Discovering flow—and community—can lead to a radical kind of well-being.
Mika Banks felt at home the first time she walked into the San Francisco Mission District dance studio of Rhythm & Motion. The room was filled with “so much joy,” says the 33-year-old dancer, alive with “people moving together—just completely letting go, like a party where everyone is doing the same dance.”
“I went to class and I was hooked,” says Bay Area therapist Heather Bornfeld. “It’s a follow-along format so you have to give yourself permission to be lost, and then you’ll eventually find yourself and that is such a rush. I couldn’t wait for my next class—I planned my life around it.”
What Mika and Heather responded to so strongly, aside from a fantastic dance workout to booty-shaking music, is something professor Charles Walker from St. Bonaventure University in New York calls “social flow”—a heightened state of well-being that is even more powerful when experienced in a group.
The heightened feeling of 'flow'
In his seminal positive psychology book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., writes that we reach “optimal states of consciousness” at times when our “attention is completely absorbed by the activity” in which we are involved. He gives examples of a dancer and a rock climber who “stop being aware of themselves as separate from the activity.” This doesn’t apply to just physical activities such as dance and running, but also to musicians playing jazz or a family playing a board game.
In 2010, Charles published the paper “Experiencing Flow: Is Doing It Together Better Than Doing It Alone?” in The Journal of Positive Psychology, noting that although we get a sense of joy from a solo flow state, well-being is magnifed when it’s done with other people. According to Charles, collectivity and connectivity are built into our DNA. “Human beings are incredibly social animals and to surrender yourself to others in a worthwhile cause is a special pleasure,” he says. “When we do so we become graceful, supreme social beings.”
“We are in a Western culture, and the individual is stressed an awful lot,” Charles says. “To surrender to a group [like they do at Rhythm & Motion] where there is beauty, grace and acceptance and find yourself bonding with diverse people is just amazing and thrilling and energizing.”
Rediscover joy in dance
Mika had grown up and danced professionally in Chicago before moving to Quito, Ecuador. But living at a high altitude for several years took a toll on her body, and she was unable to dance or exercise for three years.
“I decided to make a big change, and I was seeking a dance community—hoping to make dance a part of my life again—but not in the way I had done before,” she says. Within a month of moving to San Francisco, Mika volunteered at Rhythm & Motion. Shortly after, she auditioned and became an instructor. She had hoped to dance professionally again, but she soon realized that part of her life was over.
“I wasn’t finding joy in it anymore. Here [at R&M] are classes of 60 people having the time of their lives, calling it ‘church.’ It is the purest form of joy, of connection to movement and to other people.”
Joy is contagious
R&M students include many teachers, artists, healthcare professionals and—both Mika and Heather concur—psychotherapists. Heather says that as a therapist she does “so much talking and listening all day and I am so in my head, that to be able to feel in this completely physical way, and be completely free and present in my body, is like medicine. It is so important.”
Movement and exertion elicit endorphins and other feel-good hormones. You also get a sense of community from sweating alongside other people whom you get to know well over the course of months and years of coming to classes. All of this creates a welcome environment for social flow.
In addition, research from the decades-long Framingham Heart Study has shown that happiness is literally contagious—not just in the sense that we smile when others smile, but that when one person secretes oxytocin (the feel-good hormone), others around them will do the same. It’s no wonder the students at R&M, cycling fanatics braving city roads in groups and even bold roller-derby babes skating around a track in unison find these activities highly addictive.
From flow to flourishing
Social flow takes well-being to the next level—flourishing. When you think of some of the happiest people you know, who comes to mind? Is it the uncle who goes into battle with other fanatics on weekends to act out scenes from the Civil War? The sister who belongs to multiple book clubs or the grandma who loves meeting with her quilting group once a month? People thrive on coming together over a shared passion.
In research at the University of Arizona from 2001, sociology professors Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James M. Cook used the term homophily to describe the fact that “similarity breeds connection” and that everything from marriage to friendship is a result of people’s drive to network with like-minded individuals. However, while “Birds of a Feather” (the name of their paper) may often flock together, sometimes a surprisingly diverse group will gel and it can be magic.
HOW HARRY GOT HIS GROOVE BACK
Harry Baulisch recently rode his first century ride with his friends from the Omaha Bicycle Company; 26 riders started and seven finished all 100 miles—he was among the finishers. It took them 12 hours. He recalls his first group ride about a year ago: “I was gasping for air, my legs were burning. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this, it’s so embarrassing.’ ”
When Harry first walked into the Omaha Bicycle Company in Benson, just outside Omaha, Nebraska, he was only visiting. But this community of young bike enthusiasts, coffee junkies and alternative transportation advocates became a siren call for Harry, a retired Navy lieutenant in his early 60s who had been living in a small town in Minnesota. But like Mika at R&M, he felt immediately at home.
Bicycles, coffee & community
“I had my dog, Sally, with me,” recalls Harry, “and I asked if I could bring her in. I looked around and there were bicycles and a coffee bar, a couch and tables, and I thought—this is heaven!”
“I started meeting people,” Harry says. “And they would say ‘Oh, it’s the guy from Minnesota!’ You get that little bit of gratification when you walk into the biggest city in the state and people remember you!” He could sense that this was not just your usual bike shop. He wanted to be a part of this community, and he was willing to pick up and move in order to change his life.
A different kind of bike shop
Sarah wanted to help Omaha develop a more robust bike culture. Friends raised $15,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to open the shop in 2012. “I was incredibly moved by the generosity: not just friends but also strangers contributed,” Sarah says. “I wanted to make a different kind of shop. I love customers who know nothing about bikes. I don’t want them to feel intimidated.”
Recently the bike mechanic at the shop challenged Harry to ride 30 miles a day for 30 days, and he did it. “I had to make changes if I wanted to have a long life and quality of life,” Harry says. “I want to be doing something every day that excites me. As we get older we need to take a few chances, take some risks and re-enjoy things that we did in the past. It can be as simple and silly as riding fast down a big hill—just flying down a hill.”
Take a risk to find a new place in the world
According to Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D., who developed the positive psychology curriculum at Columbia University Teacher’s College, Harry realized he was not feeling completely happy in one place. He became aware that if he did not “do something about it he would have to settle, and choice is at the center of transformation.” At the end of the day, according to Dan, “Novelty challenges you to make a deeper commitment to how are you going to fit in. You get to re-create yourself—you may unlock a new aspect of your identity, a hidden talent.”
Harry found something else that gives him a leg up on happiness: a crucial sense of belonging. “Harry is an amazing, joyous bright soul and he is super-fun to be around,” Sarah says. “He is a mainstay of the community. Now, if we don’t see him here every other day, we get worried about him.” Luckily they don’t have to worry long; Harry comes into the bike shop nearly every day, usually biking the 13 or so miles from his house.
“I get my large coffee and a pastry from the local bakery,” he says. “But this is where the big change comes in: instead of going to the couch like I used to, I take a chair and go to the mechanics area or Sarah’s desk and chitchat. I am a fixture here now, and it’s like a safe haven for me.”
A CELEBRATION OF FEMALE EMPOWERMENT
“We were trying to create a safe environment for women to play a full-contact sport together,” explains Amy “Electra Blu” Sherman, a founder of the Austin-based Texas Rollergirls league. “We didn’t have any grand aspirations.”
The Texas Rollergirls is “like an empowering, fun, athletic sorority and there’s nothing else like it,” Amy says. Derby offers different levels of intensity. If you just want to skate in the recreational leagues, it can be a place to skate and have fun with friends. Some more serious skaters are in it for the athleticism and competition.
A new community, a alternate identity
Erika Johnson was a mom of two who had just moved to Austin from California when she saw a group of women practicing in a park. “I got a friend to go with me to a primer class and I thought, ‘I could do this,’ ” Erika says. Soon she joined the team The Hustlers, adopted the alter-ego “Bad Influence,” and started wearing a silver-and-purple get-up complete with fishnets and face paint that made her look like a Day-Glo superhero on skates.
A league of their own
For many women involved in Texas Rollergirls, and in derby in general, the league is their world. People become lifelong friends. When someone gets hurt, Erika explains, the whole league is there to support them with food, help getting to a doctor—taking care of each other.
Part of the camaraderie comes from the fact that Texas Rollergirls is a completely do-it-yourself and volunteer run—from cleaning bathrooms to promoting and marketing events. When Amy started skating, roller derby was considered a fringe activity. Now, some schools in Austin and other cities offer roller derby as an afterschool program. “We’ve become part of the culture, and we’ve created this worldwide community,” Amy says. “I can show up in London or Dublin or Japan and and find a like-minded group of women.”
What Amy and the Texas Rollergirls started in Austin in the early 2000s—a new kind of at-track derby that is skater-owned and operated—has spread all over the country and the world. You’ll now find teams as far-flung as Tokyo and Toronto, but it all started back in Texas.
Leave it all on the track
And when all is gelling with the other players, there is a synchrony and the team moves like one smooth entity. But, in fact, there is a lot of practice and sweat that goes into that effort. In the words of Mihaly from Flow, “Although the flow experience appears to be effortless…it often requires strenuous physical exertion.” Communal or solitary, “it does not happen without the application of skilled performance.”
Don’t underestimate the boost that belonging to a group can bring to your health and well-being: the bowling team, the weekly soccer game, the poker game, the book club. It’s a challenge to schedule fun and joy into our busy calendars. But if that pleasurable social interaction—the one outside work, home and church that stimulates your mind and body—becomes a regular part of your life—you will stick with it. If you’re lucky you may even lose your self-consciousness and achieve a heightened state of communal social flow. So go ahead and join the club! See what kind of joy and flourishing it may bring.
Emily Wise Miller is the web editor at Live Happy.