When Pursuit of Flow Gets the Best of Us

Suzie Glassman

How to maintain a healthy perspective

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=2TgytS_0Xl5lojI00Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

A little awhile ago, I came across an article by another writer titled 3 Hours of Creative Flow Every Day is All You Need to Change Your Life. The subtitle implies we’re wasting our lives if we’re not doing this.

Tim is right about a few things. The more time we spend in a flow state, the more we are capable of producing and the better our performance.

Our work in these states is often our most creative and awe-inspiring. It pays to reach flow every time we sit down to work.

Writing is the only thing I do where I can get so lost in what I’m doing I forget to eat (trust me, forgetting to eat is not my norm). My husband often says the house could burn down, and I wouldn’t notice. He’s likely right.

However, reaching (or not being able to reach subsequent flow states) has its downsides. Pursuing flow at all costs can lead to addiction, the elevation of risky behavior, depression, and resentment.

The Neurochemistry of Flow

Steven Kotler first wrote about the downsides to flow in his book, The Rise of Superman,

The neurochemicals that are involved with the state of flow are the most addictive chemicals on earth, and the psychological impact is equally as powerful.
Scientists who study human motivation have found that after our basic survival needs are met, the most powerful intrinsic (motivational) drivers are all deeply woven into the state of flow.

The main chemicals involved in flow include:

  1. Dopamine. Known as the feel-good neurotransmitter, we get a boost of dopamine when we engage in rewarding behavior, like eating food we crave, having sex, listening to new music, or accomplishing a goal.
  2. Norepinephrine. Responsible for increasing our heart rate and providing a boost of energy, norepinephrine increases arousal and narrows our focus so we can enjoy sustained attention on one task.
  3. Endorphins. These chemicals reduce pain and increase pleasure. They mimic drugs like morphine but are far more powerful.
  4. Anandamide. The word originates from the Sanskrit “ananda,” which roughly translates to “bliss” or “joy.” This neurotransmitter inhibits our ability to feel fear.
  5. Serotonin. Serotonin provides the feeling of elation that drives us to seek a flow state again.

When in flow, we are high on our brain chemistry. What’s more, once we find a flow state, the easier it becomes to find it again (this is because we’ve strengthened the neural connections needed to get there).

Addiction and Risky Behavior

Kotler writes,

Flow is an alternative path towards mastery, but, like any path, not without its pitfalls. There is a serious dark side to flow.
Flow involves tinkering with primal biology: addictive neurochemistry, potent psychology, and hardwired evolutionary behaviors. Seriously, what could go wrong?

Kotler’s book outlines the downfalls extreme athletes and adrenaline-junkies face when they have to engage in riskier and riskier behavior to achieve the same “high” as when they first felt superhuman.

Imagine riding a 20-foot wave off the North Shore of Oahu. Your senses narrow until the only thing you see is the water in front of you. You don’t feel fear. Your body is moving without conscious thought.

When it’s over, you feel the most alive you’ve ever been. The only thing you want is to do it again — bigger and faster.

Experiencing the most intense version of the flow state means we have to increase the challenge each time we go back for more. Behavior becomes exceedingly dangerous — leading some people to pay the ultimate price with their lives.

Even if you’re not engaging in the most extreme aspect of flow (like riding a 20-foot wave), you can find yourself addicted to the feeling it provides. While this may be great in terms of work output, it can hamper your personal life in socially disruptive ways.

David Levitin writes in The Organized Mind,

Jeannette Walls, in The Glass Castle, describes her mother being so absorbed in painting that she would ignore her hungry children’s cries for food. Three-year-old Jeannette accidentally set herself on fire while standing on a chair in front of the stove, attempting to cook hot dogs in a boiling pot while her artist mother was absorbed in painting.
Even after Jeannette returned from six weeks in the hospital, her mother couldn’t be bothered to step outside the flow she was in while painting, to cook for the child.

Other artists like Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, and Sting have reminisced about leaving parties, showing up late, or not showing up at all when struck by sudden inspiration. Creative people can have a reputation for being unreliable or flaky.

What To Do

Transitioning from a time of high flow behavior like being a soldier, overseas missionary or volunteer, professional athlete or musician, or countless other careers that experience intense highs and lows into retirement is challenging.

Professional climber Cedar Wright states,

Now you’ve lost that thing that was driving you forward, you lost that thing that you were obsessed over. There’s that moment of emptiness and almost depression that can follow a really hard climb or something that was really meaningful to you.

One study suggests it’s time to end the social stigma surrounding mental health and athletes when careers end. You may need to seek a therapist or a qualified counselor to help with the transition.

Even for those who don’t engage in risky behavior, it’s essential to recognize flow has its inherent limitations. Levitin warns it’s best to set aside time for flow when we are responsible for no one and nothing else. Set a timer for when the flow state needs to end.

Corey McComb provides a simple trick to find flow easier. It starts with ending your flow state before you’re completely cooked. Quit by making it obvious what you need to do next, and you’ll find getting back to it the next day much easier.

Levitin’s book also taught me to keep index cards with me at all times. If I’m struck with a thought that needs to come out of my brain and onto paper, I can write it down without having to drop what I’m doing.

Depression and Resentment

Another problem with regularly pursuing flow is that we can’t possibly chase new heights every day. Like giant waves, sometimes the ideas aren’t there.

Often, life and work (if it doesn’t match what creates flow) keep us from a state we desperately want to reach. If the thing that pays the bills isn’t intrinsically rewarding, you may end up profoundly resentful or checked out.

There’s no faster way to lock yourself out of flow than to think a task is boring, pointless or a waste of time.

Of course, I love the feeling when I’m so wrapped up in my writing that I lose all sense of time place. Words fly onto the page. The problem is when I can’t get there, I end up depressed, moody, and mad at the world.

I’ve screamed in frustration at the first child to “need” something when I’ve finally hit my stride. It’s not something I’m proud of.

Last, we may put away the vehicle that leads to flow, believing we no longer have time. There’s a reason adulting is hard.

Kotler warns,

The risk of growing bitter and depressed due to removing flow-inducing activities isn’t particularly easy to handle.
How many people have stopped playing guitar, painting, dancing, writing and other activities that induce flow because these are not activities that also squarely fit into the “culturally acceptable” responsibility categories? Culturally acceptable responsibility categories are things like career or children.

Peter Pan had to grow up eventually.

What To Do

Our bodies made flow so chemically rewarding that learning to weave it into our daily lives makes us happier and more fulfilled.

Make time for what induces flow. Kotler suggests that if you gave up the guitar, pick it up again. Find an adult dance class if that’s your thing. If it’s writing, make time for it as often as possible. What made you happiest as a kid?

Start engaging in hobbies again. I picked up gymnastics lessons for a period. It was hard to find an adult class, but (believe it or not), one existed. I loved working on handstands and backflips, and it made me happier in my daily life.

As far as fighting off resentment for life’s responsibilities, Kotler says it helps when you have periods set aside for flow and other times when you know it’s not possible.

Cut yourself some slack if your flow time doesn’t produce much. It’s okay to paddle back to shore empty-handed. Our most creative moments often come after an imaginative drought, writes Levitin. As long as you’re breathing, there will be another day.

Final Thoughts

Even though Kotler is referring to the pursuit of intense states of flow, I believe his message translates to those of us looking for flow in our daily work.

These states are some of the most addictive states on earth and they are very hard to deal with, you get the huge highs of a flow state and suddenly its gone all the feel good neurochemicals have exhausted themselves. They take a little while to replenish. You need nutrition, you need sunlight, you need rest. You were super up, now you’re super down.

We need to take care of our bodies and minds when it comes to flow. Getting enough sleep, exercise, eating well, and minimizing stress are necessary to maintain a healthy perspective.

If you can’t spend three hours a day in a flow state, it’s okay. You’re not wasting your life. Life stages will demand different things from you.

Here are the key takeaways to avoiding the dark side of flow.

  1. If you’re coming down from a profession or period with intense high-flow states, find someone who can help you adjust to the transition.
  2. Set aside time for flow when you have no other responsibilities. When it’s time to stop, leave yourself a clear marker of where to pick up next time.
  3. Write down inspirational thoughts as they come to you, so you can stay present in the moment if it’s not okay to disappear into a flow state. You can find it later once you’re able to focus.
  4. Make time for activities that induce flow — even if you gave them up a long time ago.
  5. Cut yourself slack when it doesn’t happen.

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I write about health and fitness with the goal to help you live a healthier, happier life.

Denver, CO

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