Let it Flow: A Quick Lesson in Optimal Experience

About the Author: Eric Cressey

By: Nate Green

Psychology has always fascinated me. At the deepest level, I figure if you can understand how people think—what motivates, aggravates, and incapacitates their total progress, whether in the gym, the kitchen, on the field, or in any faculty of life, really—it’s easier and more exciting to coach them while having a significantly more powerful impact on their overall performance.

So, like EC and his somewhat scary, lustful quest for knowledge obtained from training, coaching, and business books, I’m pretty much a psychology whore—except I’m a much higher grade prostitute than Eric “dirty boy” Cressey – but don’t tell him that!

It’s with this in mind that I would like to introduce an interesting “smack-your-forehead-obvious-but-rarely-elaborated” concept to you: the process of flow.  Coined by renowned psychologist, Mike Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high”), flow describes a state in which one is so completely engaged with a favorable, enjoyable task that time seems to stop.

Now, while that may sound all well and good, Csikszentmihalyi is careful to differentiate between pleasures and enjoyments as they pertain to flow.  While pleasures are seen more as consumption oriented activities that satisfy biological needs—bodily pleasures such as delectable tastes, soothing sounds, orgasms, and the like—enjoyments (or gratifications) are categorized as building psychological capital. Simply put, enjoyments, while they may not bring about intense bodily pleasures at the moment, cause us to invest in absorption and a feel a greater sense of accomplishment in retrospect.

Here are the components of flow:

  • The task is challenging and require skill
  • We concentrate
  • There are clear goals
  • We get immediate feedback
  • We have a deep involvement
  • There is a sense of control
  • Time stops

As Dr. Martin Seligman points out in his book Authentic Happiness, “…flow is a frequent experience for some, but this state visits many others rarely if at all.”  I believe that those of us into this whole “fitness thing” experience flow on a much more regular basis than the average individual.  Whether we’re gasping for air after our last set of squats, taking our third lap around the track, or sinking into a hot, Epsom salt bath, I think it’s safe to say that fitness enthusiasts, whether athletes or weekend warriors, are constantly engaged in a sort of flow continuum.

Take a look back up to the list of components.  Which ones describe the way you feel while in the gym or playing your sport?  All of them?  Good.  Personally, I couldn’t imagine not being dedicated to lifestyle that brings about such high ‘psychological capital’.

Seligman writes, “While we moderns have lost the distinction between the pleasures and gratifications, the golden age Athenians were keen on it.  For Aristotle, distinct from bodily pleasures (eudaimonia) is akin to grace in dancing.  Grace is not an entity that accompanies the dance or comes at the end of the dance; it is part and parcel of a dance well done.”

That’s good stuff.

However, while both Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi separate pleasure from flow, I beg to differ slightly.  While they’re both incredibly intelligent and renowned psychologists, I have reason to suspect that their physical conditioning may not be quite up to par with their “mental muscle.”

Now, if you have Dr. John Berardi’s Precision Nutrition program (which you should), you know all too well that your meals can be both pleasurable (with the right spices and food combinations) and gratifying (with the right macronutrient balance and other healthy effects).  And, if you’ve ever been under hundreds of pounds of iron, you know that the cold bar against your hands just feels right, the way it bends just looks cool, the inhalation of chalk dust just smells, well, chalky. But along with those simple pleasures come the other enjoyable consequences (consequences can be defined as either negative or positive) associated with weight training: better body composition, proper and realistic goal setting, and increased psychological capital and motivation to just set the bar higher.

If you get a “rush” or a “high” from training, good for you; now you know that you’re also building a strong foundation of good habits, strength in every respect, and a strong base upon which you can build.  When the bar hits the ground, inhale deeply and let the whole experience flow right through you.

Just don’t forget to exhale.

About the Author

Nate Green is a member of the Advisory Team for Maximum Fitness magazine, holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and is a NFPT certified trainer who works with clients in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana.  He is currently reading everything on which he can get his hands, constantly pestering industry professionals for advice, and preparing to make a splash in the fitness realm. You can contact Nate at nategreen03@hotmail.com.