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Why Running Makes Us Happy: The Importance of Flow

Posted by on Dec 10, 2012 | 8 Comments

Most of us have probably heard of “flow states.” It’s a state of consciousness where we get lost in the activity we’re doing. Our focus is so intense, we lose awareness of the outside (and inside) world. We don’t notice the passing of time and feelings of hunger, thirst, or fatigue. Our inner monologue ceases. We become completely engrossed in whatever we’re doing.

My first experiences with flow states came from my days as an artist. I loved drawing in general and pencil drawing in particular. When working on a piece, I’d get totally engrossed. Five hours would feel like five minutes. I’d lose awareness of everything around me.

Later, I experienced this same phenomenon when playing certain video games. When I started playing sports, I noticed the same experience. When playing football, a quarter would seemingly pass in a matter of seconds. When wrestling, a period would pass in the blink of an eye.

I’ve also noticed the flow state lately while delivering packages. There will be times where Eric, my driver, and I will get in a groove. We stop talking. Our actions sync up. Our efficiency goes through the roof.

Running is an activity that can elicit a flow state. We need a minimum level of proficiency to enter flow states, so this probably doesn’t happen with complete novices. Once we gain a little experience to the point where the motions of running are more or less automatic, we can enter a flow state. And we love it. In fact, it’s that flow state than makes running somewhat addictive.

There’s a problem with flow state, though. We need a minimum level of proficiency to enter the state. We have to be able to accomplish the task at hand automatically; we cannot consciously think about our motions. That requires some degree of practice. Also, flow state requires challenge. If a task is perceived as too easy, we don’t enter a flow state. We need to get to a happy medium between mastery and challenge. When we find that sweet spot, we set up the conditions to enter a flow state.

Sidebar- sensory experiences are a major part of flow states. I’d hypothesize this is the reason barefoot running can be such a powerful experience… it allows us to enter a flow state easier than shod running.

Anyway, the perceived challenge aspect is important. If we don’t perceive enough of a challenge, we can’t enter a flow state. If we can’t enter a flow state, our intrinsic motivation for an activity decreases. To continue the activity after we’ve mastered it, we have to rely on external motivators, which aren’t sustainable.

This explains why we have a desire to intentionally handicap ourselves for routine tasks. This also explains why we seek out more difficult challenges. We’re unconsciously trying to find the sweet spot where flow can occur.

It’s no secret that I despise road running. Why? I don’t perceive a challenge. I’m not motivated to run faster or longer on roads, so the “boringness” keeps me from entering a flow state. Why do I like trail running, especially in rugged mountains? It’s hard. Not impossible hard, but challenging hard. It hits my sweet spot.

Flow state mastery also explains why I have little tolerance for routine. I can’t run the same trails repeatedly. I have a difficult time running a race multiple times. I don’t even like loop courses for this reason.

This also explains why I occasionally lose interest in running. At some point, I get good enough to surpass that sweet spot and I lose the intrinsic motivation of the flow state. Note that point of “too good” is relative… I’m not a good runner compared to most ultrarunners… only good enough to surpass the flow state. If I take time away, my skills quickly erode. When I begin running again, it’s sufficiently hard to regress back to the sweet spot.

Why was I so unmotivated to run the last 100 miler? I had run several long races in a short period of time. There was no longer a question that I’d finish. I could have tried running it faster, but finish times aren’t intrinsically motivating to me. At Grindstone, I didn’t enter flow states nearly as much as I normally do, which served as an early warning. I was surpassing that sweet spot, and motivation reflected it.

Jesse Scott and I have had many conversations about the joy of trying new activities. We get great joy in being bad at an activity. Why? It’s a challenge to start from scratch and build to the point where you’re proficient enough to enter a flow state.

This also explains why my new package delivery job is so rewarding. When I first started, I wasn’t good. I was motivated to improve to the point where I could enter a flow state. I’m now at that point. As such, the job is intensely intrinsically rewarding. I’m in the sweet spot. As i continue the job, I will eventually get too good. Without a perceived challenge, I’ll have trouble entering flow. The job will no longer be intrinsically rewarding. At that point, I’ll either move on to a different job within the company or do something to handicap myself to reintroduce challenge.

I’m beginning to realize I’m a flow state addict, which is the reason I can’t do the same thing day in and day out. I crave variety. I love trying new things until I reach a degree of mastery, then move on to something else. That pattern correlates perfectly with flow states.I’m on the cusp of starting a new hobby and I’m unbelievably excited. Why? I know I’m going to royally suck and the motivation to improve to get to that flow state strikes a deep inner drive.

Why has the hobo lifestyle been such a rewarding experience? It was new. When did it begin to lose it’s luster? Right about the time we got really good at being hobos. Why is our present “boring rest period” intrinsically rewarding? It’s been a long time since we experienced it, so we’re not very good. Once we gain that optimum level of post-flow state mastery, we’ll be ready to go back to exciting nomadic adventures.

Lifestyle cycling feeds the flow state addiction.

Runners- what do you think? Can you relate? I suspect not all people are motivated by flow states. I know lots of people that derive great pleasure from routine; variety is something that is deeply upsetting. If the flow state motivation model doesn’t seem to reflect your experiences, what does motivate you? Leave a comment!

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8 Comments

  1. Eric
    December 13, 2012

    One of the reasons why I love to run is very similar to the “flow state”, but I’m not sure it’s exactly the same. There are two types of “zones” that I can enter and they both induce different types of “rungasm”. First, like the flow state that you mentioned, I sometimes enter a state of mind where I no longer realize that I’m even running. However, I find it enjoyable because my mind becomes free to wander farther than usual. When I enter this state I find that my mind becomes almost completely detached from my body and I am able to simply enjoy the ride without actually having exert any sort of significant effort. The second type of “rungasm” occurs when I am fully aware of my legs moving and my shortness of breath, but the combination of motions that makeup running simply makes me feel really really good. The cold air against my face. The feel of the ground under my feet. The comfortable, familiar motion of my legs moving back and forth. All of these things, when combined, can feel “perfect” and you (and by you I mean I) realize that there isn’t really anything that you’d rather be doing. Sometimes, at the beginning of a run I’m thinking “Well crap, I have another __ miles to go”, but when you feel this sort of rungasm you are incredibly excited about the miles to come because it means that you can feel this way for a longer period of time. I’m not sure if what I have described applies to anyone else, or its relation to the flow state, but let me know what you think!

  2. bosenoge
    December 13, 2012

    Altough Im very much like you(love doing different things in life and then move on to something else), I dont agree that The Flow has very much with perceived effort of the task, or a task itself for that matter.

    Recently I watched a great movie about a 83-year sushi chef who has a bar in Tokyo subway, but has earned 3 Michelin stars for his mastering of the sushi art(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1772925/ ). Listen to his words(and watch the movie!!) “Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably.”

    “I’ve never once hated this job. I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it. Even though I’m eighty five years old, I don’t feel like retiring. That’s how I feel.”

    Sushi is pretty simple, just like running :) To me it seems it takes a lifetime(Jiros students must go through minimum 10 years of training)of dedication to really master some skill. And then you have constant Flow, not just short bursts of it. Jiro sure seems always in that state.

  3. Dan Stoner (@thatlinuxbox)
    December 11, 2012

    I can’t read a post about Flow without posting a link to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book on the subject:

    http://www.amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-Experience-Mihaly-Csikszentmihalyi/dp/0061339202/?tag=kristenstoner-20

    I rarely have the time lapse phenomena while running, although trail running definitely gets me closer.

    Computer programming is one of the few activities I have found that can get me into a true flow state. Jason, you are right about a minimum level of competency being required. If I’m stumbling over syntax I’m not going to get deep enough into the activity to feel the flow.

  4. Patton Gleason
    December 11, 2012

    GREAT post Jason. This is a huge opportunity for athletes to really connect to the running experience.

    My experience is that people have these moments, but they associate Flow with chance. I like the concept you can make them by design.

    I gave a speech a few years ago where this was a central theme. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxOEmvLAc1g

    The book by Csikszentmihalyi is off the charts good.

    Damn good post Jason.

    P

  5. Dog'sNameIsLeroy
    December 10, 2012

    Guitar. If you’d like to indulge a new hobby that’s genuinely challenging, learn the guitar. It takes a long time to get good, the variety is endless, and playing music can provide a very engrossing flow state.

    Good luck!

    Rich (a.k.a. DNIL)

  6. Krista
    December 10, 2012

    Probably why I don’t run to run.

  7. Bare Lee
    December 10, 2012

    The never-ending quest for the perfect flow job.

    Is ‘flow’ the new ‘zone’?;
    ‘getting into the flow of things’ like ‘getting into a zone’?;
    or is it ‘getting in a flow’ too?

    In any case, I agree, achieving the flow-zone is where it’s at, where I’m happiest.

  8. Crista Scott
    December 10, 2012

    First, I want to say congratulations on achieving what most people never do– an understanding about the phenomenological state which we enter when we do activities (particularly those that we enjoy).

    The realization and understanding brings you that much closer!

    I’ve been researching flow in sports for about five years (across different settings). For my Master’s Thesis, I’ve decided to compare the effects of environment (road, gym, trail) and distance (short to ultra distance) on flow experience and well-being.

    I really like your points about novel experiences. It’s true that people flow more when they are engage in new activities, and lose it almost immediately when they are bored.

    The balance between perceived challenge and skill is perhaps the mechanism for creating Ultrarunners. From the way I see it, each runner reaches a point that they have mastered a distance or terrain, and then they no longer feel satisfied with the “challenge” (hence the “balance” part).

    My ultimate goal is to be able to have people fill out an assessment and pinpoint where they could improve in their routine. Like, do they only ever run around the neighborhood? Do they only ever run alone? Maybe going off on a trail with friends would give them their mojo back and vice versa.

    There was a study conducted at Western States a few years back. It found that of all the nine dimensions of flow, the balance between percieved challenge and skill was the biggest predictor of race experience.

    Something else that should be noted is that race performance and flow experience go hand-in-hand. It’s nearly impossible to function at your peak and NOT be in flow. Which is why it’s so important to psychologically get “in the zone” when training and competing.

    Next semester I will be conducting research on runners to assess these sort of things. I would love to exchange emails and discuss this further!