How Achieving Flow Can Help You Stay Sober

Most of the work you have to do in recovery requires some grit. You have to confront old wounds and examine some aspects of yourself you may not like. You have to learn constructive ways to deal with stress and wait out cravings. You have to make lifestyle changes like eating better and exercising. You need to find ways to relax, of course, if only to deal with stress. With all this work, the importance of positive emotions, and especially fun, don’t get much attention.

When you’re in recovery, your notion of fun might need some revision. You may think of having a few drinks as instant fun. You open up, you’re less inhibited, and you don’t think so much about your problems. The trouble is, this notion of fun catches up with you the next day.

Real fun doesn’t ruin your life; it makes you life better. Perhaps the best way to have fun while also feeling less inhibited and less preoccupied with your problems, is to engage activities conducive to flow. Flow is what happens when you are totally focused on what you are doing, to the point where you aren’t worried about anything else. It’s both exhilarating and rewarding.

In order to get into flow, you have to do something that is challenging, but not too challenging. You probably won’t get into a flow state playing tennis against Roger Federer. You want a challenge that’s just at the top edge of your ability. This way you have to really focus, but your effort doesn’t seem futile. You also need some kind of immediate feedback. That feedback could be falling off your skateboard or getting a line of code to run the way you want it to. You won’t get into flow doing some task with no idea whether you’re doing it right.

Any task with the right difficulty and immediate feedback have potential for flow. Sports are particularly good, assuming you can find the right level of challenge. Exercise, alas, is not as good. You’re not likely to get into flow if you’re just spending 30 minutes on the treadmill while watching television. Mechanical, quantified exercise just feels like something to get through. Sometimes on a run outside, in the right conditions, you might get into flow, especially when the endorphins kick in, but simple exercise like running or most kinds of weightlifting typically don’t demand enough concentration to get into flow.

Music and art are also excellent ways to get into flow. They are both complex and demand a lot of concentration. You get immediate feedback when you mess up or do something particularly well. Music is especially good if you play with other people. That increases the complexity and adds a social aspect. Not only are you focused on a complex task, you as also communicating with the other musicians.

It does take a bit of work to get the initial skills to enter a flow state. Most of your efforts as a beginner are likely to be frustrating and awkward, but remember flow is more about the challenge than doing something well in any objective sense. This is why making improvement goals is so important. A painting will never look how you want it to look, especially when you’re starting out, but if you focus on improving and don’t worry about results, you can get into a flow state even at a relatively low skill level.

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