Why flow state is the gateway to wellbeing

So, why do you love being in flow?

The question might sound silly. You know why – being in the flow feels awesome! Remember the last time you’ve spent an hour chatting away with a good friend, and it felt like 5 minutes? Or were “in the zone” for three hours creating a masterpiece that you’ve been proud of ever since? In flow, time disappears, and takes all your worries and self-doubts along for the ride. You are wired-in, or in the groove, or in the pocket, or having runner’s high, or having helper’s high… “High” seems to be a synonym for “flow” whenever it’s politically correct. No wonder everyone wants to be in the flow! Wait, isn’t it a bit unhealthy to be “high” all the time?

Good point. There is still an important distinction between flow high and other highs. Remember the last time you’ve spent afternoon browsing that thing called Internet? It all started with “quickly” checking your Facebook notifications, then there was that hilarious YouTube video, then 59 foolproof ways to succeed in life, and next thing you notice is that it’s dark outside. Remember how drained and self-loafing you felt afterwards? That felt very flowy while it lasted, but all you get in the end is hangover. It’s the high of consuming.

Flow high is the high of creating. Of pushing yourself. “It’s an escape forward from current reality,“ explains Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “whereas stimulants like drugs lead backward”.

So, the good news is that flow is not only the tastiest, it’s also the healthiest thing out there. Let me count the ways.

Happiness

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered flow state during his study of happiness. In that study, people were paged a few times a day and were asked to describe what they do and how they feel at the moment. Flow state emerged as the pattern of the activities that reportedly were making people feel happy. While it doesn’t always feel “flowy” to enter the flow state – “struggle” and “anxiety” are the commonly reported precursors – the breakthrough of connecting the dots and creating something completely new brings the true joy and that superhuman feeling of being unstoppable. No surprise here – studies show that all five most potent reward drugs that our bodies can produce – dopamine, endorphin, anandamide, serotonin, oxytocin – get released into the system while in the flow. But you don’t really need any scientific evidence to know how awesome it feels to resurface after spending a few hours in the flow!

Being happy – feeling good about where are you at the moment – is extremely important. Vishen Lakhiani, co-founder of extremely successful company Mind Valley, calls happiness the new productivity. For happiness is the foundation that gives you sense of stability and confidence much needed for taking risks in pursuing your vision. Being happy and pursuing vision seems the recipe for personal fulfillment. Happiness without vision feels superficial, while vision without happiness is the source of anxiety and stress. Laughing, practicing gratitude and kindness are the well-known (and universally affordable) cures for un-happiness. But flow allows you to build up the foundation of happiness while you are stretching yourself in the pursuit of your vision. That comes especially handy to those of us who readily delay gratification, sometimes to the point of being self-deprived of any fun in their lives – flow comes packed with fun!

Productivity

Another thing that most of these bodily drugs do is enhancing different aspects of our performance, both mental and physical – pattern recognition, learning abilities, memory consolidation, reaction time, accuracy of movements and judgments. Top athletes get into the zone to push the boundaries of what believed to be possible for our species. Top executives report being five times more productive in the flow. Top VCs use “flow state percentage” metric to evaluate startups potential. But again, while these examples demonstrate how profound the phenomenon of flow’s performance boost is, it’s very likely that you experienced that first-hand on a few occasions.

The secret to top performance is simple: focus. If you think about it, that makes perfect sense. By definition, the thing you focus on receives your time, your thoughts and your efforts – they just don’t have anywhere else to go! If you feel that they just dissipate, it means that your focus is spread among too many things – to the point that the share of energy one individual thing receives barely makes any impact on it. If you reduce that all the way down to ONE thing, it will receive ALL of your energy – and there is no obstacle or challenge can that cannot be melted and evaporated by this awful lot of energy. As Tony Robbins says, “Where focus goes, energy flows”.

So, the real secret to top performance is how to stay laser-focused. And this is where flow comes into play. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi characterizes flow experience as one when “what we feel, what we wish and what we think are in harmony” – as opposed to prevalent scenarios when “… mind is not in complete chaos, but there is quite a bit of entropy in my consciousness – thoughts, emotions and intentions come into focus and then disappear, producing contrary impulses, and pulling my attention in different directions.” Flow is state of the ultimate focus.

Creativity

Creativity and productivity – exploration and execution, divergent and convergent thinking, thinking slow and fast – are the two main themes of every success story. Luckily, flow helps with both. Highly focused processing of the relevant information constitutes the first phase of the creativity process – known as preparation, digesting the material, or even struggle.

What comes next is outsourcing the combinatory play with the accumulated information to subconscious – by disengaging from the problem. For example, by switching to an unrelated task, preferably one that stimulates imagination and emotions, but deprives you of any more information. Effectively, information processing shifts from analytical to intuitive, silencing the inner critic and allowing unrelated concepts associate freely and thus create new ideas. This phase is known as “incubation”, or “unconscious processing”, or “relaxation”, and is commonly regarded as very important step, even if somewhat counter-intuitive one. In case of flow, this is achieved with transient hypofrontality – temporary reduction in prefrontal cortex activity, caused by the intense focusing.

The result is that sudden illumination, the a-ha moment, the breakout, when the pieces fall into their places, dots connect and your bulb lights up with an insight. That’s when the process finally start feeling flowy. This is when the real creative work begins: the final phase is idea verification, when it meets the reality and gets shaped into its exact form. This is hard conscious work, and that’s where many good ideas are lost, so flow’s productivity boost is very welcome here. Flow allows us to tolerate a bit longer that discomfort of not having a solution, and that extra pondering time yields more creative one.

Creative work not only greatly benefits from the flow state, but is itself one of the most flow-prone activities. Creativity is all about identifying new patterns and establishing new connections. Besides, while being creative you take risks – from the risk of coming up with something nobody cares about, to the risk of not being able to handle the criticism – constructive or otherwise – that any worthy idea evokes. Fortunately, evolution recognized both risk taking and pattern identifying as important survival mechanism for humans, and hence these activities are rewarded with influx of dopamine. This pleasure chemical not only heightens your motivation, but also increases your focus, and, thus, drives you deeper into the flow, closing the virtuous circle.

Health

Transient hypofrontality also takes place during physical exercise, and likely to be at least partially responsible for anxiety-inhibiting and antidepressant effects physical exercise is known for. Flow has similar effect – reduced activity in prefrontal cortex and amygdala results in less thinking and worrying, and more feeling and doing. Meditation and flow, both being states of focused awareness, share a lot of health benefits. One important distinction though is that flow is an “active” state – you’re getting healthier while you’re getting things done! Moreover, scientific studies show that the promotion of flow can benefit those suffering from a range of negative emotional conditions, such as self-disgust, guilt and feelings of inferiority.

What flow basically does is it provides direction to our train of thoughts, that otherwise go ANTs (automatic negative thoughts). ANTs are artifacts of our lizard brain constant scanning for danger in our environment, when it tries to play out the worst possible scenarios and attempts to generalize based on the immediate – and often rather superficial – observations. They are the source of all this “always”-“never”-“woulda-coulda-shoulda” worries in your head. Just imagine how lighter would you feel without them! And that’s what flow gives you. Not only does it silence your inner critic, it gives your brain concrete task to focus on, preventing all this harmful wandering about. Granted, any kind of “busyness” would likely to distract you from negative thoughts, but accomplishing your goals while in flow would remove the very ground from under these thoughts.

There is something else going on – beyond purely psychological benefits. “When a person is in a state of flow, all five potent neurochemicals massively amplify the immune system,” explains Steve Kotler. “Stress-causing hormones are flushed out of body in flow, and the autoimmune and nervous systems go haywire. Flow brought me from seriously subpar back up to normal, and it can bring normal people to Superman.”

You can reap well-being benefits of flow even when you take a break from creative tasks. Runner’s high – a euphoric feeling of being invincible, close relative of flow state – is part of the reason many runners wake morning after morning to pound the pavement. And benefits of regular aerobic exercise stretch far beyond the short-term euphoria – improved blood circulation, reduced body fat, lowered cholesterol, and better self-esteem.

And then, there are some extreme examples of the effects flow can have on our physical bodies. “You want to know how I did something like jump the Great Wall on a fractured ankle,” says Danny Way, legendary skateboarder, says. “I can’t really answer that. All I can tell you is what I already told you: When I’m pushing the edge, skating beyond my abilities, it’s always a meditation in the zone”

Action

Taking action is the best (the only?) remedy against any doubt or worry, and the only way to make dreams come true. Unfortunately, taking action is also the hardest thing to do. All productivity and self-help advice seem to boil down to this single one: TAKE ACTION NOW. All the variety of the offered tactics and strategies are reflection of the fact that for different people triggers are different. And the redundancy with which pretty much every message is delivered is justified by the fact that it takes an average person 7 times to hear an idea before they take an action on it. Most often, it’s the personal example of somebody whose background and story resonates with you and makes you feel you can achieve the same that motivates you to make the first step. In some cases (like mine) it’s the mere beauty and simplicity of the idea that make it irresistible to act on it. But in the end the trigger doesn’t matter, even though it usually gets all the credit. What really matters is taking action once, discovering the power of it and making it your habitual answer to any doubt.

Flow state turns any action into a joyful experience, and that helps a great deal with forming that ultimate habit – taking action. It makes the process of finding what actually works (and eliminating what doesn’t) as engaging as riding the wave of sudden inspiration and daydreaming about all the things that might work. It makes working on an idea as exciting as coming up with an idea. And the efficiency with which you can iterate through ideas while in the flow defeats the usual excuse for not taking action: “… but what if this is not the right option and I’ll just waste time going down that path? Let me first think that through…”. The fundamental fallacy of this approach is that you can always find a reason something might not work. Instead, get into the flow, have fun, give the idea your best, and you’re likely to make any approach work. Or at least eliminate one that surely doesn’t. Thomas Edison proverbially did that about 1,000 times before he found the way to make lightbulb work.

Limitlessness

Once you focus on the task at hand, once you stop thinking and take action, doubts disappear. In flow action and awareness merge, and that leaves no room for self-consciousness and, consequently, for self-sabotaging. You don’t waste time and energy assessing potential outcomes and how they might reflect upon you. Instead, you take action that would provide you most immediate feedback, and act on that feedback. Rinse and repeat. With practice, your natural reactions get the finesse and polish you were originally trying to think through your way to. That’s how you become “natural’ at anything, when you natural reaction reflects the best on you.

Removing self-consciousness from between an idea and the action effectively disables your limiting beliefs, it just doesn’t give them a chance to chime in. You stop eliminating your options out of fear of failure, rejection or embarrassment. And with that the only person who could ever limit you is gone. When you get in the flow, you get out of your own way. Sky becomes the limit. Your tools become direct and natural extension of you, giving your actions preciseness and effortlessness. You become rewarded by the action itself, without labeling any outcome as “success” or “failure”. Any action is success. In other words, you cannot fail, unless you don’t take action.

One can say that it’s just a feeling of limitlessness. But your feelings and emotions are the ultimate reason you take any action. To paraphrase Henry Ford’s famous quote, “If you feel you can – you can, if you feel you cannot – you cannot”. So when you feel limitless, you ARE limitless.

Play

What else is self-rewarding, favors means over the end, doesn’t care about “right” or “wrong”, involves a highly engaged but non-stressed frame of mind? Play. Play is the easiest way to get into the flow, and that’s why children like to play so much and spend all time available to them playing. It’s namely the flow state that makes play so attractive, so modern game design employs heavily science of flow, while video games soundtracks are gaining popularity as productivity enhancing ambient music. Adults mostly consider “play” as an alternative to “work”, either a luxurious or a wasteful alternative. However, most creative and accomplished people advocate adopting child’s mindset in life and business and getting playful in order to solve any serious problem.

How cool is that – getting work done (superbly!) while playing?! But that’s exactly what happens in flow state. Staying engaged with the task at hand while not stressing about any established approaches gives you permission to “play” – see things with child’s curiosity and question basic assumptions. That’s what more often than not leads to an original solution. And if you don’t feel like reinventing a particular wheel every time, challenge yourself to create your recipe for the task, and outsource it, or even automate it – and leave to yourself only the problems you love playing with! And that’s how flow state lets you play all day long – completely guilt-free! Just wrap into flow any challenge you’re facing – and here you are, feeling like a gamer, killing it like a workaholic.

Mastery

10,000 hours of deliberate practice. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”, that’s what it takes to master anything at a world-class level. At 8 hours per weekday, that’s 5 years. As much as we would love to be able to freeze time, mastering a subject is probably one of very few cases when the faster time runs the better. Luckily, that’s what flow offers. Another characteristic feature of the state is “time dilation”, or losing the sense of time. It’s a side effect of the general loss of awareness of your surroundings caused by the deep concentration. Interestingly, at times it manifests itself as time slowdown – when you’re able to process huge amount of incoming information much faster than in unfocused mode. But in general, the result is the ability to put into the activity tremendous amount of time without realizing that (since any “realizing” is turned off while in flow).

Human ability to delay gratification – proverbial backbone of any achievement – is rather scarce, and even then usually comes at an ongoing cost of willpower, another scarce resource. Flow guides through an alternative path to mastery – where you get rewarded at each step. In this mode, even committed hedonists can go for miles and achieve new heights – as many extreme athletes did. And even the lucky ones who find special pleasure in working hard towards “bright future” can make their willpower last longer in the presence of smaller but more regular rewards.

On top of that, flow gives not only subjective shortcut to the mastery, but objective reduction in time required to obtain new skills. There is fundamental connection between flow and learning, stemming from the fact that flow happens when the challenge slightly exceeds your current skill level, and, hence, some learning is required. Even though the skill-challenge gap needs to be small in order to trigger flow, constant “compound learning” does wonders. As Internet meme goes, “Small daily improvements are the key to staggering long term results”. Flow makes these regular improvements easy and joyful.

Simplicity

It’s just amazing that all these great benefits, and all the complexity of neuroanatomy, neuroelectricity and neurochemistry that makes them possible, is accessible via very simple channel: focus. Just immerse completely in whatever you are doing at every moment, and all these good things will happen to you.

Granted, with the abundance of opportunities, notifications and entertainment these days it’s harder than ever to concentrate on anything. But what that really boils to is having the tiny habit of focusing on a task for about 15 minutes, and then the flow takes over. Flow follows focus. Granted, it takes personal energy management and priorities management to have capacity and clarity needed to focus on the right things. But then again, these are tasks as any others, and flow state can help tackle them as well. Besides, for what technology took away from us by constant distractions, it can pay back by guarding our attention when that matters.

There is a number of conditions that simplify entering flow state (known as flow triggers), but they seem helping to unblock our innate desire to explore and create, rather than adding some secret sauce into the mix. To borrow Headspace’s “blue sky” analogy, we’re always in the flow – unless we are distracted by external events or internal doubts. Learning to quickly identify and deal with these “blocks” is the way to be in the flow as much as possible, and reap its numerous benefits.