I can confidently say that I am as good as Kelly Slater and John John Florence. Perhaps even a bit better. At having fun, that is. Kelly and John John are arguably the best surfers in the world. Additionally, they are paid to surf waves that make grown men dribble. However, that does not necessarily mean they are having any more fun than us dribblers. This is because exploring the innermost limits of fun has little to do with quality of waves or even one’s aptitude.
The Secret to Enjoyment
How much fun you have while surfing is all about your mind’s ability to achieve a mental state in which joy flourishes. Neuroscientists have found that when we are in an optimal state of performance, creativity, and enjoyment (which is called the flow state), significant changes occur in our brain. Joy is a chemical and biological process. Our mind is like a skilled cocktail barman; serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide and endorphins are the juices. When we slip into the flow state and enter the realm of peak enjoyment, these pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemicals are released into our brains. Not only does this cocktail of joy make us grin like idiots and do a happy dance, but it boosts our performance, which, in turn, makes us even more joyful.
Norepinephrine and dopamine are known to increase focus and pattern recognition. Anandamide enhances our sense of empathy and connectedness. The surfer who is effortlessly gliding into all the best waves and paddles purposely to seemingly random spots (which always turn out to be the perfect take off spot for the next wave) is in flow. He is focused, tuned in, and recognizes patterns in the swell and on the sandbank/reef. Endorphins and serotonin flood his brain as he rides the wave, creating attachment with activity and essentially tickling his brains G-spot. It feels so good. He wants more. And the more he flows, the more fun he has. The more fun he has the better he becomes. It’s like an upward spiral of joy and performance. Likewise, the novice surfer on the 9-foot board, double arm paddling into a 1-foot mush-burger, who pops to his feet for the very first time and holds his poo stance all the way to the beach, is experiencing the exact same chemical process in his brain. The same neurotransmitters are firing off in his brain creating joy and lust for more.
Creating the conditions for the perfect chemical cocktail of neurotransmitters is something we can learn to do. By training ourselves to hack into the flow state, we, too, can benefit from this upward spiral of fun and performance (without a hangover, too).
But how do we explore the innermost limits of fun?
Set Your Intention
Why are you surfing? I do it purely for fun. Kelly does it for fun, I’m sure, but he also does it to push his career, earn a living and keep his sponsors happy. Have you ever seen a young up-and-coming ripper at your local surf break, struggling with the transition from surfing purely for fun? He has a few stickers on his board, but he also carries the unfamiliar weight of obligations and expectations, which may have taken him out the joy-zone. You might struggle to feel sorry for the lucky little ripper with all his free boat trips to Indonesia. But when you think about it, his passion has become a job. That does not mean he cannot experience extreme enjoyment and flow when he surfs. But it does mean his surfing is no longer motivated purely by the quest for good times, and this means he has to work harder on his mind-set to have the same amount of fun as he did before. Kelly and John John can’t surf purely for fun. You can. Remind yourself of why you are surfing the next time you get all serious in the line-up or start harshly judging yourself against some idea of good versus bad. Set your intention to have fun each and every time you surf.
Train your brain to be more joyful in the present moment. Let go of the illusion that you will be transported to a new, magical realm of ecstatic happiness when you perfect that turn or get barreled. Yes, you will feel the wonderful satisfaction of achieving goals and progressing, and being in the barrel is undoubtedly the peak experience for most surfers. This is because getting pitted will induce the sweet sensation of neurotransmitters being free-poured into your cranium. But this intense feeling of joy will most likely be the same range of feeling you felt when you were learning. If you experience a certain level of enjoyment doing an activity now, you can expect that level of enjoyment to be similar in the future, regardless of advancement in your ability. Thinking life will get better when you achieve or attain something is simply a fantasy-game we play on ourselves to escape what we are really perceiving – the dissatisfaction in the present moment. Ironically, to change our future, we have to take action in the present.
The secret is to train yourself to increase your overall range of enjoyment in every moment in life. And the way to do this is by learning to have deeper engagement with the now. Meditation, mindfulness, reading books, Sudoku, puzzles, yoga, Tai chi, and anything else that requires absolute concentration are powerful ways to train the mind to focus on the present moment. Multi-tasking, watching TV, aimlessly browsing social media, and other passive activities are not activities that require deep engagement.
Hack the Flow State to Avoid Plateaus
Staying on the outside edge of your comfort zone is the most powerful way to hack the flow state. To achieve flow, there must be a perfect ratio of challenge to skill (see graphic below). This means that as your skill levels increase, you must increase the challenge of the activity to retain the same amount of flow and enjoyment. Many people will get exhilarated by the rush of quick improvement, but then become stuck on a plateau. This is caused by a failure to increase the challenge of the activity. The end result is the uncomfortable feeling of plateauing. Recognize this early and think about how you can take action to keep yourself moving up the ladder of progression. For many people, when they do an activity they love, like snowboarding or surfing, the cycle just naturally propels itself. This is because having fun creates more flow; more flow creates progression and progression fuels enjoyment. This cycle is always boosted when people surf with a peer group that encourages and includes people better than you. You might also consider coaching or asking a friend for advice when you feel yourself plateauing.
The other advantage to staying on the edge of your comfort zone is risk, which is one of the most powerful triggers for the flow state. Nothing sharpens focus better than the fear of hurting yourself. High consequence activities and flow go hand in hand, which is why adventure sports athletes are like modern day lab rats for scientists and bio-hackers interested in cracking code of ultimate performance. Of course, if you are just terrified and know you do not have the necessary skills for the situation, then don’t go out. But if you feel strong, yet feel those butterflies in your stomach and a slight sense of unease, then you are in the zone of breakthrough – the outside edge of your comfort zone. Hang in there, visualize what you want to achieve and commit to it. You are in the zone of ultimate fun and performance.
For more of Jiro Taylor visit FlowStateAdventure.com.