by Stuart Gooding
Surfing isn’t for everyone – plenty of people spend a few hours grappling with a foamy in whitewater before turning back to dry land, but for those of us who do it enough – we’re hooked.
A lot has been written about why surfing feels this good. It’s notoriously hard to put into words, but time and time again most surfers get a feeling that they find hard to explain to non ocean going civvies. Perhaps the closest we have come to making sense of this feeling psychologically is the concept of ‘flow’.
Flow, “the process of total involvement with life” was first coined by a psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 70’s when surfing was bursting on the scene and getting traction around the world. Beyond having a surname that tries to contain most letters of the alphabet, Csikszentmihalyi’s research has inspired many sports writers and those considering life improvement. His concept emerged with a new type of psychology, at a time when research was turning away from Freud and addressing more positive aspects of life.
In this post, I’ll try and outline what flow means, and some of the ways that psychologists and surfers have thought about this idea, but I also want to consider (in a tongue in cheek kinda way) the idea that surfers might be prone to some of the darker sides of flow and whether we can chase these kind of experiences too hard.
So, what is Flow? Flow describes the state when we are completely absorbed in an activity, somewhere where our skills and abilities are being pushed to an optimal level. If we’re experiencing flow we may be totally focused, serene, timeless even, and have feelings of absolute clarity. It’s a place where we lose that everyday consciousness of ourselves and our day to day world. A deceptively simple idea eh?
Whilst the power of “flow” still gets talked about in almost religious tones by some, my theory is that it’s helped put some of those transcendental, zen and frankly cringey, stoke worthy explanations to bed. I’m sort of joking, because sometimes I think in those zen ways a little bit too when the waves are good and the sun and the moon align.
Flow is not only experienced by surfers, as Csikszentmihalyi reminds us when discussing this concept born out of “optimal experience”. Poetically, he describes Flow as what a “sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt – sails, hull, wind and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins”. Not just surfers and sailors, but surgeons, skydivers, children, painters, musicians, office workers, even criminals and anyone else can reach this state when immersed in the right kind of task. When surfing, playing guitar, noticing the friendly sparrows dancing outside your window, you forget all other worries and thoughts.
Flow may happen by chance, when we’re immersed in nature or learning an instrument or new language, but fully immersive activities like surfing tend to lead us to this state. Other pursuits like endlessly scrolling through Facebook – less so. Flow is attained by doing.
For surfers we have multiple opportunities to encounter flow other than just riding a wave. We run across the beach, we step into the sea – we are a small part of an ever changing and dynamic landscape. It’s like we’re crossing a sandy threshold, physically removing ourselves from one reality to another. In cold water your body feels the shock of the low temperatures – you don’t have to go far these days to read other accounts of people doing things like “wild swimming” with a bunch of earthy mates in February and getting a similar all over naturey feeling buzz.
The benefits of flow are far reaching. This kind of deep concentration produces long wave frequencies in the mind – kind of the opposite of the short wave frequencies we might be exposed to through the constant pinging of our smart phones. These long wave frequencies have been shown to cultivate a feeling of long term well being – a lasting happiness that’s different to the kind of rush we might get from a more immediately satisfying activity like chocolate, drugs or a favourite TV show. Csikszentmihalyi points out that ironically, this means that work is actually more conducive to long term happiness than rest, because we are more likely to be ‘fully immersed’ in a work-related task than if we’re lazing in a hammock.
Work more conducive to happiness than leisure? Well, I don’t know if I could agree with that, but perhaps that’s because I know exactly what I want to do with my leisure time, and for me, at least, surfing is the most sure-fire guarantee I have of reaching that life affirming state of Flow.
All of which is a long winded way of saying something that you almost certainly already know. Surfing makes you happy and you should do more if it. Or should you….?
A negative side to flow?
Ever since the idea of flow was conceived, the idea of a Star Warsian, “dark side”, has been suggested. Researchers who have explored this ‘Dark Side’, have considered concepts such as ‘exercise addiction’ and ‘dependance’ to explore what happens when people chase these feelings too hard. Such a pursuit might ultimately lead us away from our work-life goals, challenge socially acceptable standards, use loads of petrol, piss off our loved ones and lead us to lose, change or quit our jobs. For the braver – injure themselves by chasing the next high that puts their nervous system into overdrive.
Glancing through some symptoms of something we might call “exercise addiction” I noticed that we as surfers might score high. Most of us have at some time, spent inordinate amounts of time in the water potentially leading to some conflict. When you’re scoring great waves, you might surf for so many hours that you forget that your long suffering partner is still waiting in the car, or that you were supposed to be at a family dinner two hours ago. (guilty)
Likewise many of us may have struggled to keep out of the water during injury (bad ears, bad shoulders…) or have struggled with the mood crashing effects of missing out on good surf. We’ve all kind of been there. You might know you need to be at the in-laws birthday party, but unable to pass up on the swell that’s marching down the coast as you’re chasing that feeling. And it’s the best swell in living memory for years again this month.
Alternatively and maybe more likely, because you’re a generally under control and functioning human being (evidenced by the fact that you have in-laws and can afford to imagine going on surf weekends away with friends) – you’re at the party experiencing withdrawal effects. Jittery and agitated as your mates post you the latest photos on Whatsapp and you do your best to steady your hand with the flow of the nearest bottle of alcohol.
Most of us who have a serious interest in our pastime may have done some selfish things in the name of chasing flow. I have, if you’ve read this far and you’re looking for answers, you probably have. You’re not totally forgiven but you’ve got a good problem and maybe you’ve got a scientific excuse now. For most surfers, it’s done with a positive focus on our wellbeing – running up and down the beach, paddling in the sea, looking at nature, having some concern towards the environment, surely we’re improving our physical and mental health. Getting up early for the dawnie – extreme yes, but most people advocate getting up early, right?
The middle way?
As a surfer who studied psychology I have always been interested in these explanations for why I enjoy my sport so much, but at the same time I’m happy to take them with a pinch of salt. As much as I like the Flow concept because it goes someway to explain why surfing feels so good, there’s that paradox that as soon as we intellectualise surfing in a wordy sense, we might miss the point. If I start to wonder whether I’m in flow, I’m instantly not in the moment. Sometimes I get my leash caught around my front foot when I’m on the wave, and I’m not sure if I’m experiencing a lapse in flow state or just terrible at surfing.
So back to the guy at the party, fulfilling social obligations, missing all the waves – maybe that’s what being a postmodern grown up surfer is about? Reconciling being able to surf, with your life responsibilities. Having the ability to drop the dependance, step out of the flow, so to speak whilst your friends get barrelled and sustain themselves on a petrol station diet. I’m reliably told that jobs, marriages, children can all help you towards this kind of conservative middle ground. I also know some friends who now prefer to run, cycle, swim – because it’s a much more dependable activity; in general it doesn’t matter what the conditions are like, it fits with their jobs, relationships and location.
For me personally, I’m sure there’s a kind of dependence to these feelings of flow, but it’s not one that feels unhealthy, although at times in my life, maybe I have surfed a little too much at the expense of other things. On the whole though, it felt good and helped to move my life forward, but as I have got older, I wonder if it’s as much about chasing that nice flow feeling as it has been about being with friends and drawing people together. Whether we realise it or not, surfing is about more than just exercise or feeling timeless; we build social connections and forge our identities both in and out of the water. And these factors – strong social connections, the feeling of ‘belonging’ to a tribe, a sense of purpose – have also been shown to promote long term happiness, just as flow does.
All in all, whether we’re attaining regular flow or not, or whether we just don’t care, it’s pretty clear that surfing – whatever level you are and however you do it – will be a force for happiness in your life. Just don’t forget the in-laws birthdays and your all good.
And don’t forget to check out our app, Johnny on the Spot. It’s a personal, private diary that will help you keep a record of your surf sessions and learn the best time to surf all your favourite breaks.