My Description of the Flow State & Runner’s High

Quite a few of my friends know that I’m big on the concept of flow state. I’ve touched upon this topic in past posts, and recently I’ve started to think about it more as I continue to evaluate the things I enjoy doing and why I enjoy doing them.

What is flow? The term was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and describes “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

Csikszentmihalyi started studying this phenomenon in the mid-70s and wrote a best-selling book about it, which I highly recommend checking out. However, the concept itself has existed throughout history and in various cultures and religions (see: wu wei, zen, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Bible, among others).

My own experiences with flow have also been closely tied with runner’s high – the feeling of intense euphoria after a good workout or sports session. Over the years, I’ve experienced varying degrees of flow state and runner’s high, and I’ll describe one of the most memorable sessions here.

This particular instance happened during an outdoor pickup basketball game about a year ago. I’d been playing well, but about halfway in, I was absolutely in the zone. Suddenly my body was on auto-pilot, and I no longer felt the concept of time. I put up shots that I knew were going in, and as I continued to run around the court, I experienced intense tunnel vision where I knew the path I should be following without even thinking much about it. It was as if I was in another dimension. Immediately after that session, I went home and encountered the most joy I’d felt in recent memory. I still remember microwaving my dinner and smiling, feeling on top of the world.

Throughout life, I’ve had similar memorable experiences, and all of them have left a big impact on me. At the base level, these flow sessions validated that I was doing what I loved. On another level, they’ve acted as a north star on things I should continue to pursue – finding comparable experiences in sports, hobbies, work, and life that give me that same energy and elicit a similar response.

I’ve looked more into flow and the six factors that Csikszentmihalyi identifies matches pretty well with what I’d experienced:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

Looking back, many of the things I enjoy doing, whether it’s riding my motorcycle on the twisties, getting into rhythm on a challenging hike, listening and dancing to music at a show, or even writing the latest blog post, have encouraged this state of flow.

As I try my best to navigate life, I’ll continue to look at flow as one of many frameworks to find happiness in the things that I do.

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