Perhaps the happiest of us all, Mr. Dane Gudauskas. Photo: Laserwolf
Science: Does Surfing Prevent Suicide?
If you combine the theories of these famous psychologists, the answer is yes.
How was your weekend? Fun, fantastic, wavy? As previously explained, mine was spent in a celebratory but entirely dry fashion, which wouldn’t sting so bad if I hadn’t spent the entire month of September drooling over surf on our sister coast, only to fly there at the exact moment that the Atlantic went flat and the Pacific soared.
Instead of dwelling on the negatives of my situation, perhaps it’s best we explore one of the things I gained this weekend, namely a renewed appreciation for the act of surfing. It all started with a book.
The Rise of Superman, a psychological exploration by Stephen Kotler, sets out to identify and explain a strange human phenomenon – something he calls the flow state. Perhaps more colloquially known as “the zone”, the flow state is a time in which, whether in a physical or mental capacity, a person finds themselves capable of otherworldly speed, clarity, and efficiency in their work - here a person's true potential is unlocked.
One of the first people to study the flow state was Maslow, a man most famous for the Human Hierarchy of Needs. After years studying people from all around the world, from all walks of life, Maslow made an astounding discovery: the number and frequency of instances in which a person experiences flow state, or in his terminology “peak experiences”, could be directly attributed to a person’s general happiness:
The peak experience is felt as a self-validating, self-justifying moment... It is felt to be highly valuable — even uniquely valuable — experience, so great an experience sometimes that even to attempt to justify it takes away from its dignity and worth.
Have you ever tried to explain to a layperson the merits of getting tubed? We continue...
As a matter of fact, so many people find this so great and high an experience that it justifies not only itself, but even living itself. Peak experiences can make life worthwhile by their occasional occurrence. They give meaning to life itself. They prove it to be worthwhile. To say this in a negative way, I would guess that peak experiences help to prevent suicide.
And… damn. I hope that reinforces in you, as it does in me, how lucky we are to have surfing in our lives. In a way, this realization justifies my flat-month depression, but in another way it makes me feel pretty silly about the whole thing. Yeah, September sucked, but I’ve got so many great waves to look forward to, so many peak experiences yet to be ...experienced, that really I should be counting my blessings.
Another psychologist, this one named Csikszentmihalyi (don’t bother trying to pronounce), went looking for the very basis of happiness, the reason why people do anything at all. He was amazed to discover that, in the words of our author Kotler, “While the things people enjoy varied completely, the feelings that they produced, the why behind the enjoyment, was globally ubiquitous. In fact, when Csikszentmihalyi dove deeper into the data, he discovered that the happiest people on earth were those who had the most peak experiences.”
Csikszentmihalyi, writing in in his book Creativity:
The feeling didn’t come when they were relaxing, when they were taking drugs or alcohol, or when they were consuming the expensive privileges of wealth. Rather, it often involved painful, risky, difficult activities that stretched the person’s capacity and involved an element of novelty and discovery.
As it turns out, action sports athletes, including surfers, experience “peak moments”, “flow state”, “the zone” or whatever you want to call it, more frequently than any other group on the earth. According to Kotler, it’s imperative for our survival, especially when surfing waves outside our comfort zone. So basically, the more we push ourselves in the water, the happier we should be as humans. That doesn't quite explain grumpy old Santa Cruz chargers, but science is full of outliers.
Monday morning, I’ll wake up in California and spend a full day in the brine. Perhaps it won’t be as great as Saturday or Sunday, but it will be significantly better than not surfing at all. Maybe I’ll reach flow state or maybe I won’t, but that possibility is what keeps my passion, and the passion of all surfers, alive. To relate it back to the work of my colleagues, it’s why we should choose to no-look paddle out more often, and why we should learn to appreciate surfing in more general terms. Because surfing is (scientifically) necessary. To our happiness and, apparently, to our survival.