Flow: Purpose, Peak Performance, and Optimal Wellbeing

Flow and Let Go

Today is Day 2 of my #happyme challenge and it just so happens to be Labor day. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate topic than the idea of flow – or being ‘in-the-zone.’ A state of intense focus where time and self-awareness slips away. Imagine engaging in work that feels like play.
As my dad always says (and I’m not sure which wise person said it first), when you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.
Your focus determines your reality. 
~ George Lucas
Research in positive psychology has concluded that regularly entering the flow state enhances optimal wellbeing. People in flow experience clarity, bliss, and serenity. The more often someone experiences flow, the higher they rate their life satisfaction.
yoga retreat bonaire wild thing

Yoga in Bonaire

The Flow Zone

In my positive psychology and wellbeing coaching course, I had the distinct privilege of learning more about the science of flow and applying it to wellness coaching directly from the father of positive psychology himself: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (I definitely had my own version of a celebrity sighting moment 😉
This is what top athletes mean when they say their in the zone – they’re in a state of flow. This is the state people enter when they experience the runner’s high. This is why rock climbers face death-defying odds time and again and why yogis return to the mat day after day.
The precise, dynamic, fluid movement of top dancers is the physical embodiment of this state. You are so in harmony with what you are doing, self-awareness slips away and you merge with your experience.
Any activity that induces the flow state is intrinsically rewarding to the person. Not only are they focused and engaged, they lose sense of time and hours can pass without them realizing it. There is also no concern with failure, or worry about whether the end result will be a success. Physical action and mental awareness merge.

Flow and Creativity

But it’s not just limited to physical challenges. People can enter this state when engaging in any enjoyable pursuit that presents a mental task. Artists, writers, inventors, and CEOs alike often describe being in a state of flow when they are their most creative or most productive. This is when their best work happens. This is how human culture has evolved so dramatically.
It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.  ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Chess players regularly enter the flow state of complete concentration. People experience this state when solving any kind of a puzzle. Our mind creatively fits the pieces together and utilizes trial and error to develop a strategy and find a solution. We feel an intrinsic sense of pride and accomplishment in the task, even when no one is around to recognize our efforts.

Peak Performance: The Result of Flow

Flow is also what boosts focus, engagement and productivity at work, and is one indicator of experiencing a sense of deep satisfaction in their professional life. Flow is the magic that happens when curiosity and passion merge with purpose and pursuit.
Flow is a dynamic state – as you move forward and progress in that state of full engagement, you’re skill at that activity will naturally improve. By extension, the level of challenge required for you to enter that flow state will steadily increase as well. If a challenge is too easy, people get bored. If the challenge is too high related to skill, then anxiety can result. We excel when we are engaged in a challenge in which we we feel confident and in control.
yoga flow reverse warrior

Yoga flow: reverse warrior

Go with the Flow

My personal experience most defintely corroborates the science. My best performances and proudest accomplishments resulted from accessing this state of flow. As a young gymnast, I performed at my best when I was fully present in my body and focused on my routines. As soon as I worried about slipping or faltering, I made mistakes or fell.
Entering the flow zone is also why I fell in love with yoga: flowing through poses allows me to be fully present on my mat, connecting to my breath and my body. I also experienced this state when I went rock climbing – now I understand why climbers climb. You literally cannot focus on anything but being fully in your body, planning your next step up the rock.

The Mental Zone: Writing, Solving, Creating

Its easy to understand flow when discussing physical performance. But I also experience this state when my mind is curious and fully engaged. This is why I love to write.
When I first thought about my favorite aspect of grad school and why I loved my experience, I realized that I truly enjoyed writing my papers and my dissertation. Many people who hear are like what!? You liked writing papers? They groan and with a roll of their eyes say that was the part of school they hated the most. But for me, writing papers was like a puzzle: putting the pieces together and connecting the dots to create a clear, cohesive picture of the subject matter.
Writing anything is like this: you take some thoughts and ideas and weave them together into an intricate yet cohesive tapestry of words. You create a story. Humans like to make sense of things. We like to see how the pieces fit together. We like to solve riddles and puzzles. We like when things come full circle and the pieces come together. We are wired for story and we are wired to create. For me, writing is my favorite form of creative expression.

The Mental Blocks Blocking the Zone

But growing up, I never thought I was a good writer. English was my most feared subject. One bad grade on a Language Arts test in 4th grade and one story I deemed not creative enough at the age of 8 combined to create my own story of not-good-enough. I excelled in math and science. They were clear and concrete: puzzles I could easily solve. I still got good grades in English, and even in Art, but I often approached them with a sense of dread, which boiled down to a fear of failure.
rock climbing Estes Park Colorado

In the zone: rock climbing in Estes Park

Back in the Zone

It wasn’t until my last semester of college that I rediscovered the joy of writing. I was finally in a few classes I enjoyed: Social and Emotional Development, The Psychology of Trauma, and an Art History elective entitled Eastern Influences on Western Art, taken on a whim since most of my friends had enrolled to fulfill their arts requirement, which I’d already fulfilled. Ironically it proved to be my most difficult course that semester, yet one of the most enjoyable. It also likely sowed the seeds for my eventual move to Tokyo and my grad degree in Social and Cultural Psychology.
I was actually excited to write the papers for these courses. And unlike my typical procrastination through high school and college, I didn’t wait until the last minute to write my papers. With approval from my professor, I proactively tweaked the main assignment for my course social and emotional development because I landed on a subject I was passionate about and wanted to approach the project from a particular angle. I dove in to the research for my project on trauma, and stepped inside one of the campus libraries for the first time for the art history paper.

Performing to my Potential

The result was my best GPA of my college career. In the second semester of senior year, with an overload of courses, and challenging ones at that. All while still engaging in the typical second semester of college shenanigans along with my peers who were taking fewer classes and who, like most aim to do, take the easiest courses and rarely show up for class. I succeeded because I was engaged in everything I was doing.
Still, after abandoning my med school ambitions and postponing any ideas of grad school for psychology, I never for a second entertained doing anything related to writing. I was still through-and-through academically bent. I did not consider myself creative, and never considered the preposterous idea that I could be a writer.
Finally, a decade later, I found my way back to writing. After several false starts with half-hearted intention, held back by my stories of ‘not-good-enough,’ I started regularly blogging about my cancer experience, and remembered the joy of writing. Now, I do my blog stuff cuz I like it. Now, I even get paid to write. And it’s awesome.
Finding your flow and bridging your passions with your pursuit isn’t always easy or straightforward, but it’s the surest path to fulfillment and success. I’m spending my Labor Day laboring away at a pursuit that brings me joy and fulfillment. And that’s certainly something to celebrate. That’s certainly something that makes me happy.

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