- Physical Health
The newest addition is flow.
I used to be a competitive ski racer, and that was how I found flow. I remember kicking out of the starting gate and suddenly dropping into hyper focus. Ok, here goes, the voice in my head would say. If there were people standing on the side cheering me on I never heard them. All I heard was my own advice: remember there’s that flush coming up around this bend. Don’t forget about the huge rut over this knoll.
Programmers love talking about flow, and now I know why. When I want time to fly by without my noticing, all I have to do is plug in my headphones and open up my text editor. Not that coding is the same as skiing of course, but it can lead to a similar mental state - effortless concentration, focusing completely on the present.
Just in case there's an overabundance of blog posts on flow, I'm not going to go into details about how to find flow. What I want to think about is flow and mental health. Does flow improve mental health? In the long-term or just short-term? How can we harness flow to improve happiness?
In the book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal mention an organization using surfing - a reliable flow trigger - to treat PTSD. The approach seems similar to using exercise for depression or anxiety, but somehow the intense concentration required to surf makes it apparently more effective than exercise alone.
According to research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow states trigger the release of a bunch of neurochemicals, including norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin, all of which make us feel good and perform our best. In addition to neurochemicals, flow causes "transient hypofrontality", the temporary shutdown of parts of our frontal cortex. This is what causes the sense of "timelessness" in flow. We stop thinking about the past or future, reallocating that brain power to take in more information about the present.
In my experience, flow dissolves anxious or repetitive thoughts, the ones that go round and round in my head and won't go away. When I'm completely focused on a single task, I don’t have the space to worry, or think about things that stress me out. It's a kind of calm that can be hard to find in everyday life. I stop thinking about all the other things I have to do, things people said, what people think of me, what I think of myself, etc. My brain feels quiet, kind of like in mediation, but with the added satisfaction of doing something productive.
"By periodically losing our minds, we stand a better chance of finding ourselves."
- Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal
What about long-term benefits though?
Most of the studies I came across just look at correlational data, so generally this is an area that needs more research. But there's some evidence to suggest that time spent in flow correlates with higher self esteem and increased work satisfaction. Some researchers have looked at the long-term effects of altered states similar to flow, such as meditation and peak experiences. Bob Kegan, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, conducted a study on adults as they aged, defining the different developmental stages they passed through. The final stage he describes is "self-transforming," where people have increased empathy, and the ability to hold conflicting perspectives at the same time.
A large number of "self-transforming" adults engaged in meditative or flow-inducing activities, such as meditation or martial arts. It's not exactly "happiness" or "mental health," however we decided to define those, but it's definitely interesting. I still have yet to read some of his books and find out more.
Side note: I went surfing for the first time, and it was amazing!!! I'm hooked.