Paddling typically plays a significant role in my summer and fall. This is a story about finding flow on a river. I’m not talking about the flow of the river, but the psychological concept of flow that we experience.
A couple years ago, Wisconsin received some unusual rain in the fall causing the rivers to rise higher than usual. Taking advantage of this opportunity, three of us paddled section II of the Wolf River in Northeast Wisconsin. I was in a kayak and the two others in a canoe. Section II contains class I and II rapids and is a great river for whitewater paddling. None of us had paddled this river before and only had reports from others to guide us, along with our own past experiences and judgment. We were a bit nervous and excited at the same time. We negotiated several rapids throughout the day, dealt with the canoe flipping once, and helped some under-experienced men get through a particularly long rapid. It was an intense, exciting day full of successes. We all were on our “A” game and did a great job in the whitewater rapids.
Towards the end of our four-hour trip we were floating along in some calm water, reflecting on the day. We started talking about the concept of flow. Not the flow of the river, but a state of being where you are fully immersed and focused on what you are doing. Flow is that sense of heightened awareness and challenge where time seems to fly and stand still all at once. The term was originally coined by creativity researcher Mihaly Csikzsentmihalyi. Csikzsentmihalyi was trying to understand creativity in individuals and studied artists, chess players, rock climbers, and others. Through his research he discovered the psychological state of flow.
Throughout the day we all experienced flow when we were attuned to our boat, our paddle, the river, the route we needed to maneuver, and each other. When paddling a rapid, there is so much to focus on and you can’t think about anything else. Successfully accomplishing the task is exciting – and led to many yelps and smiles throughout the day.
During this conversation about flow, one of the women in our trio said this same topic came up at work. Some of her co-workers said they had never experienced flow. What?! Never? I almost fell out of my kayak. Really? They’ve never experienced that amazing, positive, euphoric state of flow? I was dumbfounded and then felt a little naïve. I guess it actually makes sense.
I do the things I do because they push me, challenge me, lead me to feel the flow. It’s why I like to canoe, climb, photograph, make art, and teach. I thought about this long after the trip was over. Why do some people not experience flow in their lives? Of course, all these people had most likely experienced flow when they were kids. Kids experience flow all the time when they play. They get so engrossed they forget about things like coming home for dinner or doing their homework. They are just focused on what they are doing.
Flow is most likely to happen when you feel challenged and have a high level of skill in the area. If you are “in over your head” you are more likely to feel overwhelmed or nervous, if the task is too easy you may be bored. There is a great description of this on Wikipedia.
Think about the activities that fill your day, week, and month. When do you experience flow? Which activities provide you with that satisfying feeling of flow? Experiencing flow daily is great, weekly is good, and monthly is crucial. If you are not experiencing flow at least once a month, what can you do to increase those flow opportunities?
For me, experiencing flow is experiencing happiness. Whether it happens alone or with a group, I love the moments where nothing else seems to matter but what I am focused on in the moment.
What can you do to bring more flow into your life?
Who can support you in finding flow?
I hope you have a wonderful year ahead exploring the concept of flow and reflecting on how to increase flow in your life. It’s worth it.
Book: Flow by Mihaly Csikzsentmihalyi