Entering ‘Flow’ Can Make Hard Exercise More Enjoyable
Think back to the last time you felt utterly absorbed in an activity: a sport, hobby, book, task, or conversation. Colloquially, it’s known as being in the zone. Psychologists call the phenomenon “flow.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, named the concept in 1975. Flow is a mindset people can enter when they are fully immersed in and enjoying an activity. Psychologists and sports scientists have postulated that when people enter into flow, they are working at their optimal performance level.
In his book Bone Games, the journalist and occasional mountain climber Rob Schultheis described how entering flow helped him complete one of the hardest physical feats of his life. In the winter of 1964 he climbed a mountain called Neva in the Colorado Rockies. The journey to the summit was relatively straightforward, but disaster struck during the descent. Schultheis became stuck on an ice-covered rock face, powerless to either climb back up or descend to safety. Unable to maintain his grip, he fell, landing on a narrow ledge inches away from a 200-foot drop and certain death. By the time he struggled to his feet, he was injured and it was past 3 in the afternoon; the light was beginning to fade, and he still needed to cross Neva’s western face. Entering a state of flow is what he credits with his ultimate return to safety: “I know my limitations, and I was climbing way, way beyond them,” he writes. “The person I became on Neva was the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life.”
The sensation of flow requires a change in mindset.
Csikszentmihalyi and his research team have spent the past three decades interviewing thousands of people about their own flow experiences. Based on these interviews, they’ve concluded that flow is “a harmonious and intrinsically rewarding state characterized by intense focus and absorption in a specific activity, to the exclusion of irrelevant thoughts and emotions, and a sense of everything coming together or clicking into place, even in challenging situations.”