Anandamide: The Bliss Molecule

“Move Through Bliss”

40”x30” Acryic on Canvas (2016)

This one is from November of 2016. I painted it live during a full-moon party at The Beat, a yoga studio in Denver. The Beat is a unique because they don’t have a weekly class schedule. Instead they host special yoga-based events, which also feature alternative medicine, personal development, and local art and music. It’s a venue where creative and physical expression intersect. 

I thought this painting concept would be appropriate, because it celebrates an important factor shared by both creativity and physical activity

The unifying factor in question is the chemical structure you see in the background. That’s anandamide, also known as “the bliss molecule”. Its name comes from “ananada”, the Sanskrit word for bliss. 

Runner’s High

If you run or exercise, then you may have experienced “runner’s high.” The basic idea is that some of us like to torture ourselves when we train, so much so that our body releases natural painkillers and intoxicants to get us through the session. 

It was once believed that endorphins were at play here. However, it has been discovered that the neurochemical most responsible for the runner’s high is, in fact, anandamide.

This finding is rather appropriate, because anandamide is an endocannabinoid. That is, it behaves like THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. In other words, when you’re naturally high on life, you’re high on anandamide. 

Flow States

But the name “runner’s high” doesn’t do the experience justice. What we’re really talking about is that naturally-altered state of consciousness known as a flow state

When we’re in flow, we become hyper-focused; so tuned-in to the activity at hand that nothing else exists. We feel great and get a boost in performance: decisions and actions seem to unfold effortlessly. The inner critic shuts up. All stressful thoughts get put on mute, so there’s no worrying about bills or politics or what’s for dinner tonight. 

Running and physical challenges aren’t the only way to get there. Other paths include yoga, painting, knitting, writing, breathwork, meditation, freestyle rapping, performing stand-up comedy, doing physics equations, and parkour (as depicted in the painting).

Flow Battle!

Anandamide and flow states do more than just dull your pain to enhance physical performance. There are cognitive benefits as well, and these are much more interesting and powerful.

Creative Thinking and Pattern-Interrupt

Another important characteristic of flow is increased “lateral thinking”. This means it unlocks the type of brain activity necessary for creativity and outside-the-box thinking. The rigid habits of your brain (and patterns of your thought) loosen up, creating an opportunity to make new connections and form new ideas

You’d be right to think that this is good for productivity in the workplace. But it also enhances mental well-being in general. Lateral thinking is precisely what it takes to put the brakes on those negative thought loops experienced during times of stress, anxiety, and depression.

One powerful example of the therapeutic benefits of flow states is surf therapy for veterans with PTSD. Just imagine if mental health professionals could write prescriptions for surfing lessons, or art classes, or ski passes, or even a simple gym membership (at least to supplement conventional practices). 

But make no mistake, these experiences provide more than temporary escapism. These fleeting experiences create a window of opportunity for sustainable change. This is because of the powerful insights and behavioral changes that can be inspired by a flow state.

Bliss Junkeeism: Getting High on Your Own Supply

I hope you find this information as empowering I do.

To recap the big idea here: There is an endless variety of simple, free, and enjoyable activities that can put us into a euphoric state, enhance our creative problem-solving abilities, and empower us to make life-changing shifts in thoughts and behaviors

But achieving flow is not as simple as it sounds. This is because the modern world is set up in a way that prevents us from ever getting there. Think of the distracting environment we live in: the buzzes (and phantom buzzes) of smart devices, information overload from social media and the news, the interruptions of the typical office environment, and boring jobs. 

To invoke Ananda and experience her graces, we must make the first move by creating conditions welcoming to her. 

The first way to do this is to eliminate distractions and get focused. Obviously, you’ll have a hard time reaching flow when your smart phone is sitting next to you. 

But my best advice isn’t simply to put the phone away when you want to get into flow. Rather, it would be to habitually keep a distance from your phone (and other distractions), as much as possible. The idea is to cultivate a default state of focus, so you can enter flow more easily. 

The second is to be mindful of the challenge-skill ratio. Flow only comes when you need the help. That means you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone. You’re taking on a challenge that demands a physical or mental performance boost. 

On the other hand, flow only comes when it’s capable of helping. When you venture too far beyond your skill-level, you won’t get any momentum and you’ll end up frustrated. Hardly blissful and hardly conducive to flow. To find Goldilocks, pursue challenges that are slightly above your skill-set. Those that are doable, but with a little help, perhaps from endogenous performance-enhancing chemicals.

So how do you get your anandamide fix? Are you more of a rick-climber, or a yogi, or a monk, or some combination? Tell me about your most out-of-this-world experience in flow!

And what do you think of this concept for a painting? Any brain science geeks out there looking to fill wall space with neurochemical art? Do you have a favorite neurochemical that you’d like to see celebrated in original art? Let me know, I’d love to hear your suggestions!