The Happiness of Being in the Flow

Southback Hike

Southback Hike

Want to be truly happy? Submerse yourself in something. Anything. As it turns out, we are happiest when we are focused. In the zone, going with the flow, in the moment, call it what you will. But when you are so focused that nothing else can intrude, then you find happiness.

It’s that simple.

Maybe this is why I love to ski. I love to stand on top of a steep chute, drop in and focus only on the feel of the snow beneath my skis. Yesterday I skied a chute called Brain Damage at Crystal. While the name of the chute is intimidating and the entrance is a no fall zone, in reality it isn’t that difficult. It’s enough to make me focus, but not so steep that I have to talk myself into it.

During those first few turns I bobbled a little, catching the inside of my right edge and chattering along the firm surface. I recovered before I even realized what had happened and continued through the narrowest part before traversing over to a wind-buffed Shank’s Chute and skied all the way to the bottom. I thought of nothing else but the skiing: the consistency of the snow, how it started like firm chalk and gave way to a soft, carve-able palate; the way my skis arced from one side of the chute to another, the edges cutting tracks across the raised sides of the chute; the rock partway down the chute that I hopped over gingerly and stopped thinking about the moment I passed over it.

When I got to the bottom, I didn’t look back at my run. I just traversed towards the chairlift with a smile on my face. I was happy. For the few minutes it took me to complete the run, no other thoughts intruded. I did not think about work or the writing assignments in my inbox. There was no room in my brain for how I would juggle my schedule in the upcoming week, or the interviews I had scheduled or the millions of megabytes of brain space being occupied by all the things I wasn’t doing at that moment.

When I'm in the flow, I don't even care if I'm in the back seat.

When I’m in the flow, I don’t even care if I’m in the back seat.

I recently finished reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book FLOW: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE, and I’ve been practicing being in Flow, as he calls it. Flow moments have a few prerequisites.

  • There is a balance between challenge and skill. You won’t feel in flow if you’re either a) scared out of your mind or b) bored. Brain Damage is anything but boring for me. Nor is it so difficult that I’m unable to drop in without wetting my pants. 
  • Feedback is immediate. When I nearly fell at the top of Brain Damage, I received clear feedback. Pay attention. Get your skis underneath you, stupid.
  • The goals are clear. There’s no equivocation. The goal of skiing a steep chute is to get to the bottom with a modicum of style and all of your limbs intact.
  • Action and awareness are merged. This is my favorite prerequisite. My personality vacillates between action and reflection. This is fine, but sometimes I get tired of analyzing everything. When I cannot think beyond the action of my next turn, I’m happy. Truly, truly happy.
  • Time is distorted. A few minutes can seem like an eternity, or hours can whiz by without realizing it. My run yesterday, which lasted less than a minute, felt much longer. I can still recall it in it’s entirety. Even without the help of a helmet cam.
  • Self-consciousness and fear of failure fall away. For the length of my run down Brain Damage yesterday, I did not once worry if I was sticking my butt out too far. When I almost fell, I didn’t consider the consequences or overthink my run. Instead I made the required moves to get back on track and continued down.
  • The experience is autotelic, or worthwhile in itself. I didn’t look back at my tracks, take photos or videos and I didn’t post my run on Facebook (although yes, I’m using it here on my blog as an example of happiness. That doesn’t count). The doing of the thing (not the sharing of the thing) was worthy all by itself.

I, for one, can be in my head a little too much. It is these moments of intense focus that bring me back. As both a writer and ski patroller, I get to experience these flow moments as part of my job, when I’m not over-thinking, I’m simply a part of a larger picture. And that makes me very happy.

10 responses »

  1. Good one, Kim! I’m reminded of a newspaper column I wrote on the subject:

    Giordano community column for Wednesday, May 25, 1994<

    The best advice I ever got for an exercise program was to
    start out slowly and then kick back. The technique never won me
    any foot races, but I always passed a lot of runners just before
    the finish line. They started out fast but couldn't maintain the
    pace. As slow as I was, there were always people to pick off
    whose strides were bigger than their feet, so to speak.

    Starting out slowly and then kicking back is a great stress-buster that could apply to a lot of activities. It takes the edge
    off any performance anxieties that may be lurking around and
    leaves you free to enjoy what you're doing. With that attitude,
    expectations stay in the realm of the possible, the achievable,
    and the flow of the moment fills our awareness.

    Take tugboat races for example. No, really. I'm not kidding.
    There were three heats of tugboat races Saturday on the Seattle
    waterfront as part of the maritime festival. We got to ride in
    the second heat on the little tug that could.

    Actually it was the big tug that could, but the engine was
    little, compared to shorter tugs with 7,000 horsepower engines.
    Those tugs could practically do pirouettes during their spirited
    show©off ballet on the Elliott Bay water.

    Ours, the Arthur Foss, was probably the original Foss tug
    from a hundred years ago. She's off-duty now, serving out her
    time as a National Historic Landmark. She's maintained by
    volunteers who once a year have an incredibly good time starting
    out slow and then kicking back. This year it passed two other
    tugs near the finish line, and the crew's twin goals were met:
    finish the race and have a good time going it.

    You could say the race had a good flow to it. Once up to
    speed, sort of steady state was maintained and everyone on board
    was free to enjoy the moment.

    Flow as a human state of mind is the subject of a book
    called “Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience.'' The author
    is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and I'm guessing he was motivated to
    study flow by the sound of his own name.

    Csikszentmihalyi says the enjoyable, fulfilling state of
    personal flow happens when “attention can be freely invested to
    achieve a person's goals, because there is no disorder to
    straighten out.''

    He explains that the steady state happens during activities
    that require psychic energy, activities that are both goal-directed and bound by rules. That could be during a game of chess
    or go, dancing the night away, any kind of race, or even
    something so mundane as mowing the lawn in an orderly way.

    The flow state is a merger of action and awareness. When the
    goals are clear and the feedback is immediate, things flow right

    Musicians get into it. In fact, you could say the flow state
    is a requirement of their art.

    Steve Allen, the original Tonight Show host, is a jazz
    pianist who knows about flow. He said once that people flow through their day or their art doing thousands of things, making
    thousands of decisions and having thousands of thoughts, without,
    so to speak, thinking about them.

    The flow of the activity is interrupted when someone asks,
    “Why are you doing that?"

  2. Eek – I guess there’s a textual limit, probably for a good reason…here’s the rest of that column:

    Allen said we’ll usually stop what
    we’re doing and invent a reason, because we really don’t have a
    reason when we’re running on automatic.

    Getting good flow requires realistic goals. If the speed you
    want to drive on the freeway is faster than the flow of traffic,
    forget it. When everything around you is in a clog state, flow
    isn’t going to happen for you. To avoid the anxiety, you have to
    change your goals or learn to put yourself in the right place at
    the right time.

    If you have trouble kick-starting yourself into a busy day,
    if disorder is your natural state of mind in the morning, here’s
    something that might work. I heard it at a stress-reduction
    workshop: Make a list your tasks. But don’t write today’s list.
    Write yesterday’s list, or last week’s. There is no better
    feeling of accomplishment than to have the jobs finished as soon
    as the list is done. The rest of your day should flow pretty
    evenly, even if your name isn’t Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

  3. In my Zen practice, that’s exactly what I strive for. Heck, why give it a label? Just being, doing, finding that balance, going with the flow literally and figuratively. And I would not want to slide all the way down Brain Damage! Good recovery.

  4. I haven’t read that book yet, but I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot recently. I grew up having lots of what were probably “flow” moments–hugely sports based (skiing, soccer, swimming) but also just other passions (art, theatre). Since I’ve become an adult, I have challenged myself, for whatever reason (sometimes necessity) to take on new hobbies, try new things, etc. And while I’m sure there is all sorts of good that comes out of that, I realized–just yesterday–how much I miss being GOOD at something. And I think what I miss is being able to find that “flow”–these days I feel like I struggle with everything I do, and the challenge/skill balance that you mention is off. My skill is low, the challenge is not that big (not big enough to keep me from thinking too much, I’d say), and so the flow state is hard to reach. Yesterday when I was getting all frustrated about it, I was thinking it was just that I was frustrated and feeling that I wasn’t good/talented at anything anymore, but after reading this I think it’s more just that I can’t find the flow.

    I’m not sure I’m making much sense but: I’m glad I read this because it made me think about things a little bit differently! Which I needed!

    • That’s interesting Dani. I definitely feel there’s value in having a beginner’s mind, but also finding flow moments. So perhaps finding a balance between being good at something and pressing ourselves to learn new things is the key. What are you good at? Flow requires that you are good at something, but your skills match the challenge. So you are not bored, either.

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