Flow states make life worth living

I took a six-week online workshop on the flow state. I’ve had a fascination with the delicious dreamy creative state of being since I was a child. I believe the steady presence of flow experiences in my life is the reason for my overall contentedness and satisfaction. Jamie Wheal of The Flow Genome Project, says flow is the source code for intrinsic motivation. In my opinion, intrinsic motivation and curiosity keep life engaging and interesting and therefore fulfilling. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-high Chick-sent-me-high-ee) is known as the father of flow theory. Noting that levels of happiness did not increase with increased personal income, he set out to find out what does bring happiness and satisfaction. Interviewing creative individuals like scientists and artists, he found many of them frequently experienced feelings of  losing themselves, timelessness, effortlessness and ecstasy. During those periods they felt they were outside of everyday experiences. Time and movement felt fluid. Certain activities brought about a sense of flow.

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. — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, description of flow

Do introverts experience flow differently due to stimulation sensitivity? 

Flow states, like Abraham Maslow’s peak experiences, do not happen continuously. Behind the flow feeling is a cascade of brain chemicals produced by the right mix of challenge and skill in our activities. There is a cycle to flow which requires us to go through different phases such as struggle and recovery. We all have different triggers that prompt us to enter the flow cycle.

As a sensitive introvert, my go-to triggers for flow are mental. I get the feeling of timelessness and spontaneous creativity via deep thinking, solitary, soothing and reflective pursuits. Low stimulation is important. Others may access flow in more adrenaline-fueled highly stimulating activities but times of stillness and repetitive activity allow my mind to wander in a creatively productive and fulfilling way. Reading, writing, meditation and meaningful conversations often set my nervous system at ease and allow flow to enter. This state of mind is addictive and has me seeking quiet time to get the restorative feeling again.

What is the enemy of my flow state?

Interruptions and distractions are the enemy of flow state.

As a young woman in my 20s, I worked as an office manager for a small IT recruiting firm in Chicago. I used to love to do repetitive data entry/accounting work. It allowed my mind to meander through meaningful memories or dance through dinner plans. When my boss entered the office each day, bursting through the door, taking huge strides down the center aisle, delegating work to me as she walked, my mindless work and yummy reflective trance were disrupted like a rock thrown into a tranquil pond.

Now as a 40 something trying to work from home, the potential for interruptions is the same. My phone, my children and my own distracted mind pull me away from the contemplative scene necessary for full creative productivity. Writing is the perfect blend of challenge and skill for me. If left alone in stillness I can create sentences I’m proud of. I can slip into the beautiful place where my inner critic is silent and ideas flow.

Flow not limited to solitary mental pursuits

Achieving the flow state is not limited to solitary pursuits for me, although they are the most reliable triggers. I also find myself in an other-worldly state while working with my coaching clients, talking with close friends/family or while making love. Again, there is a prerequisite of calm necessary to bring on the flow feeling. Intuitively guiding my clients and fostering their potential is hugely satisfying. It’s just the right blend of challenge and skill to put me in the zone. Conversing with my friends and family about intimate, expansive topics like personal growth and relationships brings on the good, fulfilling state of fluidity too.

Not only is flow achievable through social versus solitary endeavors, it can also be induced by physical triggers versus mental ones. In the past, dancing was the only physical activity that brought about the flow feeling. I think music was a key reason for that. Music taps into rich brain chemicals for me.

Now, I occasionally have epiphanies, heightened creativity and moments of effortlessness while running. This is what many call a “runner’s high” or “being in the zone”.

I also find intensely focusing on the physical sensations and emotional connection during sex opens up the door to the dream-like, oxytocin and dopamine-laden experience of flow.

In both running and making love I am sufficiently challenged, engaged and motivated, which makes them fulfilling, life enriching endeavors. Which makes me want to do them again.

When did you experience flow as a child? When as an adult? Is calm or quiet a prerequisite for flow for you? How has flow influenced your choices in life?