I was 30 minutes from the summit of Tigers Nest, the amazing Dzong, or Bhutanese fortress, built into the edge of the Himalayan mountains at 11000 feet.  

I have found myself in this situation before — almost at the end of some amazing physical hike at an awe-inspiring location.  I feel drained, but in an instant, a sense of joy and Zen takes over.  I have always wondered: is it the location?  Is it the fact I am with my friends achieving this milestone of adventure?  Or is it the fact it was damn hard and still, I finished.

I have been an advocate of adventure travel and hiking for years now.  I love to do it alone, but I have noticed doing it with my loved ones or best friends leaves me happier. 

I adore globetrotting in general, but these special trips — often planned years in advance and requiring some pointed physical training — are some of my best memories and always leave me feeling more grounded and happier.

After arriving home from an amazing hiking trek thought Bhutan, I committed to find out why this happens and share it.  It was also interesting to me that some of my friends, whom I dragged on their first big hike with me for a special birthday celebration, have also turned into advocates.  Why? 

Dr. Abraham Maslow was the first psychologist to discuss “peak experiences” in the 1960s; those moments that come from pushing ourselves in challenging tasks.   This concept was then termed “getting into the zone” or “flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, another psychologist who began studying this concept in the 60s.  His research and many others from around the world describe what it means to be in the zone, why it works and how it can benefit your health.  

This research created a roadmap for hikers, runners, rock climbers, artists — basically anyone who is seeking exhilaration from being wholly absorbed in the pursuit of something difficult.   The consistent direction of the map is clear: the best way to get into the zone is to completely forget you are trying to get there.    

This is why hiking a challenging trail in the presence of friends with a singular focus on the path gets you into the “flow” and why pushing yourself feels good.

Csikszentmihalyi identified similar descriptions of what people described as a state of flow.  He identified eight ingredients:

  1. The task must be challenging.
  2. There must be a clear goal.
  3. You have to be absorbed in what you are doing.
  4. Distractions are less because you are solely focused on the task.
  5. You have a feeling of being in control.
  6. You lack self-consciousness or worry.
  7. You can experience feelings of moving slower or faster.
  8. There is a sense of reward.

Some people describe being in the zone or state of flow as being akin to a runner’s high, which some runners feel during a run or just after.

Other psychologists have different theories about how to get into the zone: this is where my friends come into the equation.  In her study of motor learning, Dr. Gabriele Wolf from the University of Nevada suggests that flow comes when you are not worried about other people’s concerns about your performance and whether you are fast enough or your body is moving well enough.  These distractions deter one from achieving their flow.

Secondly, she says confidence is essential.  This confidence comes when you believe talent is learnable and not innate.  For example, hiking is an extension of walking; yes, you need some gear (‘ankle boots, ugh!’ said most of my non-hiking friends when preparing for our first trip), you need to do some training (running stairs on the weekends was our group task), but for the most part, it’s possible to improve as a hiker with time and practice.  

One final component, accord to Wulf, is the matter of autonomy.  Choosing when we want feedback helps us perform better.   This choice also empowers us.  There is not a lot of feedback on the hiking trails.  Everyone gets into their groove; we are all singularly focused on completing the task, and we certainly don’t worry about how we look!

Neuroscientists believe all these behaviours that lead to flow also help reduce brain activity.  Flow can quiet our minds.  The learning systems responsible for sophisticated, conscious thinking are not at the forefront during these activities.   You are not analyzing what you are doing when you are in a flow; it is the very essence of not thinking.  So, in some ways, it is similar to meditation. 

I have had my trials with meditation over the years and I am definitely getting better (thanks Kim and Sam Harris!) but if I had my choice, I would take a hiking trail as my meditation therapy every time.