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What Is Flow and Why Does It Feel So Damned Good?


A client asked me a while ago what activities I enjoy and why and I explained that, whenever I can, I choose those that put me in a state of flow. If you don’t have enough of these minutes in a day or hours in a week, your well-being will suffer, so here’s an explanation of what flow is and how you can find more of it. 

In Why Does Experiencing ‘Flow’ Feel So Good? A Communication Scientist Explains,

flow is called “the secret to happiness” and an “optimal experience” . . . “characterized by immense joy that makes a life worth living.” I’m in a state of flow when I’m writing (like now) or dancing or reading an engrossing book. I used to feel it while skiing. I think of it as being so lost in the pleasure of an experience that all else in life falls away. The article describes it as being “completely absorbed in a highly rewarding activity—and not in our inner monologues.” We’re somewhere wonderful without thinking about the fact, with no sense of time, completely immersed in the now.

Oddly, that is exactly what we feel when we’re on a binge or a bender. We’re full of the experience and time stands still. We forget mindful eating, the pledge we made for sobriety, how sick our tummies will feel tonight or the hangover we’ll suffer tomorrow. These are examples of the state you’re looking for, but not how to get there.

Article author Richard Huskey, PhD, says that “Flow occurs when a task’s challenge is balanced with one’s skill.” He describes the benefits of experiencing flow. It sustains you in pursuing long-term goals. For example, a 10-minute break checking email or filling in part of a crossword puzzle can help you get your garage cleaned out by refreshing you and renewing your energy. In a word, it enlivens you. Flow also promotes “resilience in the face of adversity . . . because it “can help refocus thoughts away from something stressful to something enjoyable. In fact, studies have shown that experiencing flow can help guard against depression and burnout.”

What’s going on in your brain during flow? “Studies show that the experience is associated with activity in brain structures implicated in feeling reward and pursuing our goals” and that it “is associated with decreased activity in brain structures implicated in self-focus.” In short, it takes us away from painful reality and puts us in a pleasurable mental state. Moreover, flow can help us adapt to difficult tasks more easily.

So, next time you’re thinking about binge-eating or just having a nosh when you’re not hungry, think about that as a craving for flow and find an activity that will bring you there, even for a few minutes. It will improve your eating and brighten your life.