Surfers all have different answers to the question “why do you surf?” Whether it’s to escape the mundane, to challenge oneself, or to immerse oneself in nature, the one common theme between all these answers is that, no matter what, the pursuit of surfing is done for oneself. The progression that occurs with each completed session benefits you alone, the best sessions are often the ones with the least people around, and the happy feelings one experiences when walking out of the ocean affect, well, that surfer alone. But the reality is that it’s very simple: people surf because surfing feels good.
But it seems as if surfing (along with most things that make people feel good) has been pitted as a waste of time since at least the sixties, even during surfing’s golden years. In one scene from Pacific Vibrations, an iconic film by none other than John Severson, a surfer lying on the beach laments: “Surfing’s a far out thing. It’s the only thing I like to do, but my parents know this and so if I don’t get a good grade on my report card they won’t let me surf until I bring it up, and if I don’t get a job, they’ll use it against me, I can’t surf. If I didn’t surf, I don’t know what they’d do, they wouldn’t have anything to hold against me!” (Watch the clip here at 15:52)
The oldest cliché in the book is that surfing is hedonistic and selfish. Sessions are “ruined” by the presence of other people in the water, surfers throw everything away just to catch a few waves, and the most “core” surfers of all evade responsibility, never marry, never get a real job… the list goes on, infinitely. One extreme example of this type of hedonism comes in the form of, perhaps, the most infamous rebel surfer of all time, Miki Dora, who embodied this notion to such an extent that he even earned the title “The Black Knight” and is often referred to as the ultimate non-conformist. Miki isn’t exactly seen as a role model. In fact, he’s kind of seen as a menace.
But anything done in excess can be harmful. So, just because some people, like Miki, throw it all away to surf, that doesn’t mean surfing itself is the problem. But all of this just begs the question: should we feel guilty about surfing? Just because surfing has the tendency to pull us away from more traditional responsibilities, the way 9-5 work schedules pull us away from our families, hobbies, and leading healthy lives, it causes one to wonder: just because something is fun, does that make it bad?
On a flight to Australia, while pondering this question, I read the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by the late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I thought I was just killing time on the plane, but, in doing so, I found my answer: we don’t need to feel guilty about surfing at all. In fact, surfing is more than just a “far out” thing to do. It’s a worthwhile pursuit.
In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi details the exact science of reaching optimal experience, or being in ”the flow state.” At its core, the flow state is the mindset one has when totally and completely immersed in an activity to the point where all else fades away. The flow state is desirable, not only because it leads to greater happiness, but because it represents time where energy is exerted with intention and we are living life to the fullest. Most of our greatest memories involve the flow state — the flow state moments are the ones we’ll look back on and wish we had more of. So, surely these moments aren’t a waste of time.
And, no surprise here, but surfing checks all of the boxes of being in the “flow state.” A challenging activity that requires skills? Wave reading, balance, paddle strength, footwork. The merging of action and awareness? Surfing in a nutshell. Clear goals and feedback? Every time. Concentration on the task at hand? On a good day. The paradox of control? Check. The loss of self consciousness? If the waves are good. The transformation—and lost track – of time? Absolutely.
All of this makes surfing enjoyable, and not just pleasurable. What’s the difference? Enjoyment is something to aim for, while pleasure is just something that’s, well, pleasurable. Pleasure is comparable to the feeling we get from eating a cookie. Or, to use a more risqué example, taking drugs. And when the cookie’s gone, or the chemicals wear off, the feeling’s gone too, and we’re no better off. Enjoyment, however, comes from the conscious cultivation of specific experiences, and when the experience is gone, we still benefit. Take your pick: a quick sugar rush or a lasting, elated mood from the memory of a great session? I know what I’d choose.
This analysis from Csikszentmihalyi also helps us figure out why surfing makes us happy. It’s not just because there’s a chance to score every time we paddle out. It’s because we’re devoting our attention to a specific goal, and, usually, making progress at it. Putting one’s full effort into things feels good, especially when we’re doing it for ourselves, there’s immediate feedback on our performance, and our concentration not only benefits us, but helps us forget the rest of our daily problems.
What I’m trying to say is: go surf, and don’t feel so guilty about it. Even if chasing perfect lefts makes you shirk a few responsibilities once in a while, as long as you’re not dropping in on anyone, bringing a huge group of people to a local spot, or throwing your board, surfing is a great use of your time. And maybe, just maybe, surfing can even be a path to finding, and creating, happiness.