One of the things that I find exhilarating during a climb is the sense of flow you will sometimes  experience: That moment when you are fully, totally immersed in what you are doing, with one movement logically leading to the next, totally loosing your sense of time, giving yourself over to the exhilaration of the climb, besides which all else pales to insignificance: you are totally focused on the task at hand, on the next leg of the climb, on reaching that part of the canopy, on making that traverse. In my own mind I have always referred to this as an sensation of flow.

You may remember that the other day I was getting all excited about learning more about aspects of a matter I thought I had understood? Well, this one has got me really excited! My brother pointed out Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s flow theory to me (thanks, Michael, goes to prove that ‘flu is good for something at least, eh?)… what can I say, my mind is pretty much blown!

Csíkszentmihályi is a Hungarian psychologist whose research started out by asking the question what makes people happy. He established that so long as certain basic necessities are guaranteed, increased wealth does not make for a happier person…

One reoccurring theme, when talking to people about when they experienced happiness, Csíkszentmihályi realised, was a sense of flow they described – regardless of whether he was talking to an author, a composer, a musician, an athlete or an artist. He developed the following definition of flow which states that when you are in a state of flow, you experience:

  • an intense and focused concentration on the present moment,
  • a merging of action and awareness,
  • a loss of reflective self-consciousness,
  • a sense of personal control over the situation or activity,
  • a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered,
  • the experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding,
  • a sense of “immediate feedback”,
  • a feeling that you have the potential to succeed, and
  • feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible.

Many of the points above I can relate to from challenging climbing situations: The sharpened sense of awareness that comes from being at height, the sensation of the open space below you, the buzz from a perfectly landed swing, the buzz of flowing through the tree, the satisfaction of seeing a plan unfold perfectly.

Csíkszentmihályi proposes following model:

The states of mind he distributes in the diagram above – apathy, boredom, worry, anxiety, relaxation, arousal, control and flow – all interact and depend upon the level of challenge and your subjective level of ability or skill. The point where the lines intersect represent a neutral state, from there on outwards, the emotions which an activity evoke depend upon the level of the challenge and the level of skills involved to master it.

Below is another interpretation of the chart above, this time emphasising the flow channel

An evening of browsing YouTube and Facebook?

Low challenge, low ability. OK in moderation, but can lead to a sense of apathy when overdone. Crank up the level of challenge, but keep the level of ability low and you will find yourself respectively feeling worried, or anxious. However, if you increase the level of ability, for example by practice or by training an activity, you may find yourself relaxed, aroused or in control.

By balancing off the two aspects of challenge and skill/ ability against each other, we can find ourselves either feeling relaxed, in control or aroused. Get the balance wrong however, and you may find yourself fearful, worried or scared.

Taking it easy on the job, just plodding along, being relaxed is all very well, yet the flow theory states you cannot experience a sense of flow while doing so.

I found all this a really fascinating insight, as so much of it rings true – and once again, puts words to a diffuse concept.

We often talk about striving for having control over a situation. But according to Csíkszentmihályi, in order to enter into the state of flow (happy and focused), we need to push ourselves beyond our area of relaxation (confident and contented) or control (confident and happy) by increasing the level of challenge. It is important not to confuse this with advocating going beyond what can be controlled, the statement above refers specifically to Csíkszentmihályi’s nomenclature as used in his model, flow by definition contains control with focus added on top.

He also states that effort is required to experience flow. It takes years of practice, diligence and effort in order to become sufficiently proficient and competent in an activity to be able to achieve the levels of challenge and skill necessary to enter into the flow channel.

All the above makes you realise why the experience of flow is not an every-day occurrence, it takes not only the right frame of mind, but also the right activity – yet when it all comes together, it comes with a profound sense of beauty and clarity.

No wonder you can get hooked on it!