I remember getting pummeled, for what seemed to be the hundredth time, under what was probably only a 3 foot wave, and thinking to myself, why the hell do I keep coming out here?
Watching from the shore, you’d never guess how much punishment a 3 foot wave can deliver. As a 26 year old first time surfer, I learned that lesson the hard way over and over. I spent the better part of that first year getting humiliated in the lineup, thrown over the falls, rag dolled, and spin cycled in the underwater washing machine. But something kept bringing me back for more punishment day after day. Some inkling of pleasure was coming out of this suffering.
Growing up in Washington where mountain sports are the rage, the ocean was mostly just something to look at. My comfort zone was skiing down a fresh bowl of powder or backpacking through the dense forest.
Living in Southern California brought a new frontier to explore – the ocean. And a new sport to explore it through – surfing. The more I surfed, the more I realized an underlying prerequisite to happiness that was present in my life – immersive experience in nature that brings me deeper into the present moment.
It’s alarming and terrifying how easily our lives can switch into autopilot. Yes, you are alive, but are you living? Feeling? Experiencing?
There are not many activities in life that give us a second by second cause and effect of our thoughts and actions. We can spend most of our lives just going through the motions without realizing it. It’s even possible to be mentally checked out from a conversation that you’re participating in.
In typical day to day life, not many things remind us of the importance of the present moment. Surfing is not like that. One split second of lost focus results in intense punishment and thrashing from a heavy moving slab of water. If you find yourself mentally drifting away from the present moment or what you need to do in that moment, the wave violently reminds you of where your headspace should be. Wake up! Be here now! The wave beckons.
No matter how brutal the surf session ever was, I always left the water feeling better than I did going in. Some sense of accomplishment was present even if little to no “actual surfing” had occurred. The feeling of getting more reps, and improving slowly was addicting. I felt like I was on the path toward something. But mostly, the ability to exercise outside while interacting with nature was so unbelievably cool to me that I started to make it a priority every day.
On days where I couldn’t exercise or move, I felt agitated, stuck, anxious, sometimes temperamental. I reflected on how much happiness, release, creativity and energy outdoor exploration and exercise brought to my life and I became curious why and how?
Steven Kotler is a New York Times best selling author, journalist, and entrepreneur who has dedicated his life’s work to studying “flow.” In Kotler’s words, (and previously Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s), flow is,
“an optimal state of consciousness, a state where you feel your best and perform your best. More specifically, the term refers to those moments of rapt attention and total absorption, when you get so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears. Action and awareness merge. Your sense of self vanishes. Your sense of time distorts (either, typically, speeds up; or, occasionally, slows down). And throughout, all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.”Steven Kotler
Flow is something that all of us have probably experienced at some point in our lives. No speed bumps or hiccups. Total control with minimal effort. Everything running smoothly. It’s a good feeling, and most of us probably want to experience it more often. So how do we get to this place of total presence and awareness?
According to Kotler, there are certain “flow triggers,” that play significant roles in our ability to enter this state. Trigger #1, “Complete Concentration In the Present Moment.” Trigger #2, “Immediate Feedback.”
The top two flow triggers were present every time I paddled out to the lineup. Surfing (especially at a beginner level), requires serious focus and concentration in the present moment. And the ocean provides more than enough “immediate feedback” for anyone to swallow constructively.
Another trigger listed is ”The Challenge-Skills Ratio.” This trigger describes that in order to enter flow, you need to be participating in something that is stretching your skillset, but still not impossible based on your current abilities. In other words, the activity needs to be challenging. Another check. Was it possible that the sense of accomplishment I felt after a brutal surf session was coming from small glimpses of optimal consciousness? Of flow?
There’s something primitively satisfying about physically using the body. It feels good to be an active human. To be strong, run, jump, push, pull, throw, move. Movement and endurance played critical roles in human evolution. Our ancestors used to cover hundreds of miles by foot strictly to survive. Long distance running was a thing long before ultra endurance competitions came around. There was a time when endurance running meant outlasting a wild animal in a foot race, just so the village could enjoy another meal.
We’ve been given these physical vehicles to explore the world, and when we use them to their potential, we experience tremendous physical freedom and growth. But we also gain an important mental edge that turns out to be critical to our levels of happiness.
The Happiness Equation
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that your body makes. The nervous system uses dopamine to send messages between nerve cells. When dopamine is released in the body, the reward circuit in the brain receives a little jolt. The reward circuit connects a number of brain structures that regulate our ability to experience pleasure, feel motivated, and maintain hope. In other words, if you’ve ever felt happy, hopeful, or motivated, that’s dopamine doing its thing.
This little jolt makes us want to repeat the behavior that’s responsible for it. Certain drugs can provide a big jolt to your reward circuit, and release a significant amount of dopamine in your brain. This is why it’s so difficult for addicts to drop whatever chemical they’re hooked on. The brain urges the body to repeat whatever behavior is bringing on that feeling of pleasure.
The interesting thing is that exercise can also release a significant amount of dopamine in your brain. This explains why people who exercise frequently often say things like “I need my exercise” or “exercise is my release.” Their brains crave the feelings of happiness, accomplishment, grit, resilience, and motivation that comes from movement.
Dopamine has a powerful grip on our behaviors and motivations. We are all addicts to something that makes us feel good – but is it possible to become addicted to something that’s actually good for your brain and body? It certainly seems like it.
I was getting closer to answering my original question. The reasons I kept paddling out to receive my punishment from mother ocean time and time again, was A) I might be experiencing some level of flow consciousness from the challenge involved and focus required. And B) As surfing requires a significant level of physical activity, dopamine is releasing in my brain while I’m out there, making my brain convince my body that the activity of surfing is a good thing, and worth repeating. With pretty compelling and straightforward evidence to support it, I was beginning to think that surfing was scientifically good for my psychological and physical health. Try telling that one to your employer.
Physical and psychological health are two areas that do not receive enough attention in the United States. The numbers don’t lie, our poor diets and sedentary lifestyles are taking a serious toll on our happiness and mortality. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US (~659,000 a year). A simple google search of ‘what causes heart disease?’ brings you to a page that talks about atherosclerosis – a fancy word for fatty plaque build up in your arteries. The cause of this, according to google, is “unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, being overweight and smoking.”
More than two thirds of the American population is overweight or obese. Of the remaining 30% who are not overweight, 20% are metabolically unhealthy. Main cause of being metabolically unhealthy? Lack of physical activity. 25% of American adults are considered physically inactive. The lack of emphasis on physical health in America is killing us in a literal sense. Shockingly, in a country obsessed with fix all pills, the main treatments for metabolic syndrome are improving your diet, exercising, and managing stress.
1 in 5 U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness each year. This can come in many forms, but stress plays a major role. The American Psychological Association reported that time spent in nature triggers a physiological response that lowers stress levels in the body. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford University expands on this finding by describing how stress controls the visual field. When you’re experiencing or seeing something stressful, the visual system essentially goes into the equivalent of portrait mode on an iPhone. Our vision becomes narrow, our eyeballs rotate slightly toward our nose, all the neurons from your neck to the top of the pelvis activate at once and deploy transmitters and chemicals that make you feel agitated. Huberman describes how our eyeballs are not only attached to our brain, they are the brain, and an essential part of the central nervous system.
“Having eyes outside the skull means that you’ve got two pieces of the brain that can register events in the environment at a distance in order to adjust the overall state of alertness in the rest of the brain and body…when you look at a horizon or at a broad vista you don’t look at one thing for very long. If you keep your head still, you can dilate your gaze so you can see far off into the periphery – above, below, and to the sides of you. That mode of vision releases a mechanism in the brain stem involved in vigilance and arousal. We can actually turn off the stress response by changing the way that we are viewing our environment, regardless of what’s in that environment.”Andrew Huberman
Expanding your view outside seems scientifically proven and demonstrated to reduce perceived stressors on the body and brain. If stress controls the visual field, then going outside and broadening your gaze can help you actively combat those stressors.
The happiness I experience when I’m out in the waves is backed and driven by science. Time spent in nature and consistent exercise are pivotal pieces of a healthy and happy life. We are facing serious problems and illnesses in our country that are killing hundreds of thousands of people, and making countless others miserable. The bright side is that we have more control in actively fighting against these problems than we think. Experientially, surfing healed me. The science and psychology only reaffirmed what I felt when I was out there. If nothing else, let this be a friendly invitation to get outside. Seek out experiences that allow you to be in the present moment. We have the power to become healthier, happier, and more creative. It can all start with a step outside, a deep breath, and an expansive gaze at the beautiful world around us.