Completely absorbed in my work, time ceased to exist, and my mind zeroed in on exploring all viable paths to the desired outcome. I wasn’t worried about myself or judging my performance, but rather wholly invested in simply producing. Was this the elusive ‘flow state’ that artists speak of when creating with wild abandon? I was just about to find out for myself.
As someone who has dedicated years to researching positive psychology and had the privilege of teaching a class on the subject at Fordham Law School, I’ve often found myself deeply engaged in the profound concepts of meaning, relationships, and accomplishment. While these aspects of positive psychology have always made sense to me, the enigmatic world of flow took more experience for me to fully appreciate. I’m not particularly gifted in music or sports, common areas where one encounters flow, so the “traditional” experience of flow eluded me for most of my life. I also tend to overanalyze and struggle to fully immerse myself in the moment, a direct contradiction to being in a state of flow.
Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until I started incorporating psycho-spiritual practices, including psychedelics, that being in flow truly clicked for me.
🌟 Flow: In the Moment Magic 🌟
Flow is unique in that it’s all about living in the moment. Flow, in contrast to deliberate activities focused on nurturing relationships or achieving goals, embodies an extraordinary dimension of consciousness. You can’t simply “think” your way into it (trust me, I tried!); it requires a distinct path to access.
Flow is that exhilarating feeling when you’re fully immersed in an activity, losing track of time and letting go of your ego. It’s often associated with peak performance and creativity because it signifies a state of optimal functioning and engagement.
In a flow state, individuals experience heightened concentration and complete absorption in the task at hand. This intense focus allows them to block out distractions and maintain sustained attention, which is essential for high-performance tasks. Flow often sparks creative insights and innovative thinking. Leaders can access novel ideas and solutions when working in flow, making it a priceless state for solving the world’s biggest problems.
The ability to achieve flow is also dependent on a happiness factor associated with the work at hand. Such is the “happiness advantage,” popularized by positive psychologist Shawn Achor, that underscores the profound impact of happiness on professional performance. Decades of research demonstrate that happiness, driven by the release of “feel-good” hormones like dopamine and serotonin, activates the brain’s learning centers. Achor aptly notes that every burst of happiness primes individuals for creativity and innovation.
As Richard Branson wisely put it, “More than any other element, fun is a secret of Virgin’s success.” Fun isn’t just enjoyable; it translates into bottom-line results.
But what is Anchor really talking about here? Your brain on happiness is actually in flow.
The “flow” concept has been under the scientific microscope for almost half a century, dating back to the ’70s when Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer in positive psychology, developed it. Fast forward almost five decades, and scientists have delved into the neuroscience of flow, revealing intricate processes involving neural oscillation, neuro-modulatory processes, dynamic brain region activations, and large-scale brain connectivity. (See references below)
According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, the feeling of being in the flow comprises seven essential components, each crucial for leaders aiming to reach the pinnacle of creativity:
- Complete involvement in the task with focused concentration and openness to creativity.
- A sense of ecstasy, transcending everyday reality.
- Great inner clarity, knowing what needs to be done and assessing performance.
- Knowing that the activity is doable, matching the challenge level to one’s skills.
- A sense of serenity, free from self-worries, allowing peak performance unburdened by stress or anxiety.
- Timelessness and full presence in the moment where hours seem like minutes with enhanced productivity.
- Intrinsic motivation, the act itself becomes the reward, in turn fueling dedication and persistence.
Today, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal have elevated Csikszentmihalyi’s work in their book Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Backed by research from renowned institutions, their conclusion is clear: “Consciousness goes straight to the bottom line.” Visionary leaders regularly access flow states.
We all recognize that leaders need to get into the flow, but let’s be honest—it’s not always a walk in the park to get there.
🌈 The Psychedelic Connection: Opening the Doors to Accessing Flow 🚪
So, where do psychedelics come into play? Psychedelics, when used in a controlled and responsible manner, have shown potential in helping individuals access these elusive states of flow. They can be like keys that unlock the doors to non-ordinary consciousness so that leaders can ignite their passion and ability to tackle the largest problems.
Consider selflessness – one of the flow components. To achieve selflessness, our brains must enter transient hypofrontality. Transient hypofrontality refers to a temporary reduction in activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s hub for high-level cognitive functions. Psychedelics, as revealed by research from Imperial College London’s Robin Carhart-Harris, facilitate this process by disintegrating entire networks, especially the default mode network (DMN).
The DMN, active during rest and unfocused states, is linked to self-referential thinking, mind-wandering, and introspection. An overactive DMN results in the “monkey mind,” a restless and uncontrollable stream of thoughts that hinder presence and focus. Psychedelics, along with practices like meditation and flow itself, disintegrate this network.
In a world facing complex challenges, cognitive flexibility is crucial for problem-solving. The research in this field is timely and makes us less apprehensive about powerful tools. Going forward, this could be a game-changer. It is no surprise that The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes and the Financial Times all independently reported that psychedelics power Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
🧠 Final Thoughts 🌟🚀
Flow represents optimal functioning, a powerful tool for tackling challenges. The “happiness advantage” and flow are not mere theories but practical keys to success. Psychedelics, when approached responsibly, can facilitate access to these flow states. As we continue to explore the intricate relationship between psychedelics and leadership, let’s approach it with an open mind and a commitment to responsible exploration. The journey to high performance, creativity, and personal growth is multifaceted, and we’re witnessing an exciting evolution in research and understanding in this field. Together, we can harness these insights to elevate our leadership and positively impact the world! 🌟🚪🧠🌈🌐
Note: Advocacy for Psychedelic Leadership does not constitute an endorsement of illegal drug use. Rather, it acknowledges the profound insights these experiences can yield when responsibly and legally engaged under the supervision of trained professionals. But, the legal framework is changing rapidly.
Disclaimer: The use of psychedelics is illegal in many regions of the world and carries serious psychological and physical risks. This article neither endorses nor encourages illegal activities or the use of substances without proper medical supervision and a comprehensive understanding of the potential risks involved. Always consult with a healthcare professional.
[i] He then went on to interview some of the world’s most successful CEOs and reported in his book Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making Of Meaning, that hacking flow states is essential to truly visionary leaders.
[ii] Neural oscillation, also known as brainwave activity, refers to the rhythmic and synchronized electrical patterns of activity in the brain’s neural networks. These oscillations are produced by the coordinated firing of large groups of neurons and are characterized by their specific frequency, amplitude, and phase.
[iii] Neuro-modulatory processes refer to the regulation and control of neural activity within the nervous system. These processes involve the release and action of various chemical substances (i.e. chemicals like dopamine), known as neuromodulators, which can affect the excitability, synaptic strength, and overall function of neurons and neural networks.
[iv] Gattuso JJ, Perkins D, Ruffell S, Lawrence AJ, Hoyer D, Jacobson LH, Timmermann C, Castle D, Rossell SL, Downey LA, Pagni BA, Galvão-Coelho NL, Nutt D, Sarris J. Default Mode Network Modulation by Psychedelics: A Systematic Review. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2023 Mar 22;26(3):155-188. doi: 10.1093/ijnp/pyac074. PMID: 36272145; PMCID: PMC10032309.