In positive psychology, flow is the term used to describe the feeling of being in the zone.

You know the feeling I’m talking about. It’s when you lose yourself in a project and hours turn into seconds. It’s how athletes make seemingly impossible tasks look effortless. Flow is a common occurrence that we’ve all experienced at one point or another. When our lives lack the experience of flow, life starts to feel dull and we tend to grow restless.

Still can’t relate? Let’s explore a common example. 

You just sat down in a coffee shop to reconnect with an old friend. You browse through social media while sipping on coffee as you wait, and you’re secretly hoping that the reconnection won’t feel too awkward.

Your friend arrives, and it’s a bit uncomfortable at first. But then, your friend blurts out a few off-beat comments, causing you to realize that you might have more in common than you thought. You feel a connection, so you start to focus on every word your friend says. You stop worrying about ‘how your responses sound’ to this person because you know the conversation is naturally flowing. You stop worrying about how you look because the topic is too interesting to break focus.

This person is speaking about a topic you’ve been researching for years, and quite frankly, your life experience leads you to believe you’re an expert on the matter. Plus, this person seems to have a similar stance on the topic. All of a sudden you’re both on the edge of your seat and every word spoken is shared with passion.

You feel the chills rush through you as your friend explains their personal experience on the matter. It sounds JUST like yours, and you listen to their story with full attention. Your friend is providing you with new insights about your beloved topic and you can’t get enough. This was supposed to be a quick meeting, maybe an hour or so- if that.

You look up and realize the once-full coffee shop is clearing out, so you decide to check the time. You look at your watch, and to your surprise, you see that FOUR hours has passed. Four hours that felt like 20 minutes.

In all that time you didn’t think to check your phone and you can’t recall the last time you’ve gone four hours without using the restroom. You hate sitting for more than an hour at a time, but for some reason, you feel completely invigorated. Feelings of being alive are rushing through you and you realize that you’re overcome with joy… that’s what flow feels like.

This article dives a bit deeper into what flow is, how it feels, and how to bring yourself to the state of flow, which will undoubtedly improve your life in many facets. Next month’s article will run through the basic neuroscience of flow and how it biologically impacts us. For now, let’s dive into the foundation of this beautiful human capability.

Flow as the key to peak performance 

If you have an interest in learning about peak human performance, then you’ve come to the right place. When in flow you are so focused on the present moment that you lose all sense of Self, leaving your mind a clear path to connect with the task at hand. A flow state gives you the ability to push yourself to the limit in whatever you’re doing while keeping a calm mind and noticing variables that you wouldn’t otherwise see.

Extreme athletes are flow addicts-  and for good reason too. Flow is what enables peak performance, and peak performance is necessary for extreme athletes to survive. Flow becomes addictive due to the mighty cocktail of neurochemicals that flood our bodies when we access the state.

For example, the only way for a big-wave surfer to survive a monstrous wave is to bring his mind to the state of flow. The big-wave surfer needs to ‘become one’ with the water, meaning the surfer must access flow to lose himself in the act.

When we access flow through meditation, we can feel the effects for a few hours afterward. When we access flow through an adrenaline producing extreme sport, we can experience joyous after effects for up to a week.

Flow is relatively new to the world of psychology 

Before I heard of the term flow I tried to explain this feeling in my book review of Siddhartha. My motivation was that I understood that truth would rush through me when I wrote from this place. I knew the feeling resulted in elated feelings of joy and feelings of being alive, and I loved writing about it and living in it. In fact, I set my whole life up so I could reach this state regularly.

I tried to think of a term for this in my review of Siddhartha and what I came up with was to call it love. Little did I know that ‘this feeling’ is a recently defined term in positive psychology.

In 1990, positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term flow in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I personally discovered this term in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, which uses extreme athletes to paint the picture of what flow is, and describes the science of what happens in our brains and bodies as a result of flow. The facts in this article were attained from these two books.

Why you need to care about flow: 

In the rise of Superman, Steven Kotler mentions a quote by one of his colleagues who stated, “employees should be paid hourly based on the amount of time they work in a flow state, the rest of the time spent at work is time wasted for the company.”

Such a thought-provoking comment. As a partner in a startup, I can’t help but wonder what a business environment would feel like that is conducive to accessing a flow state. Maybe we can potentially train employees to access it on their own?

Regardless of the what-ifs. Your ability to access flow directly correlates to your ability to get your work done, do your work well, and feel joy in the process along the way.

We can all reminisce on a fond memory of a time we were experiencing flow. We’ll always cherish the memory- perhaps as some of the best memories of our lives.

Diving deeper into how it feels to experience flow 

In his book, Mihaly wrote:
“Flow is 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.”

There’s astounding power in the ability to lose yourself in an activity or task as a result of giving your utmost attention to the moment.

For example, when we practice pulling our thoughts from being lost in the future or stuck in the past, we are graced with the power of now as our anxiety diminishes. We then have the ability to bring our unique presence to the current moment and experience what life is presenting us with.

Eckhart Tolle wrote a groundbreaking book about how to change your life by focusing on the Now, and now, positive psychologists have decoded the physiological state that results from focusing on the current moment.

Main feelings associated with flow:
  • Excitement to complete clear goals that are challenging, yet attainable
  • Strong concentration and total focused attention on the activity at hand
  • Activity feels intrinsically rewarding
  • A loss of self-consciousness
  • Serenity
  • Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing
  • Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
  • Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  • Lack of awareness of physical needs.

When in a state of flow, we are using our brain to its utmost potential. We’re subsequently rewarded for any task completed in flow with feel-good neurochemicals, and we can sometimes feel the positive effects linger for a few days after the event.

We’re biologically designed to desire the feeling, and the natural chemical reward system suggests that it might be an essential answer to the whole, ‘what’s the meaning of life’, question. It seems as though the science of flow is telling us that we’re meant to do more of the flow-inducing tasks which result in elated feelings of being alive.

How to get in a state of flow: 

First and foremost, you must diminish the now crushing distractions to give your brain the opportunity to focus on the moment. LIGHTBULB. We live in a world full of now crushing distractions, which is why it’s as important as ever to train our brains to focus on the present moment.

There are a couple ways to access the state of flow, and every person has their own gateway. For some it’s guitar, running, music, good conversation. Whatever the case, the gateways to flow will fall into three main categories.

Below are the three ways to access flow:
  1. lose yourself in an act: fully giving all attention to a subject for a significant length of time
  2. meditation: meditation is meant to train your brain to quiet its thoughts, which allows you to focus on the present moment (among many other things meditation is meant for)
  3. life-risking danger or activity

Are you wondering how to motivate others to do more practices that enable the state of flow? Being is the best teacher. If you’ve mastered the art of bringing yourself to the state of flow, then you will undoubtedly come across opportunities to shine. When this happens, you’ll complete remarkable things, leaving people to ask you how you did it.

Flow is a beautiful human experience. It’s only been uncovered in the past 20 years, and it’s exciting to think how much more we will learn as neuroscientists continue to decode the human brain.

Read part II: what happens to our bodies when in flow (the neuroscience & dark side of flow). Subscribe to OmniMinds so you can receive posts directly to your inbox! 

You might also like reading…

How to get what you want: here 

Using EQ (emotional intelligence) to change your life: here 

7 lessons that will keep you following your dreams: here

Learn more about flow with these books:

The Rise of Superman

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

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