Anxiety and boredom: the spices that generate Flow

Driving back from a failed holiday, I discussed the conditions that bring about a blissful state of full immersion in a single task. The Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a really cool book about this experience called Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.

The basic idea is that flow arises when skill and challenge are in balance. This basic idea is usually visualized in in a catchy diagram that draws a ‘Flow channel’ between states of anxiety and boredom. The header image is an ugly version of it that I drew on a successful holiday. In this blog I’d like to draw your attention to an aspect of the diagram that may be frequently ignored: brief episodes hinging towards anxiety or boredom. The wiggles of the Flow diagram.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Mihaly Cziskszentmihalyi, inventor of the Flow Theory

In the flow diagram, Cziskszentmihalyi draws a line representing experience. This line isn’t straight but wiggles through the flow channels. The wiggles are there for a reason. The brain knows about skill and challenge by analyzing success and failure. When there are too many failures, skill doesn’t meet a tasks’ challenges and when there are too many successes, one is too skilled for the challenge. The wiggles in the Flow diagram make sure that success and failure keep their value and bring about learning experiences.

Wiggles prevent adaptation

Experiencing brief dips and rises in the amount of reward ensures that reward keeps its value. Did you ever walk into a toilet that smelled like shit and experienced the smell slowly fading? Our brain reduces its responses to constant things. This mechanism is called adaptation and keeps us sensitive to the important things: things that change. It also causes constant things to loose their value.

In my previous motivation blog, I described how reward is the fuel of motivation. Through adaptation constant reward looses value and thereby motivational power.

Wiggles signal development

Another reason why the wiggles in the flow diagram are important is that they signal skill development. In my favorite book chapter on intrinsic motivation, Luc Steels argues that intrinsic motivation is driven by the rewarding value of progress.

Luc Steels
Luc Steels, professor of artificial intelligence

So are you looking for this blissful flow experience and are you annoyed by episodes of failure? Remember that there is no bliss in constant harmony.

Thinking about using this blog to motivate someone? Also read How to coach: five tips.

Note: many thanks to Michaël Bas, owner of &RANJ, one of the game companies I collaborate with, for pointing out an error is this blog. In an earlier version, I wrote that Flow theory is about balancing success and failure. As Michaël pointed out, the theory speaks of skill and challenge instead. Success and failure are just a quantification of these concepts. Check out the &RANJ blogs on how they use games to motivate people!

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