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Feeling Flow in Funny Places

Feeling Flow in Funny PlacesI love the smell of cow dung.

I was reminded of this recently during a bicycle ride in the outskirts of the city. Despite the beauty of the bucolic area, I had been experiencing the training ride as long and strenuous — until I caught the distinctive scent of cow manure.

The odor instantly conjured up very specific happy memories from childhood, reminding me of something I had loved. I found myself inhaling deeply to rediscover a brief glimpse of yesteryear, felt a sudden jolt of joy and then pedaled on with renewed energy.

This reflective moment allowed me to have a connection with some positive emotions, which took me away from the strain of the task at hand and permitted me instead to immerse more fully in the present activity with confidence and enthusiasm.

I suspect that what I had experienced in that moment, at least in part, was being in a state of “flow” and that I was having the sensation of being “in the zone.” This is the mindfulness and positive psychology concept which is believed to channel energy into a feeling of spontaneous joy. A flow experience involves focusing deeply on nothing but the activity itself.

The term “flow” was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the Hungarian psychology professor, who is known as the leading researcher on positive psychology. The word “flow” was chosen because it was believed to reflect the metaphor of a water current carrying someone along. As described by Csíkszentmihályi, “In such an activity, concentration is fully engaged in the moment, self-awareness disappears, and sense of time is distorted.”

For me, the aromatic smell of the cow pastures took me back instantly to childhood summers when I was sent to stay with my aunt in the mountains for a few weeks. Our temporary residence was a small hut that she rented from a dairy farmer, with the cow stalls closer to the bedroom than was the outhouse. The accommodations were very basic and the setting rustic, but the atmosphere for me, having come from a small suburban town, was wonderful. Cows roamed freely all around the large expanse of the grassy hilltop, and cow chips were naturally a significant part of the beautiful landscape.

Given that my aunt was most often busy working on some hut improvement project, I was left with many hours of creating my own games among the boulders, the streams, and the cow patties. I would attempt to connect with the cows, those large, tame animals who watched me inquisitively but nonchalantly with their large, soulful eyes. I created imaginary friends in the rocks and secret passageways among the trees, feeling peaceful, happy and surprisingly entertained. My vivid imagination, my tall plastic boots, and my immodesty for singing loudly all added to the entirety of the experience in which I was blissful, adventuresome, and carefree.

I don’t relish in the aroma of roadkill. I don’t seek to soak in the smell of skunk. Nor do I even particularly like the odor of horse manure. Yet, there simply seems to be something different about the distinctive smell of cow dung that brings back positive, absorbing memories. Responding in this way was not a conscious decision, but it has clearly stood the test of time.

Scientists have learned that the olfactory system has intimate access to the amygdala and hippocampus, the areas of our brain which process emotion and which are responsible for associative learning. Memories induced by smell are so automatic and instantaneous that it can feel as if one has, without trying, momentarily slipped back in time. Thus I have an associated, conditioned response to the scent of cow manure: My brain has linked a smell, a reminiscence, and a positive emotion. An olfactory memory can bring out a fuller, richer experience of flow, unlike visual or auditory memories, because there is less thinking involved.

Flow is known to produce feelings of enjoyment and performance enhancement. This performance concept has been studied in various fields, including those of education, sports, art, and work productivity. In the book, The Meditative Mind, Daniel Goleman lists five key elements of flow:

  • merging of action and awareness in sustained concentration on the task at hand;
  • focusing attention in pure involvement without concern for outcome;
  • self-forgetfulness with heightened awareness of the activity;
  • skills adequate to meet the environmental demand; and
  • clarity regarding situational cues and appropriate response.

The focus on single-minded energy to achieve a task at hand certainly has its place, though it may also be useful to consider ways of being more open to spontaneous experiences in which the primary outcome is some connection with happiness and joy.

In therapy, I often coach and encourage clients to find activities in which they can fully immerse, find their form of joy, feel reenergized to task, and manage other life challenges more confidently. There are naturally the traditional activities that might be discussed in therapy as possible arenas for finding flow, e.g., meaningful work, exercise, hobbies or social connections; however, explaining to clients the mindfulness involved in finding flow can sometimes be challenging. This seems to be more difficult for those individuals who haven’t had as many positive flow experiences, yet these might be just the individuals who might benefit most.

The longer-lasting benefits are certainly promising. Flow is said to allow health to flourish, protect against depression, diminish anxiety and assist in coping with life’s adversities. But the process can be difficult to teach. Orienting to opportunities for possible positive flow can provide the best opportunity for learning.

For some clients, disorders or symptoms often have been so all-consuming that they have lost touch with their senses and with joy. In fact, they may have felt as if they were immersed in a rather flawed sense of flow with their particular thoughts, feelings or behaviors. The time subsumed in symptoms or obsessions has left little energy for anything else; it is no wonder that those who travel far enough along the recovery road do sometimes find themselves with a sense of emptiness.

To build a fuller, richer life, there often is a need to focus on unearthing the positive. For some individuals, recovery truly is a time of rediscovering life activities and goals which had been pleasurable in the past. For others, seeking out new activities, hobbies or life goals is a novel but essential experience. Most individuals must eventually begin figuring out what they love and who they are without their symptoms or unhealthy behaviors.

One exercise that I have found to be helpful to a number of clients is one I call the “5 Senses Activity.” I heard of it long ago in the context of a workshop on assisting trauma survivors with nightmares. I wish I could more properly credit the inventor of this technique, but he or she has remained anonymous for me (as that portion of my memory bank doesn’t seem to be as easily accessed as the cow dung memories).

The simple exercise involves having a person list, mentally or on paper, 5 things she or he loves in each of the 5 senses. This can sometimes be effective with individuals who are trying to fall asleep after a nightmare, as it allows slightly more concentration than counting sheep but less mental acuity than counting backwards by sevens. It also orients to the positive, never a bad idea for someone plagued by horrible images. I have found that the exercise also can be effective for myriad other issues, such as assisting with relaxation, distraction or anger management.

Tuning into the five senses within daily routines can bring forth feelings of love, enjoyment, happiness, and contentedness. It allows a recharging of sorts, with the simple things in life.

Hearing pleasant sounds has the ability to bring us instant stress relief, whether the pleasure of hearing talented teens practicing their music in the hallway, the comfort of hearing leaves rustling on the sidewalk or the liberation of your work voicemail message mechanically announcing, “You have no messages.”

Finding visually appealing things that you love to look at may appear easy at first, but engaging fully into the sensation requires some concentration. It takes time and practice to closely examine or carefully observe the things that bring you joy, whether this involves looking differently at someone you love, feeling a spark of hope when your favorite shower stall at the gym is available or appreciating the landing skill of the birds outside of your office window.

Opportunities for touch thrive all around, from textures to temperatures. There is also the bonus bimodal dimension to touch: We are able to receive touch, such as feeling warmth from the sun, and we are also able to reach out for touch, such as feeling flower petals.

Taste is a complicated sense which can nonetheless evoke many positive emotions. True tasting almost always requires eating and drinking at a slower, mindful pace. Letting the chocolate melt on your tongue or picking out the spices in that special dish require more focus than most of us generally invest in our daily meals.

In seeking out smell, we tend to be most aware of this when eating; however, natural aromas in our environment abound, if we choose to pay attention.

It continues to amaze me how intentional awareness can allow us to connect, to find peace, to relish a moment and to thus feel recharged. Tapping mindfulness and finding flow somewhere can be an important part of recovery and of rejuvenation for anyone. It can come to us suddenly and unexpectedly; indeed, it may be that the unpredictability of it allows for a more meaningful, if transitory, experience.

But being receptive to the simple sensations of daily life and being open to the opportunities is essential for all of us: Finding flow, like the whiff of a scent on the wind, can be found in some very funny places.

Feeling Flow in Funny Places

Sandra Wartski, Psy.D.

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APA Reference
Wartski, S. (2018). Feeling Flow in Funny Places. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Jun 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.