Flow state: The neurobiological recipe for true happiness

In the zone. A runner’s high. On fire. You’ve likely heard these terms when watching sports, listening to performance podcasts, or reading about artists, painters, musicians, and other creatives. What these phrases really refer to is flow state.

And while the concept of flow is often linked to other-worldly feats of athleticism or artistry, the truth is anyone can find flow. And sometimes it’s hiding in plain sight.

The term itself originated with psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who spent much of his career studying the experiences of people during moments of happiness. Through his work, Csikszentmihalyi helped evolve our understanding of ambiguous concepts like being in the zone by carefully categorizing the common threads shared by people when they feel at their best.

He discovered that regardless of the type of activity, flow-inducing experiences tend to share certain phenomenological characteristics. In other words, the lived experience of being in flow feels similar regardless of whether you're an athlete, a musician, or just working a 9-to-5 job.

Flow, it turns out, is ubiquitous. The experience usually includes a sense of effortless control, complete concentration on an inherently rewarding task, unusual distortions of time (speeding up / slowing down), and a merging of thought and action.

Your brain in a flow state

Beyond the psychology and lived experience of being in flow, recent advances in neuroimaging technologies have helped neuroscientists start to uncover what’s happening in the brains and bodies of people when they enter a flow state.

For example, we now know that certain parts of the brain actually become less active in flow. Case in point: the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain directly behind your forehead, which, under normal circumstances, helps guide executive functions, such as debating the pros and cons of a potential career change or deciding whether or not to have that second cookie for dessert. These are survival functions at their core, and have no doubt served our species well in an evolutionary sense. It turns out, however, that what’s good for survival isn’t always good for high performance.

The lived experience of being in flow feels similar regardless of whether you're an athlete, a musician, or just working a 9-to-5 job

In 2008, Johns Hopkins researcher Charles Limb studied the brain activation patterns of jazz musicians using functional magnetic resonance imaging. He found that when the musicians played a memorized jazz standard, the brain looked very different than when they played more creative, improvisational pieces. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex was much less active when expressing this improvised creativity in flow.

When that deactivation happens, the mind is free to explore new patterns without the usual voices of doubt and self-consciousness creeping in, and the brain is better able to process information subconsciously (and more quickly). The technical term for this temporary downshifting of the prefrontal cortex is transient hypofrontality. This phenomenon has since been linked to numerous examples of super-charged human performance as well as increased rates of learning and creativity.

How you can benefit from flow state

The good news: You don’t have to be a skilled jazz musician or a primetime athlete to calm down your frontal lobes. More recent research suggests that similar benefits can be obtained through bouts of moderate physical activity (such as a 20-minute walk) or even more quickly following four to six minutes of intense activity. The implications here are remarkable. For all of exercise’s positive effects on the body, it turns out one of the most impactful benefits might be that it helps you change the state of your mind.

For all of exercise’s positive effects on the body, it turns out one of the most impactful benefits might be that it helps you change the state of your mind.

Now none of this is to say that there isn’t a time and place for executive function or for the prefrontal cortex more generally. For example, at this very moment my ability to type these words in some coherent manner (as well as your ability to understand them) owes a considerable debt to the prefrontal cortex. But what we now know is that constant critical analyses and endless rumination (two things the prefrontal cortex is very good at) are often the enemies of rapid learning, optimal performance, and yes, even happiness.

There can be little doubt that flow states are beneath most every Olympic medal, world championship, scientific discovery, and moment of creative brilliance. As it turns out, it’s also the neurobiological recipe for true happiness. So whether you’re looking to set a new personal best in the gym, ramp up your productivity at work, or just increase your overall sense of well-being on a daily basis, bringing a little more flow into your life might just be the key.

Looking for more ways to use your brain to get ahead? Check out these ways to power up your brain battery.

About the Author

Chris Bertram

Dr. Chris Bertram is the director of applied neuroscience at EXOS. He specializes in creating environments that are designed to maximize learning, optimize performance, and build resilience to support collegiate, Olympic, and XGames champions, Fortune 500 corporate leaders, and other high-performing individuals.

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