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.