Beyond Flow: Motivation through Meaning

Finding flow, meaning, and joy in learning.

Tarmo Toikkanen
Sep 19, 2016 · 6 min read

Flow, or the zone, is when someone is fully immersed and focused on a task, and this immersion leads to impressive performance. Matching challenge to skills is often mentioned as key factor in enabling flow, but there is much more to getting into the zone. Let’s take a look at what flow is, and why achieving flow may not be enough to get people motivated.

Find the Flow

The research behind flow is pretty much based on the work of Hungarian psychologist Csíkszentmihályi Mihály, starting in the 1980s and still continuing. Csíkszentmihályi sees flow as an experience which is done for its own sake (autotelic); the goal is really just an excuse to make the experience possible.[1] An example used by Mihály are mountaineers who do not climb to reach the top, but try to reach the top in order to climb.

An important revelation is that work is not an opposite of play.[1] It is possible to enjoy work tasks so that they become autotelic and one will work at them above and beyond what is expected. Working on the job or working on learning tasks that allow flow to happen will be fun, but they will also produce superior results.

Any experience improves when the situation demands more than everyday life demands, and when the skill level is just right.[1] A too difficult challenge will result in anxiety, whereas a too easy challenge results in boredom. A suitable challenge makes flow possible, but does not guarantee it.

This diagram combines Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, Csíkszentmihályi’s flow concept, and Ericsson’s deliberate practice. Diagram by Tarmo Toikkanen, LifeLearn Platform.

A suitable challenge will also bring the person out of their comfort zone. The range of suitable challenges may be divided into two bands: the lower level is something the person can do individually, while a higher level benefits from the assistance of another person. You may want to read our previous article on social learning:

Getting the challenge level right is clearly a crucial factor in achieving flow, but it is not enough. Csíkszentmihályi lists three core enablers of a flow state[1]:

  1. Above-average challenges that are matched by the person’s skills
  2. Clear goals
  3. Immediate and accurate feedback on actions

These three need to be present for flow to occur. Interestingly, these same principles are also found in game design and engagement design:

In terms of neuronal activity, many brain structures are of course involved, but at least the dopamine pathway has been shown to improve focus and increase arousal, while lowering inhibition and suppressing competing behaviors.[2]

If you’re wondering when you have experienced a flow state, Csíkszentmihályi has a helpful list of what flow feels like[1]:

  • Attention is invested completely in the activity, excluding distractions
  • Awareness of self is lost temporarily
  • Perception that the outcomes are under one’s own control
  • Distorted sense of time

Attention, or focus, is of course crucial in any kind of challenging work and all learning. Most people have a limited capacity to focus, so learning should happen in suitably paced sessions. Achieving flow allows learners to concentrate for significantly extended periods of time. Additionally, the capacity to focus can be improved through practice (more on this in later articles).

Find the Meaning

Flow sounds really nice, but even getting all the core enablers in place will not guarantee flow. Even if there are clear goals, you get immediate feedback, and the challenge level is suitable for your current skills, you still might not care. For people to care, there’s a few more connections that need to be made. Prepare for a few hefty sciency concepts…

Self-determination

If you decided to read this article on your own, you were self-determined. If someone told you to read it, you were not. You will be more motivated when you choose to do something.[3] But even if you’re forced to do or learn something, if you are given some freedoms to choose when, where, or how to actually perform the given task, you will feel more self-determined, and therefore, you will experience more intrinsic motivation.

Interestingly, one of the core principles of agile work is that those who are most involved in a task and responsible for the outcome, get to decide on how they will perform that task. Self-determination.

Self-determination helps achieve interest in a topic or task, and a moderate amount of motivation. However, self-determination is not enough to reach the flow state.[3]

Self-actualization or self-realization

Csíkszentmihályi does not ignore meaning. He mentions self-actualization from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and posits that flow only happens when it’s related to the those self-actualization goals that the person wants to achieve to reach their full potential. Maslow’s hierarchy is not without its critics, so let’s take another supporting angle.

A task will align with an individual’s self-realization values when it affords the opportunity to develop to one’s full potential, and to progress towards one’s own goals. When tasks align, flow becomes possible.[3]

Flow, therefore, can happen, when the activity somehow helps a person fulfill their life goals or reach their full potential as a human being. These life goals can of course be very different from person to person, and understanding them is a challenge of its own.

Find the Joy of Learning

Even with flow and meaning in place, we’re still human, and learning can be hard work. The monkey brain gets distracted easily (look, a Pokémon!), so we need to use tricks to lure that monkey back to their study. I refer to these techniques as engagement design, although many may have heard of them as gamification. It’s not about playing games, but rather using the engagement techniques game designers use to make games enjoyable, and to get players to care about goals that have no real meaning outside of the game.

I’ll write more about engagement design in a separate post (and add the link here when it’s done), but meanwhile you can read more on the topic in an article I wrote a few years back:

Summary

Much of what makes a good teacher is enriching the topic of study so that it becomes relevant to the learners. In LifeLearn, we will measure learner progress through skill paths and the materials and challenges contained within them, attempting to find the right balance of skills and challenges. Our design also attempts to keep the learner in the center, being able to make choices as to how they would like to proceed, even if they are forced to study something. By making it easy for anyone to create study circles or hobbyist groups, we hope to bring self-realization goals into the learner’s progress view. And throughout LifeLearn, we will utilize engagement design to help learners go through even those topics that by themselves do not feel particularly motivating.

References

1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988). The flow experience and its significance for human psychology. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 15–35). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

2. Flaherty, A. W. (2005). Frontotemporal and dopaminergic control of idea generation and creative drive. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 493(1), 147–153. http://doi.org/10.1002/cne.20768

3. Waterman, A. S., Schwartz, S. J., Goldbacher, E., Green, H., Miller, C., & Philip, S. (2003). Predicting the subjective experience of intrinsic motivation: the roles of self-determination, the balance of challenges and skills, and self-realization values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(11), 1447–1458. http://doi.org/10.1177/0146167203256907

About the Author

Tarmo Toikkanen is Chief Learning Scientist at LifeLearn Platform. He has over a decade of research experience in the fields of learning environments, participatory design, and educational psychology. His passion is to save the world by helping people learn and teach in better ways. This article is part of a series to explain LifeLearn Platform’s ideas on learning.

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Tarmo Toikkanen

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Learning Designer, Educational Psychologist, Author, Teacher Trainer

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