31st January 2020 0 Comments Human Insight

In the zone: the psychology of optimum performance

Swirl of multicolour

In 1975, behavioural scientist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. Csikszentmihalyi was intrigued by a conundrum he perceived in modern living: why do we spend most of our time doing “serious work” that we find “grim and unpleasant”, whilst there are certain “elusive” activities, we do for no reason apart from the inherent enjoyment of the activity itself?

He spoke to several individuals who frequently engaged in these enjoyable acts – chess-players, dancers, rock-climbers – determined to understand what made them partake in these activities that have no material reward. 

“With near unanimity,” Csikszentmihalyi writes, “respondents[…] stated that they devoted time and effort to their activity because they gained a peculiar state of experience from it, an experience that is not accessible in “everyday life”.”

Csikszentmihalyi describes this elevated state as “flow” – a merging of action and awareness, in which the individual is completely engrossed in what they are doing. Respondents who experienced “flow” described feeling in a trance-like state, momentarily suspended from their day-to-day worries, lost in time. 

“Instead of controlling our environment, we find ourselves in a symbiotic exchange, an act of mutual creation” writes Sky Nelson-Isaacs in Living in Flow.

As one rock-climber partaking in Csikszentmihalyi’s research reports: “you’re so involved in what you’re doing [that] you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”

“Instead of controlling our environment, we find ourselves in a symbiotic exchange, an act of mutual creation”

Integral to all these activities is the fact that they are intrinsically motivated – not motivated by any external factors like punishments or rewards. It is worth noting, however, that whilst flow-inducing activities are pleasurable, they are not directionless. Flow rarely takes place during passive activities like watching TV or having a bath. 

Flow-inducing activities are autoletic, deriving from the Ancient Greek αὐτός (autós) meaning self, and τέλος (télos) denoting goal/purpose. They require direction and structure, and immediate feedback as to whether the set goal is being reached. Csikszentmihalyi created a “flow model” to indicate the emotional states that must be balanced in order to achieve flow state, achieving an optimum meeting point between arousal and boredom, anxiety and relaxation, control and worry. 

Coloured chart indicating different emotions balanced for flow state

Having shed light on what makes leisure enjoyable, Csikszentmihalyi then set out to understand the absence of enjoyment during work. How has such an adamant dichotomy evolved between work and leisure, that we feel “bored and frustrated” when we are working and “guilty” when we are not?

Csikszentmihalyi traces this to school-age, where children are disciplined by a “stick & carrot” system: rewarding good behaviour with material rewards and addressing misbehaviour with punishments. Such a system is detrimental to good work. If students and employees become fixated with achieving high grades or profits, teachers and employers are no longer inclined to care whether they find this work meaningful or enjoyable. 

“As a result,” Csikszentmihalyi concludes, “children and workers will learn, in time, that what they have to do is worthless in itself and that its only justification is the grade or paycheck they get at the end.”

How has such an adamant dichotomy between work and leisure evolved, that we feel “bored and frustrated” when we are working and “guilty” when we are not?

Csikszentmihalyi argues that the systemic dominance of externally motivated tasks affects our social infrastructure. A system that rewards productive behaviour with material goods will inevitably result in social polarisation by creating discrepancies in wealth and status.

Yet the problem goes beyond this. Csikszentmihalyi argues that the overabundance of externally motivated tasks poses an existential threat to humanity. 

 “Extrinsic rewards are by their nature either scarce or expensive to attain in terms of human energy. Money and the material possessions it can buy require the exploitation of natural resources and labour. If everything we do is done in order to get material rewards, we will exhaust the planet and each other.”

 A system that rewards productive behaviour with material goods will inevitably result in social polarisation by creating discrepancies in wealth and status.

Beyond Boredom and Anxiety was written forty-five years ago, but in the face of environmental crisis, its lessons feel just as relevant today. 

To find enjoyment in the work that we do and stop exhausting the world’s resources, we must look beyond profit, finding a sense of purpose in the work that we do. 

 “This is not a naive belief that the world is good,” Nelson-Isaacs states; it is: “an empowered belief that we can aim for our highest vision and successfully navigate the territory we will have to cross.”

If we find a sense of purpose in the work that we do, we can strive beyond boredom and anxiety, thinking beyond the white noise of our everyday, whilst enjoying ourselves at the same time. 

 


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