What is a flow state and what are its benefits?

What is a flow state and what are its benefits?

At Deeply we aim to elevate our community to a flow state. But what is this exactly? Most of us have most probably experienced it at some point without being aware. A flow state is characterized by a sense of fluidity between the body, mind and the soul. You become completely absorbed and engaged with the task at hand that distraction isn’t available. You lose sense of time, your senses are amplified in order to create an effortless momentum. A flow state is most commonly described as “being in the zone”. The good news is that this state is available to everyone. 

What happens to the brain in a flow state?

The truth is neuroscientists haven’t been able to completely figure out the flow state. However it is characterized by its distinct mental state. For it to occur, the person’s skill level and task difficulty have to be balanced. You should work on a task that is engaging, that is slightly above your skill level, but not too hard to the point of causing frustration. The engagement involved should enable our brains to relax in an unusual way. 

When we are engaged in a task, typically, our central executive network (CEN) is at work. When we are “doing  nothing” or daydreaming, our default mode network (DMN) is at work. Although counterintuitive, our brain activity levels are significantly higher in DMN. This is also the part of the brain involved in flow. When we are in a flow state, our minds are fully engaged in the task at hand in a way that seems to free up other parts of our brain to make connections. Although a flow state involves work, it is restorative and pleasurable. In a flow state dopamine is being released. This neurotransmitter makes us feel more relaxed, optimistic and energized. 

Benefits of a flow state. 

  • Emotional regulation: A flow state increases our emotional complexity, this enables us to develop new emotional states, and more sophisticated emotional tools. As a result, a flow state can help us improve our emotional regulation and therefore provide us with more emotional stability. 

  • Fulfillment and Happiness: People in a flow state are able to enjoy the task at hand more. Since the task is more enjoyable people are able to extract a higher level of satisfaction and fulfillment from it. Research shows that this leads to increased levels of happiness and self-actualization.

  • Intrinsic Motivation: Since flow is a positive mental state, it may help increase people’s motivation levels. It will help drive people’s intrinsic motivation. It motivates them to do things for the sheer pleasure of doing them regardless of the outcome. 

  • Engagement and performance: people in a flow state feel fully engaged in the task at hand leaving little room for distractions. As a result, a flow state increases performance levels. 

  • Learning, skill development and creativity: Achieving a flow state requires a level of mastery of a certain skill. In order to maintain this state people have to continue learning and improving. 

  • How to achieve a flow state? 

    1. Choose clear goals: Achieving a flow state involves having a clear objective of working on a finite task. This becomes easier when you know exactly what you are working on as it provides you with a sense of control

    2. Make it challenging: Activities with the appropriate level of difficulty are more engaging. Find ways to increase the complexity of the task at hand. When you make routine activities more challenging they become more enjoyable. 

    3. Make it easy to focus: Block out periods of time when you can work  without distractions. Also choose the time of day when you are more active and alert in order to improve your focus.
    4. Get to know yourself: It's hard to enter a flow state when you are doing something you don't like. However, it is also worth noticing why it is that you don't enjoy the task. Is it too easy? Too repetitive? Too hard? If we focus on finding something worth learning in every task we are able to transform nearly everything into a flow experience. Experiencing a flow state as often as possible leads to happier and more fulfilled lives. 

    Flow in Surfing

    You can’t recognise you are in a flow state. The moment you recognise you are in a flow state, it ceases to exist. However, most of us can look back in time and recognise all the times we have experienced a flow state. For those of us who practice high risk sports such as surfing and rock climbing, experiencing a flow state is something we experience on a regular basis. 

    Has it ever happened to you that you’re in the water and someone comes up to you and asks how long you’ve been there? To be honest you really can’t tell but you reply with a reasonable estimate. You can’t tell how long you were in the water for because during that time your reality has been reduced to what you could see and experience in your immediate surroundings. Everything else has ceased to exist. There is only you and the waves. Your surfing is so effortless it is almost as if the board is riding you. As you paddle back to the peak it feels so effortless, almost as if you could continue to catch waves forever. 

    “So, next time someone tries to make you feel guilty about spending too much time surfing, which is apparently a useless activity because it doesn’t bring us money, status or a new car, remember that surfing keeps us fit, young at heart and close to Nature. But more than that, surfing gives us Flow, a state of mind enjoyed by children and hunter-gatherers, but sadly lacking in today’s superficial, materialistic world. If someone asks you why you keep going back and doing such a useless activity as surfing, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find a reason. Just tell them that you surf to surf, and that’s that. - Tony Butt, Patagonia Journalist

    Understanding the four happy brain chemicals

    Hormones are produced by different glands across our body. They travel through our bloodstream and act as messengers in our body processes. One of their important functions is to regulate our mood. The happy hormones are known to promote a positive feeling, happiness and pleasure. 

    There are four main happy hormones. Each one plays a different role and is activated through different actions and behaviors. 

    1. Dopamine: This is known as “the feel good” hormone. It acts on our brain’s reward system. It provides us with pleasure and enables us to learn and memorize. You can boost this hormone by completing a task, celebrating little wins and doing self-care activities. 

    2. Serotonin: This hormone is responsible for regulating our mood. It also affects our sleep, appetite, digestion, learning ability, and memory.

    3. Oxytocin: This is the “love hormone”. It is needed for childbirth, breastfeeding and child-parent bonding. It also promotes trust, empathy and bonding in relationships. This hormone is responsive to physical touch. 

    4. Endorphins: These are the body’s natural “pain relievers”. They are released by the body in response to stress and discomfort.  They are also released when you engage in reward inducing activities.