Editor’s Note: This is Paki’s first PositivePsychologyNews.com article. We welcome Paki’s point of view!
My Evolution of Flow
The first time I went surfing, I psyched (no pun intended) myself up for the opportunity to do something I had been longing to try for years. Propelled by a mixture of envy of those fearless surfer girls in Blue Crush and anxiety, I signed up with a close friend in a 5-day surf camp in Costa Rica.
Day 1 saw minimal wave action; when trying anything new, I think we all secretly hope we’ll be prodigies from the word “go.” I thought just maybe I’d stand right up and ride that first wave in like my body was born to do it, arms positioned perfectly across the surf board’s plane. Alas, my first several attempts saw a mess of flailing arms and exquisitely crafted wipe-outs, replete with dramatic yelps and screams to accompany each tumble from the surf board.
I had to will myself to make an appearance on Day 2. Muscles I had never used before were sore, my knees and elbows were red and scraped, and my chin was bruised from an altercation with my surf board the day before. If I hadn’t already paid the huge price to learn, I might have quit for the sandier pastures of the beach, ready to rest every tired muscle save the ones in my hand (to grip a cold Imperial). So I endured, and by Day 2, I was about 1 for 3, managing to stand steady on my board every few waves that I attempted.
That gave me just enough of a reward for my efforts that By Day 3, I was hooked, finding that precious space where skill meets challenge in the delicate dance that Dr. Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. True to the dimensions of flow, my concentration was linear and strong, my sense of time dissolved, and without regard to any extrinsic pay-off, I was having an “auto-telic” experience, finding the surfing rewarding for its own sake. This coup required a small sacrifice: I had to rise at 5 am to catch the “good swell,” and I was unsure ahead of time if that price paid would feel worth it when I hit the water. But as I sat on my board watching the sun rise through the droplets on my sea-soaked lashes, I found a meditation all my own. In that moment I owned a peace, a state of well-being and harmony I couldn’t ever remember feeling. The thought that I could (and would, given the chance) do this forever was a deluge, like the very waves that were crashing over me. I wanted to succumb to it, to pare my life down to these elemental essentials. The Costa Rican motto is “La Pura Vida,” the pure life, and I imbibed it so deeply I wanted to tattoo it on my person.
The Downside of Flow
Upon my return home, I found myself wondering when I’d be able to get back on a board, itching for the flow, the meditation, the gratification. I felt like an addict, dependent and waiting for the next hit. I felt that the more I fed the urge, the more I’d want, potentially losing my grip on the reality I had crafted for myself on dry land. As I pondered the topic for this article, I intended to focus on the purely euphoric experience of surfing, and the myriad ways in which it fulfilled a Positive Psychology purpose for me: flow, positive affect, flourishing through physical activity, and more. Just as positive psychology seeks not to reject the notion that life has its dark spaces, but to place more emphasis on the light spaces, I would not be telling the full story if I didn’t divulge an intense craving for what I felt out there on the water, and the truth of how I was contemplating very seriously moving to Hawaii and living out my days in a bikini.
In my quest to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I found out I was far from alone. Drs. Partington, Partington and Olivier explore the dichotomous consequences of flow using case studies of-you guessed it-big wave surfers (I wager that small waves apply too). They find that the consequences of experiencing flow may not always be beneficial, one negative consequence being a dependence on, or a compulsion to engage in, the activity that induces flow. Sound familiar? You’re either channeling what I wrote a paragraph ago, or have experienced something similar in your own quest to find flow. In his 2002 book, Csikszentmihalyi himself makes clear that an individual can become driven to perpetually strive to recreate the flow experience, an homage to flow’s addictive properties.
To surf or not to surf? The Holy Grail is perhaps finding that which feeds your addiction (and is neither illegal nor places you in mortal danger), and simultaneously puts bread (or burritos) on the table. Alas, I have no realistic hopes of being a professional surfer. I’m willing to take calculated risks, but I’m no adrenaline junkie. So should I give up surfing altogether, given its clearly addictive properties and the evident lack of a burgeoning career? I think not.An Unexpected Upside
I have found that the sheer act of planning the next surfing vacation has given me an unexpected avenue toward well-being: goal-setting. Goal-setting, as underscored by one of its gurus, Edwin Locke, is the act of conscious motivation toward a goal, causing a positive feedback loop when achieving goals creates a joyful sense of accomplishment. In this case, my conscious goal is to get back on the board and back in flow, and this keeps me motivated toward achieving more opportunities to do so. Staying grounded in the mundane and complicated existence of my everyday life in lieu of moving to a beautiful beach and surfing my days away is a compromise to say the least, but it’s one I’m willing to concede. This way, I can have my wave and surf it too.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The Psychology of Happiness: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, New Edition. London: Rider.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). MAPP Lecture, University of Pennsylvania.
Locke, E. (1996). Motivation Through Conscious Goal Setting. Applied & Preventive Psychology 5:117-124.
Olivier, S., Partington, E. and Partington, S. (2009). The Dark Side of Flow: A Qualitative Study of Dependence in Big Wave Surfing. The Sports Psychologist, 23, 170-185.
The image of Paki with surf board is used courtesy of Paki Tandon.
Standing on the Break courtesy of monkeyc.net
One Last Set courtesy of Patrick Powers
Where is it written that you have to have a “mundane life” or that flow can’t be the energy that we live from? I’ve met a surfer who is also the most productive salesman for his company, yet he surfs regularly. Perhaps the challenge is to live from the flow despite the temptation to join the mundane world.
Hi Paki, Welcome to PPND! I loved your article, which I could defnitely relate to personally. Here’s my own blog article about Flow: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201104/passion-and-flow.html (Csikszentmihalyi’s book has surely changed my life more than any other book I have ever read. And on my recent PPND article about Physical Flourishing you can find a picture of me surfing: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/jeremy-mccarthy/2011051717673.
I really like your section on the downside of Flow. I have to admit I haven’t really thought about that, but it immediately reminded me of interviews I have seen with big wave surfer Laird Hamilton and how he goes into a state of anxiety and even depression when there are no waves. Of course, this also motivated him to develop new and different ways of catching waves such as the hydrofoil, tow-in surfing and stand-up paddle boards which are quickly becoming as popular as surfing.
Hi Paki, I really enjoyed your article, you have a lovely writing style and I can relate to what you are saying about the addictive qualities of flow. I also think I suffer from the downside of other positive emotions, especially joy and serenity. When I experience them with my family fulfilment seems so complete that I can’t imagine the feeling will ever leave me. When it does, I savour the memories, but when those fade I strive to find them again. Which is often easier said than done.
Thanks for giving me insight,
I am from Costa Rica, I m so happy you had this is experience in my country. Yes the Pura Vida’s mood it is something that we have inside when things are good for us and others.
Your article is magic, I can tell that is touching people who are waiting for the “big moment” or the right wave, not only since the reason to do something but the way of humans to start a new project or sense in life.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience…
Prakriti, I enjoyed your article, thanks! I’m hoping to learn to surf next month and will try not to become addicted:)
I love that you raised the issue of flow and addiction to an activity. I wonder if it’s really a problem if the activity is healthy…?
Thanks for a fun article!
Thank you for your comment. I really like the idea of “living from the flow”-I might borrow that as the title of my next song 🙂 This concept is precisely what I meant when I wrote about being seriously tempted to move to a place where life is simpler, and enjoy more of that flow in exchange for the mundane-and I should clarify that I intended this as “of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one,” according to Oxford, as opposed to the more negative connotation of banal or dull. My thought is that the challenge lies in figuring out how to live form the flow and not alienate a world we are already established in. Would love further thoughts.
Jeremy, thank you so much for your comments-and for sharing that picture. Watch out Laird! You look like a pro!
Very cool point about how Laird’s anxiety and depression motivated him toward solutions like the hydrofoil. Reminded me of my own avenue to easing my own personal downside, which was goal-setting.
Thank you for your warm comments, and for sharing your own personal experience with the downside of positive sensations. I am so happy the insight helped-are you able to find more positive emotion in planning the next round of family time? Is that at least somewhat effective in keeping positive affect high? Would love to hear more.
Hi Christine! I’m so glad you liked it, and hope you enjoy your first surfing experience! I’ll be looking forward to hearing about it when you return. Interesting question you raise about whether addiction to an activity is a problem if the activity is healthy…I suppose the problem lies in wanting to engage in that activity so often that it encroaches on other responsibilities. Or perhaps in feeling anxiety and depression when you can’t engage in the activity, much like the big wave surfers in “The Dark Side of Flow.” That seems to be the very nature of addiction-when engaging in the activity becomes necessary to be happy.
A most excellent article! Well-written, with a nice cathartic culmination. I’d like to draw attention to the author’s “glass half full” mindset which is crucial to all things in life, i.e. perspective or framing. Although there is certainly a initial withdrawal to the end of any good thing, the absence of a positive does not necessarily result in a negative. I challenge my fellow positive psych enthusiasts to practice what we praise, and focus on the author’s ability to find new growth and accomplishment through her struggle. The irony of Thea and Christine’s comments is palpable. In an effort to refrain from preaching, I only wish to point this fact out as an opportunity for a little reflection. Again, a fantastic article!
Oops, sorry Christine, I realize you weren’t criticizing!
May I first say, I do envy your being from one of the most aesthetically beautiful (in particular the people) and ecologically conscious places I have ever had the pleasure of immersing myself in.
Your comments warmed my heart, and I thank you for them.
Wow, thank you for such heart-warming praise. I have always been a “glass half-full” kind o’ gal, and when I completed the MAPP program (I suppose given this inherent positivity, it’s no surprise I was drawn to the program), I found researched-based evidence to support the vital nature of having a positive outlook. In other words, it’s fundamental importance became empirical, and I have since worked even harder at finding the grace in even the most despairing situations. I am so happy this resonated with you.