Flow Psychology and the "Natural High"

"Life in us is like the water in a river." - Henry David Thoreau

Sit yourself by a river. Practice feeling the power and peace of being in the flow.
Sit yourself by a river. Practice feeling the power and peace of being in the flow. | Source

Being "in the flow" can be likened to a river flowing downstream to the ocean. Drawn by the law of gravity it flows easily and effortlessly, moving automatically through or around and past every obstacle. It nearly always gets to its goal one way or another, at some time or another. Being "in the flow" is like that. You just know what's coming and what to do next, and you know you're gonna get there.

The Natural State of Flow

At its best, human life is similar to a river, but instead of gravity pulling, the other immutable law of nature is active - the Law of Attraction. Just as the stream flows effortlessly downhill, so we flow effortlessly toward our goals when we keep ourselves active and attentive. The Law of Attraction provides the situations and we, in our attentiveness, respond to them with all we've got.

Being "in the flow" is analogous to being "in the zone," "in the vortex," or "in synch." It's having a Zen moment, taking mindful action, operating at peak performance as life presents its opportunities and challenges. It's becoming "one with the ball" as you shoot a basket or "an eagle soaring" as you float in a hang glider.

A child's recognition and identification with Dignity.
A child's recognition and identification with Dignity. | Source

It's a two year old lost in sunlight drifting down through gold and orange leaves above the road as Daddy drives. It's a four year old merging with the spirit of a swan, as she looks down from a bridge in a still and quiet moment. It's a twelve year old leaping through the air like Superman to shoot his first perfect basket.

Because you want to be there and are 100% focused, there are no thoughts that counteract the moment, only perception directing action. There's no need to think, because you are well prepared. Your focus on the goal and what you are seeing or doing to get there keeps you flowing. Time is irrelevant. You can be in the flow with activities as simple as washing dishes or as complex as running an obstacle course in the Olympics.

Focused Energy or "Natural High"

Two phrases that match my own experience best are "focused energy" and "natural high." Your body flows the energy, your mind keeps the focus, and they work together in harmony toward the perfect outcome. You know you don't need drugs or alcohol to get into a natural high.

Here are two very different examples of "in the flow" moments in my adult life:

This juniper could be shaped to have personality. Pruning while in the flow creates an atunement that allows for the emergence of character.
This juniper could be shaped to have personality. Pruning while in the flow creates an atunement that allows for the emergence of character. | Source

I once ended a meditation session to prune a widespread, unruly juniper outside, without completely grounding myself first. Before long I was in perfect atunement with the juniper - talking to it, sensing where and how to trim, seeing the shapes in my mind as I pruned each branch, seeing the overall shape of the juniper change as I walked around it, pruning here and reshaping there.

It took all afternoon, but I didn't notice the time, until my housemate came storming out of the house demanding to know why it was taking so long. Oddly, I was indifferent to her anger. It was wonderful just looking at the curves and undulations of this beautiful bush I had helped bring out - sculpting life.

Some years before that, I had gone whitewater river rafting on a Class III/IV river with a friend in Oregon. We were eight women with two experienced river guides. I had never been rafting before, but was in good shape and experienced with being in and on water. The guides gave us instructions, we put on lifejackets, climbed in the rafts and were off.

River rafting requires intense focus and trust. It's a great way to get in the flow.
River rafting requires intense focus and trust. It's a great way to get in the flow. | Source

The guides tested our team as we rafted around rocks and over rapids, while watching kayakers rolling over and under the river next to us. I noticed the river speeding up and suddenly we shot over a waterfall. I rose to my feet yelling with joy, holding the oar above my head, as we shot out and down through the air. Waterdrops sparkled in the sun all around us. When we hit bottom, the guides screamed "Row right!" and I rowed furiously with the team around a whirlpool and out into calmer waters. Perfect run, no accidents, lots of energy left over at the end, and pure exhilaration in my mind and body.

I was surprised and relieved that no one criticized me afterwards. They didn't need to. It was an "in the flow" moment, which they recognized and probably experienced themselves. Can a person "make" states of mind like this happen? That's what the study of the Psychology of Flow is looking to see.

Applied Positive Psychology

The Psychology of Flow is a sub-discipline of Applied Positive Psychology, which is the study of positive experiences of life, rather than problems. In the past, applied (practical) psychology had tried to understand the common problems of society and personal interactions, in order to create ways for people to learn and grow from them.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)

In his book, Mihal Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as "the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter."

 

At some point, some psychologists recognized that knowing what causes problems wasn't making anything better - it was just attracting more problems to study. So they started studying what causes pleasure instead, with the intent of increasing that.

One of the pleasures studied was this state of flow. It was first really defined by Mihal Csikszentmihalyi from Eastern Europe and his team of researchers at the University of Colorado when he came to the USA to study psychology. The team worked with thousands of people from all walks of life all over the world, discovering that even though activities varied, the experience was essentially the same when people were in the flow. Here are some of the things they found.

Michael Jordan up for one of his famous slam dunks. He was known for playing in the zone.
Michael Jordan up for one of his famous slam dunks. He was known for playing in the zone. | Source

What is your area of greatest skill?

See results without voting

How Does a Flow State Happen?

The state of flow seems to come from the excitement of challenge and the mastery of skills combined. When those two are in balance and the actor has a clear focus, that's when flow happens.

So when someone is starting something new and is excited about it, but not yet skilled enough to do a good job, the touch of anxiety they're feeling would prevent the flow. And if someone has a lot of skill, but isn't much challenged by it anymore, they wouldn't be in the flow either. They would have to find something to do that is more challenging, requiring the same or similar skills, to provide the clear focus that getting into the flow requires.

Sports Psychology Studies

In sports this concept is well known, having been observed in good athletes for years. Coaches and team psychologists work hard to prepare players both physically and mentally, hoping for the magic that happens when a player gets "in the zone."

They work to develop player skills, teamwork, and physical strength. They lead players through visualization exercises. They set up situations that will force concentration, that will not allow for distractions, intending for players to totally immerse themselves in what they are doing. And they encourage players to learn to meditate to increase their ability to focus. It seems to work.

Below are several practices that will set the stage for you to experience this wonderful state of being yourself.

Building Skills Will Encourage Flow

Whatever your interest, if you want to experience being in the flow, you will need to develop skills. If you sing, you can practice proper and deep breathing, exercise your voice, expand your range, learn to sing with and without vibrato.

If you surf, you can learn the feel of different waves, exercise your body to build stamina, do hatha yoga to increase balance, and compare, test, and care for different types of surfboards to find the one perfect for you.

If you sew, you can practice working with different fabrics, sew with machines and by hand, follow directions of complicated and simple patterns, learn to fit, alter and design clothes for your own body and lifestyle.

If you teach . . .

Hatha Yoga's Natural High

Hatha Yoga teaches you to trust your body, and be sensitive to its state of health and comfort. It gives you easy mastery of it, increasing coordination, flow, and muscle control. It teaches you to hear your body's needs. It helps you connect with your best self, making you feel naturally good and clean inside.

The book on the right is for women and men, although it uses a female as its model. It introduces each asana (exercise) individually, but then shows you how to put them together into three routines. The last part of each routine asks you to effortlessly flow each asana into the next one.

Meditative Practice and the State of Flow

Paramanhansa Yogananda first introduced the meditative life to the USA in the 1970s with his life-changing book Autobiography of a Yogi, a must-read for anyone interested in learning to meditate.

Although you may be skeptical of the benefits or applicability of meditation, millions of people who've tried it out and those who know them have recognized and experienced at least a portion of its value. Here are some of the benefits of meditation:

  • Calming your mind, increasing the ability to focus, and increasing alertness (all a part of being in the flow).
  • Releasing negative emotions and coming to a place of understanding.

  • Tapping into a higher, more profound wisdom for understanding and making decisions.

  • Intentionally changing a negative habit of thinking or feeling to one more positive.

  • Opening up your creativity and freeing up your courage to try new things.

  • Relaxing into a state of peace and even bliss (the most common reason people meditate).

"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." - Albert Einstein

Visualization Techniques

Similar to daydreaming, but with the power of intent behind it, visualization is a way of clearly picturing a desire and turning it into an achievable goal. It's been equated with self-hypnosis and meditating with intention. Sports coaches use it all the time to get their players into the habit of expecting to win. You can practice it with anything, but it's good to start small to familiarize yourself with its power.

With this technique, you choose your goal, calm your mind the same way you do in meditation, focus on and deepen your breath, then create as clear a picture as you can of yourself being successful.

Once you've got the picture and the feelings of success, then started tracing each step backward until you get close to where you are now. It will help you see what stands in the way right now, and what you can do to get past it. You finish by re-envisioning your goal and that feeling of success. When it comes time to act, you will find yourself very much in the flow.

Any kind of team project presents an opportunity to be in the flow. Here it was pouring concrete for houses in Tijuana (Esperanza International).
Any kind of team project presents an opportunity to be in the flow. Here it was pouring concrete for houses in Tijuana (Esperanza International). | Source

Total Immersion in Flow

Total immersion is very close to flow and can be practiced. As a start, try dancing to music for an hour or so with your eyes closed. Go out into nature with a camera and blank out everything except taking great pictures. If you want to learn Spanish, go to the annual Cinco de Mayo festival and spend the day. If you want to learn to ski, watch skiing on TV, read about skiing, make friends with someone who skis. The more you immerse yourself in your goal, the more likely you will find yourself experiencing flow, if not with it, then with another activity you do at which you are also skilled.

I remember the first time I ever went to a kirtan (Hindu chanting session). I already knew how to sing, had already experienced different types of chanting, knew the basics of rhythm instruments and drumming, knew something about different religions, and had a friend who knew this particular group of people. It wasn't a goal, he just invited me to go with him to a kirtan, which I'd never experienced before. Oh my!

I watched and helped the guests decorate the alter, light the candles, gather and chat. After a few snacks, the group started chanting, 25 or 30 people. It didn't take me long to catch on. I "found my voice" and felt myself merge with the music. Eventually I went into bliss with every chant flowing into the next - calling and responding, speeding and slowing, harmonizing, playing intruments and drums, flowing and flowing like a river of sound. It was a special, exhilarating night and the high lasted for days.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Jonathan Livingston Seagull

This is one of the first books I ever read about being in the flow. It's a simple read, letting you feel the experience of breaking free of the crowd and doing your own thing.

 

Most of you have likely experienced flow already. You know that feeling of total, effortless concentration. You remember the feeling of intense pleasure that came from carrying out the activity and experiencing magical results. Now you also know you can create the circumstances that will let it recur in your life.

Being in the zone is one of the best feelings a person can have, so take the time to prepare. You'll be so glad you did.

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Comments 11 comments

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York

I had a hard time answering the poll - I flow well with child rearing and gardening - along with writing. I finally picked writing, because it is where my soul really lies. It is my center. Great article, watergeek!


whonunuwho profile image

whonunuwho 4 years ago from United States

This was a nice article and brought back several old memories when I was a boy and a pitcher in baseball. I was so good in what I did, I struck out more than a dozen other pitchers in our league. I got more hits and home runs than the other one hundred boys and won the most valuable trophy. I was a sprinter and ran the hundred yard dash in 9.8 seconds and just three tenths of a second from the Olympic record and I was only in the ninth grade. Later in high school football, where I was a very good punter and half back, my leg was broken and later I had a severe spinal injury that kicked me out of sports. I still try to get in the flow in my writing and taught school for many years and achieved four college degrees along the way. I have tried to help my handicapped kids in school, get in the flow, as well, over the years.Thanks for you great message and hub article.Later in college, I recognized being in the flow in handball and serving in tennis matches. It is a matter of mind and relaxing with the flow. Now I paint and write and do recognize the flow and mind control are a very important state to achieve.


watergeek profile image

watergeek 4 years ago Author

Wow! I'm really impressed with your "flow" background, whonunuwho. It's great that you're so well aware of it and that you're passing that awareness onto your students too.

Leah, you're lucky too, that you have a number of areas in which you can flow. Picking where your soul lies is the perfect choice, in my view. Thanks for reading and taking the poll.


rfmoran profile image

rfmoran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

Great topic and a great hub. Years back I read "Flow: the Pshchology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It was updated in 2008. Worth checking out. The zone is a great place to be, although I don't visit enough.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

This reminded of something I've read from the book called "Zen Mind." The book compares the mind to a river. When the whole river keeps flowing smoothly, our mind is large, peaceful and ready for anything. But when it's separated into drops and streams, our mind starts to get attached to certain things and experience difficulties. Thanks for this wonderful hub, watergeek. Sometimes it's hard to stay in the flow, but I'll keep trying.


watergeek profile image

watergeek 4 years ago Author

I don't know if I actually said it in the article, but when I discovered there was an actual discipline studying flow, the first thing I thought of was Zen. :)

Here's a tip from experience: If you want to live more in the flow, don't be a problem solver. I used to take pride in how well I could recognize, understand, and work through problems. It made me stronger, yes, but also brought more problems. If you want to live more in the flow, focus on the good times - on those times you were in the flow that you want more of. That way you'll attract more good times.


kj force profile image

kj force 4 years ago from Florida

watergeek..Enjoyed the article very much..being a student of Martial Arts..Yogi..and now Tai Chi..the zone is where I must place myself sometimes to overcome what I feel I can'e accomplish..my G-daughter has been using her zone also..when under stress she puts herself in her " happy place"..and has gone further than she ever imagined..so I do understand, but it is an aquired thing that takes practice...thanks for sharing


watergeek profile image

watergeek 4 years ago Author

It does take practice, especially if we're used to negative thoughts. I find that changing negative thoughts is more difficult than looking for times you're already in the zone, then focusing and remembering those. Eventually, the negative just sort of fades away.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 4 years ago

This is a very well done article. The psychology of flow and positive psychology is always very interesting and useful to apply. Thanks for putting this info together.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK

I enjoyed this. What you say about looking for what brings pleasure instead of trying to work out why things aren't going the way they should is so true. I use the Sedona Method, and was surprised at first at the suggestion to let go of "trying to figure it out," but the truth is the more we let go of trying to figure out or understand, the more the understanding comes. And with it comes the flow. I probably most often experience the sense of flow when I am writing fiction and the story takes over, but also there are times in parenting when there's total flow. Or in nature.

I'd say in a way it's when there's an absence of a sense of "doing," when the action is simply part of something more than me.

Great hub, with lots of wisdom within it.


watergeek profile image

watergeek 4 years ago Author

Thanks very much and I agree. This Thanksgiving I experienced flow when my nephews started jamming together. One got on the piano and quietly started playing with a few riffs. Another heard him and sat down at a bongo to experiment with a rhythm to the riff. A brother picked up a guitar, a nephew picked up another, I picked up a hand drum and we played for hours, with others coming and going. It was awesome. One of the best rewards of life is to be in the flow, I believe, and I'm so glad you all have had the experience as well!

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