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Flow State, Explained

Tony Butt  /  April 22, 2013  /  15 Min Read  /  Surfing

By Tony Butt


You are out surfing on your own. Someone else paddles out, comes up to you and says, “How long have you been out here?”

You think as hard as you can. In the end you take a stab at it and tell him about an hour. But the truth is you really don’t know – on one hand it seems like a couple of minutes, but on the other hand it feels like you’ve been out there forever.

If you really have been deep in concentration, your world will have been reduced right down to what you see and feel in your immediate surroundings. Nothing exists apart from you and the waves and maybe the wind or the odd seagull. All that stuff you were doing earlier this morning seems like something in the distant past, almost from another life. Your mother-in-law, the traffic, the bank manager and the shopping have simply ceased to be.

Your surfing is effortless, almost as if the surfing itself is doing it for you. You feel like a passenger just along to enjoy the ride. You’ll be paddling back to the line-up after each wave without the slightest effort, feeling like you could go on catching waves forever. You are living in the moment, enjoying surfing for its own sake.

[Tony, definitely not thinking about his mother-in-law or the bank manager. Photo: Jakue Andikoetxea]

Psychologists call it Flow or Optimum Experience. Flow is an elusive state of mind which gives us great satisfaction and which is normally very healthy for us. Probably, the people who are in a state of Flow more than anybody else are children. As we get older and grow up in a superficial modern society our minds become cluttered and chaotic, and we become less able to get into that Flow state. In fact, most people probably don’t even know that Flow is possible. But if you surf, climb or do any other activity that puts us a little closer to Nature (see my article "Dancing with Nature") and, especially if you like big waves or slightly more radical situations, you will be familiar with Flow.

Psychologists have been fascinated by Flow for many years. They have tried to work out what goes on inside our minds when we enter that mysterious state, and under what circumstances it is most likely to occur. The undisputed master of Flow is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from Claremont Graduate University, who has done thousands of surveys and interviews over the last 40 years or so, and has published several books and hundreds of articles on Flow.

Csikszentmihalyi started off by realizing that people found it easier to enter a Flow state from a particular activity if their motivation was the intrinsic quality of the experience itself rather than the prospect of money or fame afterwards. He then started finding out that people generally got into Flow more often from activities that were challenging or risky rather than passive and easy. He also noticed that certain people – those with so-called autotelic personalities – were able to get into Flow more easily than others.


Recognizing Flow

It is useful to recognise a Flow experience when it comes along. Of course, you won’t actually be able to recognise it as it is happening, because, if you do, you’ll immediately cease to be in Flow. But there is nothing stopping you thinking back and remembering the times when you were in Flow, which should help if you want to have more of those experiences.

Time distortion: You completely fail to record the length of time you have been doing something. Your own perception of time varies according to what you are doing and doesn’t seem to bear any resemblance to ‘clock-time’. Usually, time goes quicker than it should – hours pass by as if they were minutes. But the opposite can occur as well. Time can seem to expand, with things that lasted less than a second sticking in your memory as if they lasted for several minutes, every subtle detail carefully remembered. I remember the other day having an entire discussion with myself whether I should take either one or two more paddle-strokes down the face just to make sure I wouldn’t get air under my board and end up going over the falls. All debated in a fraction of a second.

Total concentration: Your entire mind is so focused on what you are doing that you can’t fit anything else into it. As you become more focused, the task at hand takes up a progressively larger proportion of your brain power, which means that other things start to fall by the wayside. Registering the passage of time is probably one of the first things to go, but then as you become more focused you start to forget about that itch on your leg, or being hungry, thirsty or tired. Eventually you won’t even have enough room for conscious thought. You’ll be truly running on autopilot.

“When you abandon yourself to the rhythm of the wave and become part of that rhythm you get that arrested time…The ecstatic moment is increased in intensity with an increase in size and the critical nature of the wave… If you have a conscious thought you eat it.” – Wayne Lynch as interviewed by Mark Stranger for an article in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 1999.

Hyper-alertness: If all your conscious effort is focused on the task at hand, your senses will be working overtime to suck in as much stimulus as possible from your local surroundings.

Loss of self-consciousness: If you are lucky enough to really get into a total Flow situation, the whole thing will become a strange out-of-the-body experience. Your mind and body will merge into one and you will feel like the whole activity is running itself and you are just a spectator. Paradoxically, you will still feel like you are in total control of the situation.


How to reach Flow

It is good to be able to recognize Flow situation from the past, but if you want to repeat the experience you’ll need to know the circumstances most likely to lead you into Flow.

Challenge-skill balance: You will have more chance of reaching Flow if the difficulty of the situation is matching your level of skill. The best situation is if you are just on that upper edge, where you are pushing your own limits. The trick is not too set the challenge too high, otherwise the stress will interfere with your Flow. But not to make things too easy either, otherwise you’ll start to get bored and distracted. It doesn’t matter what level you are at; what matters is the level of challenge relative to your own level of skill. That’s why a ten-year-old who has just learnt to stand up in one-foot surf might be immersed in Flow whereas some ex-world champion at Pipeline having a bad day might not be.

In radical situations the dimension of fear also comes into play. You are more likely to get into Flow if you are operating on or just a touch beyond your own fear threshold. But if things are a bit beyond you, your worries about failing will make you nervous and interfere with your concentration, stopping you reaching Flow.

“It doesn’t so much matter what we fear of where our edge is, but rather where we operate in relation to it. We truly feel the Stoke when we operate at or just beyond our fear threshold” – Paddy Upton, South African cricket coach and psychologist (from an article in The Bomb Surf, 2010).

Well-defined goals: One thing that helps you reach Flow is being really clear about what you want to achieve. For example, have your mind set on perfecting a particular manoeuvre that you didn’t quite pull off last time, or maybe trying some strategy for making that late take-off. Again, it all depends on setting those goals at just the right level relative to your own skill. Having well-defined goals and setting the bar just right enables you to get immediate and clear feedback, which then enables you to re-set the bar for the next wave, and so on.

An end in itself: This is probably the most important one. As you get into Flow, you will get more and more absorbed in the activity and everything external will begin to disappear from your mind. But sometimes you have to help the process along. If your motivation for, say, surfing big waves is merely to enjoy the surfing itself, you’ll probably achieve Flow; but if your motivation is some external goal such as winning a prize or getting your photo in a magazine, you probably won’t. As soon as you start thinking about those things, you immediately make it impossible to concentrate 100 per cent. If your motivation is some extrinsic goal you’ll be sabotaging your potential Flow experience before you even begin.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy: if you believe that surfing should be enjoyed for its own sake, you won’t start thinking about whether someone is looking at you or whether your wave is big enough to win the XXL. Therefore you’ll be more focused on the surfing itself, which will take you into that Flow state and you’ll enjoy the experience much more.

“When experience is intrinsically rewarding, life is justified in the present, instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Arguably, once you start getting too competitive in the water, chances are you won’t be able to get into Flow:

“The enlightened state or Stoke subsides the moment we get competitive about surfing, with ourselves or others in the water. Present-moment awareness gives way to wanting to look good through future success, or not to look bad by future failure. It might take the form of wanting to prove you’re better than someone else, striving to pull off some move or to dominate the space because you’re a local.” – Paddy Upton

However, if you are a good competitive surfer and really enjoy contests then you might still experience Flow in the middle of a heat. The important thing is that you are totally focused on surfing the best you can, and not thinking about that prize or what people think about you.

“I surf big waves because I love it. Simple as that. Winning contests or XXL awards have never been and will never be the focus or motivation for my career” – Greg Long, from an interview in, 2011.

In the end, Flow can be very elusive and doesn’t always happen when you think. You have to try your best to put yourself in a situation where you think it might happen, and then hope it does. It’s like knowing where the bus stop is but not knowing when the bus is going to come: you make every effort to be there, ready, just in case it comes.


Why is Flow fun?

But where does Flow actually come from? Why should getting into that state of mind be so enjoyable? And why on Earth should such an apparently useless activity like surfing be so much fun?

Well, the answer might be something to do with evolution. Evolution has given us the ability to enjoy doing things that help our species to survive. The best and most obvious example of this is sex – if we didn’t enjoy it we wouldn’t bother to do it, and the human species would quickly come to a dead end. Another example is bringing up children. Imagine if looking after your kids was such an effort that you couldn’t be bothered to do it. Obviously they wouldn’t survive, and neither would our species.

But in the past we needed to do all sorts of other things in order to survive, things that relied on some sort of hardwired motivation to encourage us to do them. Nowadays, to survive as a species, we go to work and take medicines, but in the past, we hunted and gathered. Those activities weren’t just a chore; they were things that we instinctively enjoyed and looked forward to; activities that probably sent us into a deep state of Flow.

Don’t forget that activities such as painting and music can also put us into an intense state of Flow. Nobody knows when or why we started doing these things. Perhaps it was something to do with a deep-rooted need to communicate, to express ourselves, way before we could do so through writing. This, in some way, may have also helped us to survive.

Nowadays, of course, food and clothes are hunted and gathered in the shopping mall rather than on the Savannah, and the missing Flow is obtained through artificial surrogates such as sport. Why do you think fishing is so popular, and why do we enjoy collecting berries? And why do you think soccer, which is really just a proxy for tribal warfare and territorialism, is the world’s most popular game?

So, could surfing also be a substitute for some sort of activity we did in the ancient past, something that gave us Flow because it was important for our survival? Could big-wave surfing be likened to big-game hunting, where you have to be totally concentrated, become one with the prey, follow its every movements? One tiny mistake and your prey has either avoided being caught or, worse, has become the predator and you have become the prey. One tiny mistake in big-waves and the wave doesn’t let you catch it or, worse, you wipe out and the wave tries to drown you.


The dark side of Flow

If you surf, climb or do one of a small number of other activities, you will experience Flow on a regular basis, whereas most other members of today’s society don’t. In fact, once we start experiencing Flow we can’t get enough of it. We strive to go back and experience it again, often making extreme sacrifices in other parts of our lives.

“Flow is a state of optimal experience, a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This is especially true if you have really become immersed in Flow, for example, if you surf big waves where the experience is that much more intense:

“Everything I do in my life is to try to get into that place [surfing big waves] and when I’m there then everything makes sense. When I’m not there and I hear that there were big waves and I missed them, then I feel depressed and upset” – James Taylor, South African big-wave surfer

The addiction to Flow, especially in big waves, can sometimes lead you to quite strange behaviour. A few years ago I lost my board in big surf. I spent about six hours running back and forth along the coastline in the pouring rain in the middle of winter desperately looking for my board, because I knew there would be big waves the next day. I don’t remember having anything to eat or drink all day. In the end I couldn’t find my board, so I drove into town and bought the first gun I saw, just before the surf shop closed. The thing I remember most was the sheer exasperation, the feeling that the entire world would collapse around me if I couldn’t surf the next day. It reminded me of the feeling I had when I was a small child and I’d lost my favourite toy or I couldn’t play my favourite game.

In addition to the experience itself, where you are actually in that state of Flow, there is the phenomenon of afterglow – that warm feeling you get afterwards, that intense satisfaction of having achieved something that you worked hard for. In big-wave surfing this happens all the time. Having caught a big wave, made the take-off, made it to the bottom and into the channel without wiping out can feel like (or can actually be) a lifelong achievement. At the very least it can leave you glowing for days afterwards. And just like Flow itself, afterglow can also become addictive. You’re never quite satisfied unless you’ve been there and achieved what you know you can achieve.

A fascinating study on Flow dependence in big waves was published in 2009 by Sarah and Elizabeth Partington from Northumbria University with Steve Olivier from the University of Abertay Dundee. They got 15 big-wave surfers (they weren’t allowed to name them) to talk about their surfing experience.

The investigators carefully analysed what the surfers said, first to see if they showed signs of Flow whilst surfing, and then to see if they showed symptoms of dependence. In the paper the investigators discuss the possible negative consequences of this dependence, and go on to suggest that people with dysfunctional personalities might succumb more easily to those negative consequences. This could be especially true if their initial decision to take up a high-risk activity such as big-wave surfing was influenced by some instability in their lives.

The results showed that most of the surfers regularly got into a state of Flow while surfing big waves. Without previously knowing what Flow was, they clearly described all the classic symptoms such as time distortion, forgetting everything else apart from one’s immediate surroundings, and that sense of hyper-consciousness where you are acutely aware of every ripple on the surface of the wave. Even though they happened to be competition surfers, most of them claimed that they were doing it because of the intrinsic rewards of the surfing itself, not because of some prize at the end.

Some of them also described surfing big waves as being highly addictive. A few of them described it like a drug, where you have to keep increasing the dosage to maintain the same high. Many of them said they felt depressed when there was no surf or if they couldn’t get to the big waves; and several of them said they would carry on surfing even with injuries such as broken ribs. All this was seen by the surfers as just about tolerable although it could be potentially problematical.

However, one or two of the participants saw things in a particularly negative way. The constant search for bigger and bigger waves seemed to be futile: no matter how big or radical they went they would never be totally satisfied. One of them actually talked about this negativity stemming from an unstable family background leading him to go to extremes with many things he did, as a way of compensating for a lack of self-esteem. External factors related to the fame associated with big-wave riding, such as television interviews, were also hinted upon as being related to the negative side.

But perhaps the surfers in the study who admitted suffering negative consequences of addiction were not actually addicted to the Flow itself. Perhaps they were addicted to some external goal such as money or fame, and perhaps this was what was pushing them into bigger and bigger waves without ever becoming fully satisfied.

Being addicted to something extrinsic rather than the Flow itself, could also apply to the afterglow feeling I was talking about earlier. The sense of satisfaction of having caught the biggest wave of your life or having ‘cheated death for the day’ gets less the more you get used to it, and the only way to get satisfaction is to up the stakes, look for a bigger wave or a more radical situation. In the end you are left with an empty feeling of seeing that ‘original high’ get further and further out of reach.

Being addicted to an extrinsic goal is very different from being addicted to the Flow itself. The satisfaction of knowing that you took off on the biggest wave or pushed the limits a bit further, especially if it is backed up by adulations from friends or money and fame, is easily measurable. Therefore, the concept of tolerance – needing more and more to get the same satisfaction – is totally meaningful. Flow, on the other hand, is elusive and doesn’t lend itself to being measured. The ‘amount’ of Flow is not always proportional to how big or gnarly the waves are; it depends on much more subtle balances related to your mindset on that particular day. Even if everything is right, Flow might come to you or it might not. Therefore, even though Flow is addictive in that you keep wanting to go back and set yourself up for a Flow experience, building up a tolerance to Flow is practically meaningless. Because of this, being addicted to Flow itself is probably not as potentially problematical as being addicted to some extrinsic goal such as money, fame, a pat on the back, or even your own ‘afterglow’ feeling.


Life plays hell with your surfing

Partington and colleagues suggested that some of the participants in their study had a ‘negative dependence on surfing’ and that several of the surfers ‘confessed to being unable to function normally in society’. In other words, big-wave surfing can be incompatible with modern society.

Or could modern society be incompatible with big-wave surfing? Modern society tries to make us do things that don’t come naturally, things that we weren’t genetically programmed to do. It tries to make us value things that don’t make us happy, things that don’t give us Flow. We shouldn’t worry about surfing being incompatible with society, because whatever is inside us to motivate us to surf has probably been inside us for thousands of years.

So, next time someone tries to make you feel guilty about spending too much time surfing, which is apparently a useless activity because it doesn’t bring us money, status or a new car, remember that surfing keeps us fit, young at heart and close to Nature. But more than that, surfing gives us Flow, a state of mind enjoyed by children and hunter-gatherers, but sadly lacking in today’s superficial, materialistic world. If someone asks you why you keep going back and doing such a useless activity as surfing, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find a reason. Just tell them that you surf to surf, and that’s that.

For those interested in the original article by Partington et al, it can be found here (PDF).


Dr. Tony Butt holds a BSc in Ocean Science and a PhD in Physical Oceanography. He  lives most of the year in a forgotten corner of Northwest Spain, where  he has pioneered a couple new big-wave spots and works with NGOs like Surfers Against Sewage and Save the Waves. He makes a meager living writing articles about waves and the coastal environment for Surfer’s Path and other publications. For more from Tony, check out his books Surf Science: an Introduction to Waves for Surfing (2004), The Surfers Guide to Waves, Coasts and Climates (2009), and A Surfer's Guide to Sustainability (2011).

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