The Stoke: Motivation, Addiction, and the Affective Experience of Surfers

by: Kelsi Nummerdor

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In keeping with the week’s impromptu theme of addiction, this guest post was written by psychology and anthropology student Kelsi Nummerdor following her ethnographic and theoretical research as a participant in The Anthropology of Surfing, a three-week study abroad field course offered by the University of Georgia and taught in Costa Rica by anthropologist Dr. Pete Brosius. Kelsi explores the addictive quality of surfing, shedding light on a puzzling question - which came first: the surfer or the addict? Are we addicts because we are surfers, or are we surfers because we are addicts?


Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world”. These are the iconic words of the 1963 Beach Boys hit, Catch a Wave. This sentiment expresses, in a way, the focus of my ethnographic study of surfers along the Guanacaste coast. The affective experience of surfing, though limited significantly in narratability, is intensely sought after and highly regarded among surfers. The emotional states that occur while surfing are described and expressed in a variety of ways, but there is general agreement that the feeling of the “stoke”, as well as other psycho-emotional and physiological states produced by the physical act of surfing, are highly pleasurable and oftentimes semi-addictive. This cycle of intense affective experience, motivation to re-experience, and subsequent “addiction” is apparent among the lifestyle/soul-surfers I encountered in Guanacaste. Additionally, numerous portrayals of surfers in the media support the claim that surfing is semi-addictive, and that this addiction could possibly be explained by physiological and psychological states inherently catalyzed by the surf experience. Additionally, a multitude of social, environmental, and individual factors can actuate or reinforce motivation to surf. It is exigent to add that this process of “addiction” occurs among the presence of significant risks to physical and social well being (i.e., situations wherein decisions are made that elevate surfing above job or relationship security). Surfing is inherently risky and surfers choose to surf despite, perhaps even because of, these risks.




It must initially be addressed that describing the affective experience of surfing is oftentimes arduous, resulting in fragmentary and largely incomplete data. This is due in large part to the inherent limits of narratability that surround surfing; the surfing experience was termed “indescribable” by many interviewees. The embodied nature of surfing in conjunction with low levels of explicit knowledge and relatively high levels of tacit knowledge help explain these limits: one cannot state exactly how it feels to experience surfing because many aspects of the activity are largely unconscious and acquired through repetitious bodily training. The partially tacit nature of surf knowledge should not suggest simplicity, however. Although decision-making while in the core flow state of surfing seems to be largely unconscious, a highly complex decision making process is still able to occur (Butts, ND). I believe that the process of embodied action in conjunction with the highly unique flow state experience contribute to the addictiveness of surfing. I am willing to postulate that embodiment in the “flow” is highly psychologically pleasurable, and therefore semi-addictive in its own right. I will address this, categorized as a state of intense focus, in subsequent paragraphs.


The aforementioned limits of narratability occur quite quickly when discussing surfing, and make significant understanding of the activity by non-participants nearly impossible. Butts addresses the importance of participant-observation in his article Good to the Last Drop: Understanding Surfers’ Motivation. Personal anecdotal experience supports Butts statement. I was able to explore the act of surfing over the course of three weeks, and believe it has allowed me to push these limits of narratability significantly farther than observation as a non-participant.


Addiction can be described in a variety of ways, and my use of the term here is loose and context-specific. I have chosen to organize my findings around the following working definition of addiction: “the condition of being habitually or compulsively occupied with or involved in something”. This definition is broad enough to allow behavior, even cognition, to constitute addiction. The lack of explicit reference to substance allows significantly greater freedom in conceptualizing behaviors, even lifestyle choices, as addictions. Additionally, the term occupied allows one to conceive of many instances of occupation. Cognition, discussion, media consumption, and actual performance of an activity may all be categorized as occupation. Psychological and medical literature on addiction is very broad, and I will not describe in detail specific mechanisms of addiction. I will, however, posit that I believe surfing creates a pleasurable physiological response that promotes addiction. Action-specific neurotransmitters (i.e., adrenaline and dopamine) are likely released while surfing. These neurotransmitters catalyze feelings of excitement and pleasure that motivate surfers to repeatedly pursue peak experiences. Conversely, Butts postulates that the nearly constant emotional flux between tension and calm (e.g., the roughness of the inside relative to the serenity of the line-up) functions as a mechanism of physiological optimization of performance in the water. This state of oscillating emotional arousal, Butts suggests, could help us understand the addictive nature of surfing. In chapter four of Surfing and Social Theory, Ford posits a slightly different mechanism: mimetic theory. This theory describes mimetic activities as those that simulate emotions present in riskier, more violent times of human presence. These activities are therefore primordially satisfying. Surfing could prove to be a mimetic activity and therefore a catalyst of intense fight-or-flight-esque emotions. The intensity and rarity of these experiences could also help explain their addictive properties.


Ethnographically, addiction presents in a multitude of ways. The jargon of addiction is often employed by surfers to describe how they experience the desire to surf, or to describe the initial process of becoming “hooked” on the sport. I encountered the phrase “I got the itch [to surf]” multiple times from various sources. One individual, the owner of a tattoo shop, revealed that if the waves are good, he will close the shop in the middle of the day to go surf. This is an example of socially and economically risky behavior that is employed to allow the surfer to get his “fix”. Another individual expressed explicitly that he is “addicted to adrenaline, fear, and pain…surfing is a love, a passion, an addiction, an obsession, a way of life. It shapes your decisions”. Another surfer expressed a feeling of exhaustion after surfing that made him want to do nothing for the rest of the day. This exhaustion is an interesting parallel to the feeling of satiation an addict receives after receiving one’s “fix”. Similarly, one surfer remarked that he did not surf competitively because surfing “gave him enough”. The centrality of surfing in lifestyle fulfills the habitual requirement of my working definition of addiction.


There are many additional aspects of surfing that could contribute to its semi-addictive nature. Most obvious is the physiological and emotional rush one receives when riding a wave. This is what surfers call the “stoke”. The transitory nature of this feeling promotes the search for the next good wave, the next “high”. I experienced multiple times the “one more wave” phenomenon, wherein I decided to end my surfing session for the day, but stayed out for as much as 45 minutes longer because I was searching for the next “great wave”. In psychological terms, this could be conceptualized as variable-interval reinforcement within Skinner’s ‘Schedules of Reinforcement’ within the larger construct of operant conditioning. In this schedule of reinforcement, participants are uninformed as to when reward will be received; like gambling, one waits in a constant state of anticipation for positive reinforcement. In both surfing and other activities, anticipation, subsequent arousal, and eventual reward catalyze the creation of addiction and reinforce established addiction. Additionally, feeling capable, strong, and like you are “riding the energy of the wave” are all also positive behavioral reinforcements. The pleasure of spontaneity, a can-do autonomy, and control over behavior (perhaps magnified by the opposing nature of the out-of-control ocean) also reinforce motivation to surf (Ford 2006).


Social reinforcement and motivation also exist. Being part of the surf community can be highly socially satisfying and consequently promote increased surf behaviors. The embodied nature of surfing greatly heightens this group dynamic of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. As one surfer said, “you have to experience it [surfing] to understand it”. This group dynamic also allows members to sustain a feeling of “antipathy towards bureaucracy and formal organizations” (Ford 2006). The ability to drop out, live in the present (similar fundamentally, I believe, to the flow experience of embodiment), and choose “freedom” are also motivational for surfers (Ford 2006). One can “escape, relocate, and travel” in the name of surfing (Comer 2010). Ethnographically speaking, the character of Kahuna in Gidget exemplifies the life of a surfer bum who “drops out” of society to pursue surfing and “live the dream”.  Similarly, the surf community, through the creation and sustainment of community, social reinforcements, enculturation practices, and multi-media sources of information dissemination, are able to create their own world with unique standards of etiquette (line-up etiquette), skill appraisal, and conceptions of space. This unique space suited to the desires, needs, and preferences of surfers motivates surfers to continue surf behaviors and perpetuate surf society. In other words, a positive feedback loop exists such that the more surf culture grows, the more it reinforces its own growth.


The ocean environment also seems to be motivational for many surfers. Surfing and Social Theory posits that the centrality of a personal relationship with the ocean is fundamental to the sport. Interesting, this hypothesis presents ethnographically. One surfer stated that, “[while surfing] it’s just you and the waves”. Others remarked that the “environment is great” and that “respect for the ocean” is crucial. The serenity of the line-up, the humbling experience of being among dangerous wildlife, and the feeling of incredible smallness that occurs when floating in the ocean make me believe wholeheartedly that the powerful, aquatic environment is in itself reinforcing because of its uniqueness and extremity. In few other places, as one surfer remarked, is the environment constantly changing. Drowning, shark attacks, and other serious injuries also occur amongst the waves. These risks likely heighten the arousal state and make the feeling of success, or “dominating a wave”, more deeply fulfilling. So it does indeed seem that certain individuals may surf because of risks inherent to surfing, and not in spite of them. This postulate is supported by the seemingly large number of surfers who also take part in other extreme sports like skateboarding, snowboarding, or jumping motorbikes.


Ethnographic study illuminates explicitly describable motivation for certain surfers. I received a variety of responses when asking why individuals surf. There were common themes, however. Surfing was referred to by several participants as a “focus point” or “100% focus, like meditation; a zen moment”. This intensity of focus, I believe, corresponds to the core flow experience of surfing, the peak of the embodiment phase, wherein decisions are made unconsciously and incredibly quickly. I believe this could catalyze another theme I witnessed: the experience of “leaving” your problems in the water. I was told: “if you have problems, you forget them in the water”, surfing is an “escape”, surfing “gives you a fresh start”, “you go into the water with a full chalkboard…it [surfing] clears your chalkboard”.  Butts also remarked that surfing “clears the mind and cleanses the spirit.” Similarly, surfing and the relationship with the ocean is seen as fundamentally religious by some. “Mother Ocean” was referenced by one interviewee, and merchandise stating “surfing is my religion” can be seen in surf communities like Guanacaste. Additionally, certain surfers reserve specific rituals for new surf boards or pre-ride physical preparations.


Among other things, surfing can “teach you discipline”, keep you “physically fit”, and sustain a “life philosophy”. One surfer, when asked what surfing does for him, remarked emphatically “What doesn’t it do for me?” and began to list a wide range of benefits and ideologies that surfing supplies him. Surfing, for many, is fulfilling, addictive, motivating, and enjoyable. Surfers often surf for life, and mindfully construct their lives in order to most effectively fulfill their “fix”. In closing, many people reflected that surfing simply feels good. Gidget herself expressed elatedly and repeatedly that surfing is “the ultimate!”


Future research on surfing could begin to illuminate answers to significant questions regarding narratability of flow states, obsessive or risk-taking behavior among surfers, and (if they are present) individual differences between people who get hooked on surfing and those who do not. It would be beneficial for addiction studies in general, I believe, to understand what factors influence the development of individual addiction. No amount of research will answer completely or satisfactorily what surfing means to every surfer; too much emotional and experiential variation undoubtedly exists. However, beginning to understand the motivations, experiences, perceptions, addictions, lifestyle choices, and health benefits of surfers will be both generative and beneficial for a variety of multifaceted disciplines. I am glad I had to opportunity to experience surfing, and to begin what I hope will be a journey into the inner workings of surfing. Right now, above all else, I would really like to go catch a wave.



Works Cited


Butts, Steven.  ND.  “Good to the last drop: Understanding surfer’s motivations.”  Sociology of Sport Online 4(1):

Comer, K.  2010.  “Californians in Diaspora: The making of a local/global subculture.”  Chap. 1, Surfer Girls in the New World Order.  Durham: Duke University Press.

Ford, N. & D. Brown.  “Surfing as subculture and lifestyle.” 2006.  Chap. 4, Surfing and Social Theory: Experience, Embodiment and Narrative of the Dream Glide. London: Routledge.

Henderson, M.  2001.  “A shifting line up: Men, women, and Tracks surfing magazine.”  Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 15(3):319-332.