To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments.
To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself.
She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’
Chronic unmanaged stress kills focus, creativity, imagination, and inspiration.
It’s like a black hole that sucks the light out of your mind and body.
But, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, or stuck right now… don’t fret because in this piece I’m going to teach you how you can begin to hack your mind for less stress, boosted creative juices, and increased concentration.
We’ll be hacking the mind by learning how to enter into the Flow State.
The Flow State is the sweet fertile spot where stresses and anxieties dissolve and inspiration, concentration, creativity, original thinking, and imagination are born.
If stress kills inspiration, creativity, focus, and productivity then the Flow State revives them.
As we’ll see in a bit, the Flow State reduces the stress response while activating the relaxation response.
The relaxation response optimizes our mind by slowing our brain waves down, which in turn shifts our states of consciousness.
As we’ll see, slower brain waves are associated with increased creativity, focus, and productivity.
A brain in flow also begins to produce multiple neurochemicals that are conducive to this enhanced state of thinking, imagining, and processing.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
In his book, FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pegs flow as the psychological convergence point where challenges meet skill.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, we experience flow when we engage in activities that provide the right amount of challenge given our skill level.
These kinds of activities and tasks help us completely immerse ourselves in the moment and in what we’re doing, while also stretching and testing our capacity and resilience.
Note: Your ability to effectively self-govern during challenges and change is also a skill.
Effective and efficient stress management will involve you learning and cultivating various new skills.
You’re ultimately learning a new way of being.
This will be challenging, and it should be!
Especially at the beginning.
Every new skill involves a learning curve, and this is no different.
Embrace the challenge knowing that it’s your portal into the flow.
We perform better when we’re in flow because at that moment we are fully immersed in what we’re doing, and derive deep personal and/or professional satisfaction from it.
We become unique and innovative in what we’re creating.
We learn and retain better.
Csikszentmihalyi interviewed a multitude of subjects across all ages, disciplines, races, education levels, and cultures to uncover what exactly happens to our consciousness when we’re in this ‘optimal experience’ state.
“… We have, with other colleagues around the world, done over 8,000 interviews of people – from Dominican monks to blind nuns, to Himalayan climbers, to Navajo shepherds,” he says (1)
He found that no matter who they were or where they came from, across the board, there are 7 conditions present when we’re flowing: (1)
1 – We’re completely immersed in what we’re doing, to the exclusion of all else. This one-pointed focus and steady concentration is called Dharana in Yogic Philosophy. We’re put right back to the here and now present moment via this narrowing of consciousness.
2 – A sense of being outside everyday reality and rote, mundane routines. There is a merging of the action and your awareness.
3 – Great inner clarity and a sense of personal control over the situation and action. Knowing what needs to be done and how well we are doing it, not based on other’s’ standards and guidelines, but rather, on our own independent internal guidelines.
4- Knowing that the activity is doable, achievable; that our skills or inner resources are adequate to the task. We believe in ourselves and our capabilities at that moment.
5 – A sense of serenity and equanimity. Feeling secure in oneself. A feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ‘reactive slave’ within. Self-consciousness melts.
6 – A sense of timelessness. Thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes. We’re freed from the shackles of the past and future. Anxiety melts away.
7 – Intrinsic motivation is present. The act itself is the reward. You no longer seek outside forces nor does anyone need to tell you to do it, you are inspired from within, and act out of your own accord.
1 – Where am I already experiencing flow in my life?
2 – Where would I like to experience more flow in my life?
3 – Where is the flow blocked in my life?
4 – What are two specific moments when I was so in the flow that I lost track of time and forgot the world around me? (Think of the moment in time, time of day, location, where you were.)
5 – What was I doing then?
6 – How can I honor my life’s rhythm more? What would that look and feel like?
7 – Where in my life would I benefit from pausing right now? (List specifics)
8 – Where in my life would I benefit from taking more action right now? (List specifics)
9 – What are 3 specific things I can do right now to honor wherever I am in the Activity-Pause cycle?
10 – What activities or experiences can I engage in more that would help me achieve the 7 Flow components?
11 – What can I begin doing ASAP that would be its own reward?
The Flow State Optimizes Your Brain
Flow is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness.
A state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best.
It refers to those moments of total absorption when we get so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears.
Our sense of self, our sense of self-consciousness, they vanish.
Time dilates, which means sometimes it slows down and sometimes it speeds up…
And throughout, all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go through the roof.
– Steven Kotler, author, journalist, and director of research at the Flow Genome Project
According to Flow researchers like Csikszentmihalyi and Kotler, the Flow State optimizes the brain in order to enhance mental and physical performance.
When we enter flow, a series of events occur within the confines of our bodies and minds that leads to:
– A deep connection to the Self and the withdrawal of the senses, or rather directing the senses inwardly. (This is also known as the yogic principle Pratyahara.)
– The inner world becomes more real, more present, and more influential than the outside world.
– The past and future melt away and what’s left is the present moment.
– Self-consciousness, stories, and triggers dissolve.
– We become inspired and intrinsically fulfilled by the experience of what we’re doing.
– Productivity increases, sometimes by as much as 500% as one ten-year McKinsey & Co. study found. (2)
– Another study by the Flow Genome Project found that people report being 6-8 times more creative when in the flow. (3)
All of this is possible because of the chemical and electrical changes that occur in the brain when we’re in the Flow State.
First, the body releases a cascade of feel-good and performance-enhancing chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and norepinephrine that speed up the brain’s information processing capabilities while also amplifying pattern recognition, and future prediction (for better problem solving). (4)
In an online workshop called The Optimized Brain on Bigthink.com, Steven Kotler explains how these brain chemicals impact the way we think and learn: (5)
In the front end of the Flow State you take in more information, you process it more deeply meaning you process it using more parts of your brain and you process it more quickly. (There is some debate about this, but it does appear you process it more quickly.)
… When people talk about entering a flow state they feel like their senses are incredibly heightened – this is the performance-enhancing aspect of norepinephrine and dopamine.
Where these chemicals really come in handy is how they affect motivation, creativity, and learning.
Besides being performance-enhancing chemicals these are all feel-good drugs. These five chemicals are the most potent feel-good drugs the brain can produce. As a result, flow is considered the most addictive state on Earth…
What that means is that once an experience starts producing flow, we will go extraordinarily out of our way to get more of it which is why researchers now believe flow is the source code of intrinsic motivation.
Another thing that these chemicals do is that they augment the creative process… Creativity is the product of novel information bumping into old thoughts to create something startling new…
At the front end of the Flow State, you have norepinephrine and dopamine. They’re tightening focus so you’re taking in more information per second so you’re boosting that part of the creative process.
Norepinephrine and dopamine do something else in the brain, they lower signal-to-noise ratios so you detect more patterns. They jack up pattern recognition… our ability to link ideas together is also enhanced.
Anandamide, which is another chemical that shows up in flow, doesn’t just promote pattern recognition, it promotes lateral thinking.
Pattern recognition is more or less the linking of familiar ideas together, lateral thinking is the linking of very disparate ideas together…
The last thing flow does that’s really important is it jacks up learning… the more neurochemicals that show up during the learning experience the better chance that experience has of moving from short-term holding to long-term storage.
The other way that the Flow State optimizes your brain is via brainwaves.
As we think and go about our days and process information, the brain’s neurons create electrical impulses.
These electrical impulses can be measured via an EEG (electroencephalogram).
This results in different ranges of electrical impulses or brainwave states.
These brainwave states correspond to different states of consciousness or states of being.
There are 5 main brainwave states:
Beta and Gamma waves are associated with the Waking state.
Alpha and Theta waves are associated with the Flow state. (This is where the sweet spot is – we want to be right here!)
Delta waves are associated with the Deep Rest State:
The Relaxation Response is associated with the slowing down of brainwaves.
The more you get yourself into Alpha and Theta brainwave state, the more you’ll be able to melt stress and overwhelm and enjoy the full healing benefits of the Relaxation Response.
Here are 10 ways to activate your Relaxation Response by pausing and rebalancing.
By engaging in these activities (and fully immersing yourself to gain the benefits), you’ll likely be slowing down your brainwaves.
As your brainwaves slow the portal to the Flow State becomes open to you.
Choose the ones that most resonate with you and your lifestyle and commit to doing them regularly and consistently.
You can also subscribe to enter our insider list so you are notified when new Calm With Yoga alpha and theta-inducing meditations, classes, and activities are up on here 🙂
Be sure to go over the Self-Study section questions to identify how you can increase the psychology of flow in your life today, with things being how they are.
Don’t hesitate to drop me a line or hit me up on the Contact Page if you think you’ll benefit from further assistance applying everything we just went over.