whitewash. Grinning, as I walk back to the car park, I realise I haven’t thought of anything else for the last couple of hours. No worries or anxieties, no issues at work, no problems in my personal life. And I feel good, really, really good.
For those couple of hours of surfing, I had been in and out of an optimal state of consciousness called ‘flow’. Aristotle called it ‘eudaimonia’, jazz musicians call it ‘being in the pocket’, footballers ‘in the zone’, athletes ‘runners high’. These flow states are some of the most rewarding of all human experiences. We feel and perform at our best, totally absorbed in activity, losing sense of time, where action and awareness merge. Flow is an end in itself, quickly becoming its own reward. It is the ultimate mindful activity, reducing stress and anxiety in an instance. You may recognise this state regularly or in fleeting moments. You can notice it after a great day, wondering where the time has gone, or during a wonderful conversation with an old friend. You may get into flow at your work, shocked that it is already approaching five o’clock, or out on a long walk and suddenly find it is time to go back to the car. Flow doesn’t necessitate a high IQ, a good education, being in a loving relationship or being rich. It is not left to whim or chance. The happiness that flow induces comes not from asinine pleasure seeking but from conscious, mindful challenge and each of us has the potential to flourish given the right conditions.
Martin Seligman, in his pioneering research on Positive Psychology, identified ‘engagement’ (another word for flow) as one of five key ingredients for well being (the others being positive emotion, meaning, relationships and accomplishment). It has been reported that in flow states, productivity can reach five times its normal state (McKinsey), learning can accelerate by around four or five times (Department of Defence) and creativity can spike up to seven hundred percent (Flow Genome Project). The important thing to know about flow is that it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is not down to luck and that it is very much achievable. There is both a sequence and certain factors that instigate the flow cycle. Fortunately, psychologists such as Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have shown us the way and it’s up to us to follow their lead. Flow requires skill, passion and focus. And it also requires being at the very edge of my capabilities.
Let me explain:
If I want to get into flow playing football, I need to play with people who are at my level or just a bit better. If I was thrust onto the pitch for a Premiership game I’d have no chance. I would be highly anxious, completely out my depth and would most likely freeze and then ask to be substituted. If I play football with my young nieces and nephews then, at best, I would find it relaxing but most likely a little boring. The same process is true with snowboarding or surfing or climbing, or any other activity I enjoy. I need the conditions to suit my ability to be pushed to my limits. If it’s too much, I’ll snap or buckle. If it’s somewhere in the middle then I’ll be in control and have a calming experience. However, if it is pushing the very highest edge of my abilities (some say it needs to be 4% higher than my best) and I’m ready, focused and up for it, then its highly likely that I’ll get into flow. Then the magic happens. I become completely involved in what I am doing, have a sense of being outside or beyond my normal reality, with a greater inner clarity of purpose and full confidence that my skills are adequate to the task. I may gain a deep sense of serenity with a sense of timelessness, where minutes pass in seconds and hours in minutes. And then when the flow state ends I enter into pure relaxation and rest, a more integrated person than when I started.
So if you want to get into flow then I implore you to find and cultivate the things you love. Read and digest what the best writers have to impart and start integrating what they say into your life. Try activities that are famous for generating flow states such as surfing, skiing, climbing, running and swimming. Start practising yoga, pilates, tai chi, karate, going to the gym or whatever physical activities you used to enjoy and see them as a means to another end. Pick up that guitar or another instrument you used to love playing and play it for its own sake, just you lost in the music. Find your niche, cultivate it and you will start to flow. Not only are the flow states rewarding in themselves, but the integration and relaxation that follows flow is immensely gratifying. It is usually in these states that you are at your most creative, new ideas seem to pop into your mind and you have the energy and drive to pursue them. You feel more connected to your loved ones, your work, your purpose and ultimately to your whole life.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1992). Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. Harper & Row
Duckworth, A. (2017). Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success. Vermilion
Kotler, S. (2014). The rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happiness. Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Seligman, M. (2012). Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being and How to Achieve Them. Nicholas Brealey Publishing