The Flow State of Travel

Travel can be a transcendent experience when it is done right. It is humbling, awe inspiring and life changing. What has that to do with flow state?

Professor of Psychology Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says flow is, ”being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.” Sometimes it is also labeled "in the zone." Who doesn't want travel like that! The only difference from playing jazz (or some other intense moment of creativity) is the deep meaning of travel is the sum of the entire trip and not just one intense moment. I believe the similarities are enough that we can use the flow state psychology to have the best possible vacations. Achieving a flow state is about finding the balance of high skills and high challenges. Not everyone will find that on an average trip.

Which Way Do You Approach Flow?

*IMPORTANT WARNING* Along this path do not compare your journey to anyone else’s. That is the path of bitterness and a fast track back to apathy.*

Since you already want to travel, you have moved at least one step left or right of apathy. If the desire to travel is expressed by the statement “I really should plan a trip,” then it is the clockwise path through anxiety. Do you think life is just a bit dull? That is the counter clockwise path through control.

Clockwise Through Anxiety

Discover the Motivation

The challenges of planning your trip are starting to overwhelm you but your reasons for desiring the trip are not going away. Focus on your motivation for taking this trip like, “I really need a break” or “a vacation would be good for me/my family” or “my children need to experience being world citizens in order to be good people.” The result will be real anxiety but we are not staying here.  Now to move around the corner we need to increase the skills required for your travels. 

Increase Your Skills

How do you increase your skills? Study. Ask for help. There are mountains of books, articles, websites, meet-up groups, online forums and other resources for learning more about travel. Then there are the travel evangelists who want nothing more in the world then to share their experiences and wisdom.

If you have amassed a mountain of knowledge but are still anxious then you may be stuck. Unstick yourself by actually using this knowledge It is possible in the pursuit of skill to drop into the control state. Try decreasing the challenge (temporarily) by trying easy excursions to gain skills. Maybe a trip to Grandma's house is not exceedingly profound but you are practicing. Consider hiring out the skills you don't have. You can still be the one behind the wheel of your car even though you hire a mechanic. The  arousal state is when you have actually made reservations and the anticipation builds to more excitement then fear.

Enter the Flow

The final, non-trivial step is out your front door and down the road. Remember the challenges are NOT a sign of failure but a necessity for it to be meaningful. If it is fulfilling and heart pounding, you are doing it right.

Counter Clockwise Through Control

Boredom. This is the acknowledgment that you need more stimulation. 

Find your Competence

When you are bored, learn something new. This could look like research or joining travel groups. Facebook forums like Family Travel Inspiration have mountains of information easily searchable. Even reading historical tales of travel like Marco Polo are stimulating and a movement away from the state of boredom.

Add some challenge. The next step may be taking small easy trips turning the knowledge into real skill. Slowly, carefully and safely you increase your skills. A cruise or all inclusive vacation will have the overall feeling of relaxation while leaving you with the feeling of almost total control over the situation. You have reached the control state. Above I said it is possible to skip from anxiety to control, if you find yourself here then do what the CCW folks are doing. Increase your skills in safety but start to dream big.

Seek Adventure

Control state is close to the goal but requires the addition of challenge. If you find your vacations are relaxing but lack a sense of meaning then you are stuck in control state. I think everyone deeply desires profound experiences but many people will settle for controlled ones. Seek out adventure. It is easy to see the fear in the anxiety state, but the control state is also one ruled by fear. Let go. Talk to your adventurous friends. Find a travel agent who specializes in adventure. Or maybe join a guided trip doing something more adventurous then you have tried on your own. 


Let it flow. As you leave the house on your adventure you might be in a state of euphoria but run the gambit of emotions as you encounter challenges and delays along the way. Maybe the bliss will return when you watch your kids interacting with a new part of the world and you can almost see their minds and hearts growing. Could be you to get anxious exiting the airport as you are bombarded by offers for rides, hotels and tours, but you trust yourself and walk right by them and find the one that you have previously booked or were hoping to find. It will all add up to a life impacting experience. Welcome to the Travel Flow State.

Ready to Flow?

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