The sun was beating down on my head and I couldn’t move. There was nothing wrong with my body, no injury or physical impediment to speak of, but I stayed still, feeling unable to pick up my legs or arms, unable to shift my weight. I didn’t trust myself, didn’t have confidence in my tenuous position hanging on to the slushy spring snow of the headwall. I was not in actual danger, at least not at that particular moment. My feet were securely balanced on well-established footholds, my body weight was leaning into the snow, my hands shoved into the mush. I lifted one leg up, testing out what it would feel like to kick my boot up to the next foothold and shift my weight onto that leg, to push myself up a little higher, and immediately brought it back down, returning to my original position. The next foothold was too high up, the transition of weight too much of a stretch. I looked up above me as my companions climbed higher and higher, the distance between us growing greater. I had no interest in looking down, back into the bowl below, where other skiers making the ascent behind me looked like pebbles in an immense snowfield.
I paused to take a few breaths, to calm my mind and think about what to do next. We had hiked up far enough that we were now on the headwall, a section where the climbing was so steep we had to abandon the use of our poles and essentially move using our hands, knees, and feet instead. Turning back at this point would be more dangerous than continuing forward–it wasn’t an option. Trying to click into my skis at this grade of slope would also be too risky. The only choice was to keep moving upward, up over the lip of the bowl and onto the gentler slope of the snowfield above. I knew this, logically, but I still couldn’t move my boot up to the next foothold. The fear was visceral, and I felt pathetic. I was frozen.
A little over a year before I found myself clinging to the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I was lying on my stomach in a tent in Patagonia, listening to the rain beat down on the ceiling and reading by headlamp. I had downloaded Flow on my kindle before leaving on my month-long trip through Argentina and was just getting around to reading it now that inclement weather had set in. For something that was fairly scientific and dry, the book had me strangely riveted—it was all about this concept of “optimal experience,” of a state of being that author and University of Chicago psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues is the key to happiness. I instantly connected with what Csikszentmihalyi was talking about—a state of being where you were so focused on what you were doing that the world around you seemed to fall away—an almost trance-like state where you are doing something purely for the sake of doing it. I thought of how I feel when I run, or hike, or write sometimes, or even when I get hyper-absorbed in a task as simple as peeling a clementine. Time falls away, you get lost in the rhythm of the task, and external worries or stresses seem to grow quiet. Often even the sense of personal identity fades into the background–there is only the task before you. There is only movement.
Back on the headwall, I still wasn’t moving at all. Gripping the grainy snow with my fingers and toes, I was absolutely concentrated on nothing but keeping myself anchored to the mountain, but I wasn’t feeling particularly happy or fulfilled. The focus was certainly there, but what I was learning as the seconds ticked away and I still hadn’t moved my boot from its foothold was that it is not just the focus alone that produces flow. There are two crucial factors that will only produce a flow state when both are present at high and complementary levels: challenge and skill.
What Ueli Steck, the Swiss mountaineer, experiences when attempting first ascents in record times is flow, because a high level of skill is being brought to a challenging situation. If either factor slides too far in either direction, the flow state is lost. Put Steck on a high school rock wall and the only state he’d be in would be a state of boredom. Put me on the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine, and I am in a state of anxiety. What I had to do and what I felt capable of doing were disproportionate. The fact that I had only a month of mountaineering experience under my belt, that I was not equipped with crampons or an ice axe, and that the steps had been kicked by people considerably taller than me were all factors equaling a deficiency on the skill side of the equation. And so I wasn’t flowing–I was freaking out.
Steck has said of climbing, “You just see your hands, your ice axe, and your crampons…and they have to just move.” And indeed, it is as simple as that. It was as simple as that for me too, clinging to the headwall. I couldn’t go back, I couldn’t stay where I was–I had to move. But I needed to adjust the challenge to fit my skill, I needed to slide down the scale so that the disparity wasn’t so glaring. I couldn’t change the grade of the slope, I couldn’t conjure an ice axe and crampons out of thin air–but I could kick smaller steps. So I lifted my leg up again, and this time, instead of reaching for the foothold that was waist-high in the snow in front of me, I kicked a new one in at knee- level, and stepped up onto it. And just like that, I was a little higher. I had moved forward. I focused back in on nothing but the soundness of my steps and of the placement of my body weight. The bowl around me ceased to exist except for the square of snow I could see in front of me. And in that quiet, in that focus, I tapped into that ancient state that was all rhythm, all movement. My entire life, in that moment, was just placing each foot in the snow and shifting my weight up. That task filled all the spaces, expanded itself to become my entire present universe. And so I was lost in the flow, and before I knew it I had crested the lip of the headwall and arrived at the gently sloped snowfield above.
Csikszentmihalyi challenges the common assumption that we are most content in our times of leisure–that finding ourselves in a reclining chair on a sandy beach would be the pinnacle of human happiness. He outlines the important difference between pleasure and enjoyment, a distinction that we often forget to consider. The key difference between pleasure and enjoyment is the amount of challenge that is involved. We get pleasure from lying in the sun, but we do not get enjoyment. Pleasure is lovely in the moment, but it is a not a lasting happiness. Enjoyment comes from something that challenges us, from something that may not be at all pleasant in the moment, but that makes us more complex as a person for having experienced it–that pushes us beyond what we expected. Pleasure was cracking open a cold beer on the floor of the bowl after a day of skiing, enjoyment was having climbed up the headwall and skied two difficult runs successfully.
The most important point that Csikszentmihalyi drives home in Flow is that we can achieve the state through any activity, in any moment of our lives as long as we cultivate the right mindset. You don’t have to climb up a steep, snowy headwall to access it. In the thousands of interviews Csikszentmihalyi conducted, it was clear that the happiest people were able to enter into a state of flow doing just about anything–even people who had what would appear to be mind-numbing assembly line jobs or who had extremely adverse life circumstances. The key was to constantly keep the level of challenge up, to continually improve one’s skills. And the best part–we are completely in control of both of those things. We can either up the external challenge–find steeper, higher mountains to climb, or we can adjust the self-imposed challenge–go faster, kick better steps, move more gracefully. Or, if we find ourselves in a situation whose challenge is above our skill level–we can adjust it by breaking it down into pieces, by taking smaller steps. By keeping the level of challenge appropriate to our skill level, we can steadily gain the confidence it requires to continue to push farther, reach higher. And by doing this, Csikszentmihalyi argues, we can achieve complex, genuine happiness, no matter where we are or what we’re doing.
In the car on the way home from New Hampshire I felt the warm, fuzzy tiredness that you can only get after a day out in the cold. My muscles were sore, a sunburn had started to settle into my cheeks and I was in desperate need of a shower, but it all somehow equaled this smooth, deep contentment. We all kept saying what a great day it had been, a perfect day, and despite my bout of terror on the headwall, I really, truly meant it. The challenge, the exertion, and even the fear had brought about this golden afterglow, this feeling of having really done something. Of hitting a wall and pushing through it. Of getting to the top, coming back down, and despite everything wanting to do it all over again. I felt the golden electricity emanate from the core of my being and flow through the rest of my body, fill the whole car, and echo out into the mountains around us.
photo credit to Geoff Bell.