Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Flow

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Flow:
How optimal experience can lead to greater productivity and happiness

Overview[edit]

Benjamin Franklin playing chess.jpg

Have you ever been involved in an activity where you have felt alert and completely absorbed in the processes of the task? Have you experienced a sense of personal control over an activity, which has challenged you and allowed you to perform at your best? Has an activity ever provided you with internal satisfaction and resulted in a loss of self-consciousness through the merging of action and awareness? Have you engaged in an activity where your sense of time transcends, and just engaging in the task itself is rewarding? Maybe you were reading your favourite book, talking to someone you care about, playing your favourite sport or doing your favourite hobby. If you answered yes to any of the above questions you may have been in a state of optimal experience defined as flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Csiksezentmihalyi, 1988, 1990).

Flow and intrinsic motivation[edit]

1.1: Revised[explain?] Flow Model

Over the course of human evolution, every culture has developed activities to improve the quality of experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990 p.76). Researchers' interest in activities that foster optimal experience relates to the motivation that drives individuals to engage in tasks that provide little or no external reward. Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that is driven by interests in the task itself, without reliance on external reinforcers (Cameron & Pierce, 1994).

Research suggests that intrinsic motivation is associated with higher levels of achievement and enjoyment in education and occupational environments (Cameron & Pierce, 1994). Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 76) suggests by learning more about activities that enable optimal experience, we may find clues to a form of motivation that is fundamentally important to utilising human resources.

The current operant conditioning principles suggest the application of external reinforcers and punishments is a more effective way to motivate individuals into acceptable behaviours (Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996 ). The danger of applying external motivators to encourage certain behaviours, is the ease at which they can be administered. For example, when a lecturer realises students will work for a grade, he or she may become less concerned with the processes of learning and, consequently, the student may prioritise the grade as the ultimate objective. The student may begin to ascertain that the processes of learning are not important, rather only the external reward (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990 p.3).

Intrinsic motivation allows for internal reinforcement, by which the individual can concentrate on the processes of the activity and continue the task without reliance on an external reward. Flow theory and research examines the activities that appear to contain rewards within themselves. By examining flow as a psychological process, researchers can identify the conditions of optimal experience and direct individuals and organisations to processes that will lead to greater happiness and productivity.

History[edit]

Positive psychology[edit]

In 2000, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed a comprehensive re-evaluation of the structure of psychological theories and research (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). They proposed a shift from the traditional preoccupations with human shortcomings and psychopathologies to concentrate on positive human experience. Rather than presenting a new field or paradigm, positive psychology was a novel approach to the study of human behaviour. To achieve its aim, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) suggested the role of psychology was to:

  1. Articulate a vision of a good life that is empirically sound while being understandable and attractive
  2. Show what actions lead to well-being and positive individuals
  3. Foster prosperous community by to helping to document what kind of families result in the healthiest children, what work environment support the greatest satisfaction among workers and what policies result in the strongest civic commitment.
Martin Seligman presentation on Positive Psychology

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi initially examined the processes of optimal experience in a study observing a sample of male artists. He noted that while the artists were painting, they were completely absorbed in their work (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988 p. 4). Csikszentmihalyi observed the artist as completely detached from their bodily needs and immersed in the enjoyment of the task. However, as soon as the artists finished the painting they would lose interest (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988 p. 4). Csikszentmihalyi questioned why the artist would engage in the creative process with little to no external reward to motivate their behaviour.

At the time of Csikszentmihalyi’s original study, the leading researcher in the field of motivation was Abraham Maslow. Maslow (1970) suggested that individuals engage in activities that lack external reward in an attempt to discover one’s limitation and potential (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988 p.5). Maslow labeled this type of motivation as a desire for self-actualisation. Maslow’s model, although comprehensive, did not provide explanations as to how these experiences felt, if any activity could potentially become intrinsically rewarding, or if any individual could experience flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988 p.5). Csikszentmihalyi’s text, Boredom and Anxiety (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975) published the first comprehensive statement explaining the flow experience. However, in the initial stages the concept of flow was labeled an autotelic experience.

Csikszentmihalyi (1988, 1990) outlined a common set of structural characteristics that distinguished the experience of flow from other experiences in everyday living. To counter criticisms that suggested the research in Boredom and Anxiety was not generalisable, as it was based on a select group of individual and was primarily the result of laboratory setting, Csikszentmihalyi and Larson (1987) developed a study using the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). They provided respondents with an electronic pager and a survey questionnaire booklet. The experimenters beeped the respondents randomly seven times a day. Each time the respondents were beeped, they had to fill out a survey. By the end of the week, the researchers were able to compile a systematic description of the respondent’s activities for the day, as well as the personal experiences and dimensions of awareness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). The results of this study showed that almost any activity in daily life could produce a flow experience. Also, just as in leisure activities, the results demonstrated that productive activities, such as studying and working, could create a flow experience. The study found that females, individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and older individuals tend to value intrinsic rewards as far more important. An explanation provided by the Csikszentmihalyi and Larson (1987) suggests that autotelic reasons for involvement may increase, as one grows older and more affluent. Such a relationship fits Maslow’s (1970) hierarchy of needs.

Characteristics of flow[edit]

Autotelic experience, activity and personality

An activity is assumed to be autotelic if it requires formal and extensive energy output on the part of the performer, yet provides few if any conventional rewards. Originally, Csikszentmihalyi (1975, p. 10) labelled the flow experience as autotelic. The word autotelic originates from the Greek language the word auto meaning self and the telos meaning goal or purpose. To achieve optimal experience, a balance is required between the challenges perceived in a given situation and the skills of the individual. If an individual’s skills meet that challenge, a flow experience may occur. However, to remain in flow, one must increase the complexity of the activity by developing new skills to meet increasing challenges.

There should be distinctions drawn between autotelic activities, autotelic personalities, and autotelic experiences. A study by (Asakawa, 2009) examined the characteristics of flow activities, time management, and goal directedness related to autotelic personality types. Japanese college students were asked to complete various flow measures with reference to five daily activities. The results suggest that flow activities are related to the processes of personal growth and self-advancement, and also provide pleasure and motivation for subsequent activity. Autotelic personality types, as defined by the study, reported higher levels of flow in everyday activities, and the highest scores on time management and goal directedness measures.

Csikszentmihalyi (1988, 1990) identified the following 10 factors as accompanying a experience of flow:

  1. Goals should be clear. Expectations and rules should be discernible and goals should be attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities. Both the skill set and challenge level should be high.
  2. A high degree of concentration should be exerted on a limited field of attention. The individual should be able to focus and be deeply engaged in the activity.
  3. A loss of self-consciousness through the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Sense of time transcends. The individual’s personal experience of time is altered. It is a pleasurable state that requires no external regulation.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback should be available so that the individual’s behaviours can be adjusted as needed. This creates a merging of action and awareness.
  6. There should be a balance between the individual’s ability level and the level of difficulty in the challenge. If the challenge is too easy or to difficult, then uncomfortable emotions are experienced and flow does not occur. See figure 1.1.
  7. The individual should hold a sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity must be intrinsically rewarding, resulting in an ease of action.
  9. Absorption in the activity is essential. Focus of awareness should be narrowed down to the activity itself.
  10. The individual should experience a lack of awareness of bodily needs. That is, the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger, or fatigue without realizing it.

When experiencing a state of flow individuals often describe a balance, in which one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges presented. The flow inducing activity is goal directed, with an established rule system that provides clear feedback as to how one is performing. People describe a state of concentration that is so intense, that there is no attention left over to consider anything outside the task. Consequently, self-consciousness disappears and one’s sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces flow is so gratifying that people are willing to take part in it without external rewards. For this reason the flow experience is the ultimate example of intrinsic motivation. The nature of the flow experience will often push individual to a higher level of performance. Individuals will engage in the task with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi on The Flow Experience  

Dimensions of flow[edit]

1.2: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory

Theoretically, the two most important dimensions of experience are challenge and skill; they are represented on the two axis of Figure 1.2.

The letter A represents Andy, a boy who is learning to play chess. The diagram shows Andy at four points in time. When he starts playing chess, A1, Andy has practically no skills and the only challenge he faces is trying to remember the rules of the game. This is not a very difficult feat, but Andy is likely to enjoy it because the difficulty is suitable for his rudimentary skills, at this point he will probably be in flow. However, he cannot stay there for long. After a while if he keeps practicing, his skills will improve and he will grow bored of just moving the pieces according to the rules of the game. Or it might happen that he meets a more practiced opponent, in which case he will begin to feel some anxiety about his poor performance. Neither boredom A2, nor anxiety A3, are a positive experiences. Andy essentially has one choice as he continues to improve his skills, he must increase the challenges he is facing and enter flow as described by A4. The diagram shows that both A1 and A4 represent situation in which Andy is in flow. Although, both states are equally enjoyable, the two states are quite different. A4 is a complex state that continues to be enjoyable. It is not a stable situation. As Andy keeps playing he will get better and should continue to push himself up the flow channel as his skills improve and the complexity level gets harder and harder (adapted from Csikszentmihalyi, 1990 p. 74).

A study by Moneta and Csikszentmihalyi (1996) confirmed that the qualities of everyday life experiences are dependent on the balance of skills required in specific situations and challenges experienced. The study used the ESM technique on a sample of 208 high achieving adolescents to measure daily variation in experience based on the four dimensions; engagement in the activity, concentration, involvement and happiness. The findings confirmed the hypothesis that the balance of challenge and skill has a positive and independent effect on the quality of experience. However, challenge had a negative relationship when looking at the domains of happiness and engagement. Meaning, the higher the challenge the less engagement and enjoyment the individuals may experience{grammar}}. The study also found that experiences might differ between contexts due to the challenge and skill differing in nature. Within every context, the dimensions of concentration, involvement and happiness reached their maximum values when challenges and skill are both highest (Moneta & Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Therefore, it can be concluded that in order to engage in a flow experience there should be a balance between skill and challenge.

Application of flow theory[edit]

Flow in the workplace[edit]

The introduction of the positive psychology movement has placed great emphasis on identifying the factors that promote well-being at work and in education. Initially, the purpose of Csikszentmihalyi study on optimal experience was to improve the education system to ensure all students were engaging in the processes of learning. Current psychology trends endeavour to contribute to individual overall levels of well-being and to organisations’ cohesion and functioning (Schaufeli, 2004).

Bakker (2008) found a positive correlation between flow experienced at work and over all job satisfaction. Fullagar and Kelloway (2009) tested the causality between flow and mood. Results suggest that flow is predictive of mood, but mood states are not associated with later flow. The study also confirms that creating optimal experience in work activities enhances positive mood (Fullargar & Kelloway,2009).

Other studies have highlighted the role of optimal experience in promoting workers’ performance at in-role and extra-role tasks. In-role tasks refer to the official tasks and behaviours that directly serve the goals of the organisation; extra-role tasks comprise of tasks and behaviours that promote the functioning of an organisation without necessary being directly associated with the employee’s role.

Demerouti (2006) found that flow predicted both kinds of performances among employees high on the personality trait of conscientious. Eisenberger et al. (2005) found that employees who perceived high skills and high challenges in their occupation, more frequently engaged in tasks outside their roles, such as making constructive suggestions, enhancing one’s own knowledge and skills in ways that can help the organisation, taking preventative actions to protect the organisation from potential problems and helping co-workers. The research relating to flow and work suggests that in order to better the experiences of employees and consequentially increase their productivity, employers and employees should create and engage in flow inducing activities. See: Motivation and work satisfaction

Flow in education[edit]

TeacherBritishMuseum.jpg

Shernoff, Csikszentmihalyi, Shneider and Shernoff (2003) used a longitudinal sample of high school students in the USA to investigate the conditions under which they reported being engaged. The article defines student engagement based on characteristic of concentration, interest, and enjoyment. As hypothesised by Csikszentmihalyi (1990), students increased engagement when they perceived a balance between their ability and the difficulty of the task. If the task was too easy or to difficult, then uncomfortable emotions were experienced and the students reported less engagement. Students also reported higher engagement when they perceived control over the learning environment and there engagement was perceived as important. Students reported disengagement from learning when there was a lack of challenge or meaning in there learning. Shernoff, Csikszentmihalyi, Shneider and Shernoff (2003) suggested to increase engagement educators should provide learning activities that support students autonomy and provide an appropriate level of challenge for the student’s skills.

Schweinle, Meyer and Turner's (2006) study of primary school students confirmed that challenge is necessary in educating students. The researchers were examining primary school student’s experiences while studying mathematics. Mathematics was chosen, as students often perceive it as a difficult subject that was also valued. Results indicated that if the mathematics task was too challenging or not challenging enough, students labelled the subject as less important. However, the study counters some components of the flow theory. The results indicate that social affect and efficacy are more impacted by perceived skills and the importance of the experience is more strongly informed by challenge. The results of this study suggest that it is important to monitor the difficulty of assessment provided to students in order not to induce negative self-efficacy or social effects.

Research suggests that personality traits may have more of an effect on student’s experiences of flow, than the characteristics of the activity. Wong and Csikszentmihalyi (1990) examined the relationship between personality traits and studying habits. It was observed that students high in the trait of intrinsic motivation were more likely to choose challenging and difficult courses to study. This supports the theory of flow, as advanced courses are optional and more difficult to handle. Therefore, internal rewards become more important. The results suggest that the students were welcoming of new challenges, persisted in the face of obstacles and maintained their interest despite failures. (Wong & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

A study by Parr, Montgomery and DeBell (1996) examined the use of flow theory as a model for enhancing student resilience, found the occurrence of optimal experience may increase students resilience in counselling settings.

Summary[edit]

  • When experiencing a state of flow, individuals often describe a balance, in which one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges presented.
  • The flow inducing activity is goal directed, with an established rule system that provides clear feedback as to how one is performing.
  • People describe a state of concentration that is so intense, that there is not attention left over to consider anything outside the task. Consequently, self-consciousness disappears and one’s sense of time becomes distorted.
  • An activity that produces flow is so gratifying that people are willing to take part in it without external rewards. For this reason the flow experience is related to intrinsic motivation.
  • The nature of the flow experience will often push individual to a higher level of performance. Individuals will engage in the task with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous.
  • The concept of flow examines the activities that appear to contain rewards within themselves and do not rely on external reinforces. By examining flow as a psychological process, researchers can identify the conditions of optimal experience and direct individuals and organizations to processes that will lead to greater happiness and productivity.
  • Research relating to flow and work suggests that in order to better the experiences of employees and consequentially increase their productivity, employers and employees should create and engage in flow inducing activities.
  • Research relating to flow and education suggests that in order to increase engagement, educators should provide learning activities that support student’s autonomy and provide an appropriate level of challenge for the student’s skills.

Quiz[edit]







  

1

To experience complex flow, how should the dimensions of skill and task challenge interact?

Both be Low
Both be high
Skills be high and task challenge be low
Skills be low and task challenge be high

2

The experience of flow is related to ?

Creativity
Psychopathology
Extrinsic motivation
Intrinsic motivation

3

In 2000, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the introduction of?

Positive Psychology
Freudianism
Negative Psychology
Behaviourism

4

What was the concept of flow initially labelled?

The Zone
The River
Autotelic Experiences
Runners high


See also[edit]

References[edit]

Asakawa, K. (2009). Flow Experience, Culture, and Well-being: How do Autotelic Japanese college students feel, behave, and think in their daily lives? Journal of Happiness studies, 11, 205-223.

Bakker, A.B. (2009). Building engagement in the workplace. In R. J. Burke & C.L. Cooper (Eds.), The peak performing organization (pp. 50-72). Oxon, UK: Routledge

Cameron, J., & Pierce, W. D. (1994). Reinforcement, reward, and intrinsic motivation: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 64, 363-423

Csikszentmihalyi M. (1988). "The flow experience and its significance for human psychology". Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 15–35

Csikszentmihalyi M. (1990). “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. New York: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and anxiety: The experience of flow in work and play. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Csikszentmihalyi M., & Larson, R. (1987). Validity and reliability of the Experience Sampling Method. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 175 (9), 526-536

Demerouti, E. (2006). Job characteristics, flow, and performance: the moderating role of conscientiousness. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 11, 266-280.

Eisenberger, R., & Cameron, J. (1996). Detrimental effects of reward: Reality of myth? American Psychologist, 51, 1153-116

Eisenberger,R.,Jones, J.R. ,Stinglhamber,F., Shanock,L. & Randall,A.T. (2005) Flow experiences at work: for high need achievers alone? Journal of Organizational Behavior. 26(7),755-775.

Fullagar, C. & Kelloway, E.K. (2009). “Flow” at Work: An Experience Sampling Approach. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.82,595-615

Maslow, A. H. (1970) “Motivation and Personality” New York: Harper & Row

Moneta G. & Csikszentmihalyi M. (1999). Models of concentration in natural environments: A comparative approach based on streams of experiential data. Social Behavior and Personality. 27, 603- 638.

Parr,G. Montgomery,M. DeBell,C. (1998). Flow theory as a model for enhancing student resilience.Professional School Counseling, 1(5), 26-31.

Schaufeli, W.B(2004). The Future of Occupational Health Psychology. Applied Psychology. 53, 502-517

Schweinle A., Meyer D. & Turner J. (2006). Striking the Right Balance: Students' Motivation and Affect in Elementary Mathematics. Journal of Educational Research. 99, 271- 293.

Seligman M. & Csikszentmihalyi M. (2001). "Positive psychology: An introduction" American Psychologist. 56. 89- 90.

Shernoff D., Csikszentmihalyi M., Shneider B. & Shernoff E. (2003). Student engagement in high school classrooms from the perspective of flow theory. School Psychology Quarterly. 18. 158- 176.

Wong M. & Csikszentmihalyi M. (1991). Motivation and academic achievement: The effects of personality traits and the quality of experience. Journal of Personality. 59. 539- 574

External links[edit]