In search of flow

24 09 2010

I have contemplated for some time what this “adventure kitesurfing” malarky really means. Many of my friends who have done big and even small adventures, talk about the inevitable post adventure restlessness and in many cases depression. All complain about the big visa bill and having to work again. Most also get viewed by their non adventurous friends, as just anther crazy adrenaline seeking person and can’t really relate to what they have been through. So is adventure really worth it if all you have to look forward to is post adventure depression, a big Visa bill and being viewed as crazy person?

I am an avid follower of other people’s adventures and am really interested in the psychology behind why people go and do adventures like I have just done. Many cite reasons such as leading a more fulfilling life on return from pushing themselves to the edge.
I am somewhat sceptical about these claims and think many people, without realising it, are really in search of something called “flow”. I hope to explain this concept further and introduce factors needed to achieve it.

What is Flow?
Before you start thinking this is just about sport, it’s not, the concept also applies to other aspects of your life such as work and has been well-studied among artists, musicians and scientist’s. The best explanation of flow I have seen is the following Wikipedia article, it basically summarises and expands on some work by a psychology researcher called Csíkszentmihályi.

“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. To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.
The flow state also implies a kind of focused attention, and indeed, it has been noted that mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and martial arts seem to improve a person’s capacity for flow. Among other benefits, all of these activities train and improve attention.
In short, flow could be described as a state where attention, motivation, and the situation meet, resulting in a kind of productive harmony or feedback.

A longer explanation of how and why he came up with the idea of is detailed on this if you have the time.

I experienced moments of flow on the Cook Strait crossing and definitely during the Coastal Classic race. It’s almost like time just accelerated and everything worked harmoniously make the goal. I felt it at times on the Brazil trip but not as often. Mostly I was just pleased to be safe at the end of each day and there was no big euphoria on finishing at the end of 2000km.

A friend of mine also summarised a concept I have advocated for some time which is a site called Feed The Rat. In reality feeding the rat is just describing a lifestyle that is seeking flow and a break from boredom.

I was once asked about why I do jiujitsu, and I remember clearly stating that it was the only time in my life when the noise inside my head stopped. My brain is going at a million miles a minute, there are always thoughts about work, life, money, goals etc, it never stops. In jiujitsu, another person is either trying to choke you out into unconsciousness or break your arm. You stop thinking about jiujitsu in your mind and you allow it to become you. You give everything you have, all of your senses to the artform and use it to not only survive but prevent further danger by attacking your opponent to unconsciousness. I found that it was one of the few times in my life when the noises in my head stopped, time almost stood still and I could focus intently on something else. I craved that feeling again.

How to achieve flow?
People search a lifetime to experience flow moments and sometimes they can be few and far between. How to achieve flow is probably another blog post and requires some more research on my part to explain properly. For the moment this is the simplistic explanation.

1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

Just in case you were wondering, I haven’t been affected by the post adventure depression or restlessness yet. Maybe because it’s still the honeymoon period or maybe because I am pleased to be done putting myself at risk every day. I certainly have a big visa bill however, and yes the media are happy to frame me as just another crazy guy because that’s just easier for people to grasp. It was however nice last week to be interviewed by someone who actually understands adventures and didn’t immediately ask “what about the sharks”.

Funny enough I don’t have a desperate urge to go out kitesurfing and am quite happy contemplating other activities to occupy my time. Activities this week have included 2 yoga sessions, a social run and tonight I will try my first Copeira session.

If only more people understood the concept of flow maybe the world would be a happier place. So I am interested in others thoughts on this topic. Have you experienced flow in sport or life in general and what were you doing to achieve that.