"Rock Climbing" by Ferrata / Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain
Source: "Rock Climbing" by Ferrata / Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

Think of a time when you attempted something really, really hard, and did it really, really well.  Perhaps it was playing a difficult Chopin prelude all the way through without missing a note.  Maybe it was running neck and neck for 800 meters with an arch rival and winning the race in a final desperate lean at the finish line.  Or maybe it was filling in every single blank on the New York Times crossword puzzle.  Whatever your difficult achievement may have been, if you’re like most people, you experienced an exhilarating sense of total mental focus in which time seemed to stand still and the only two things that existed in the universe were you and the challenge before you.

The Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi named this state of mental absorption “flow,” and has spent the larger part of his career exploring the nature of the flow state and the role it plays in human motivation and happiness.  More complex than it might appear at a first glance, the “flow” model of human motivation has little to do the successful completion of a given task, but rather involves the pleasure associated with attempting a challenge that lies at the very limits of our capabilities.  It is an intrinsic satisfaction—a reward unto itself, and the pathway to attaining it is a narrow one.  If the challenge falls too far below the limits of our capabilities, we can experience apathy or boredom with the task even if the outcome is successful.   On the other end of the spectrum, however, if the challenge too far exceeds our capabilities we can experience an unpleasant degree of anxiety.  Our greatest motivation for, and happiness in, a given a task lies between these two extremes at a level of “optimal challenge.”

A pair of recent studies provides experimental evidence for the relationship between perceived challenge and intrinsic motivation that is fundamental to the subjective flow experience.  In both studies, participants competed against trained confederates in a stopwatch game that was scored similarly to a badminton tournament.  In the first study, participants were allowed to win both games, first by a wide margin, and then by a narrow margin.  In the second study, the tables were turned and the participants lost both games, again by a large and then by a narrow margin.  In both studies, participants performed better and reported a higher level of enjoyment in the close games than they did in the blowouts.  Even when they were winning, participants preferred the experience of a narrow margin of victory over the wider margin of a more decisive victory.

This finding, based largely on subjective reports of the participants, is consistent with the “inverted U” pattern of the flow model, in that the more closely the challenge before them matched their competence level, the higher were their levels of engagement and motivation.  In order to “measure intrinsic motivation in a more objective way,” however, the researchers looked for neural indicators that corresponded to the subjective reports.  Recording electroencephalograms of the participants throughout the studies, they focused on an event-related potential pattern called stimulus-preceding negativity, which “reflects processes related to anticipatory attention, and is a sustained, negative shift that occurs when a subject anticipates the onset of certain task-relevant stimuli.”  As hypothesized, an increased stimulus-preceding negativity occurred in the optimum challenge condition, both in the games that the participants won and in the games they lost.  A graph relating challenge condition to stimulus-preceding negativity confirmed the inverted U shaped “flow” model of intrinsic motivation that prior to the studies had been based largely upon subjective reports.

As Csikszentmihalyi first observed many years ago, we are never so motivated as when the task in which we are engaged is barely within—or even just beyond—our capabilities.  The complete absorption of our mental energy at such a time is one of the most satisfying experiences we can have as human beings.  Whether we’re competing against a closely matched rival in a sporting event, or pursuing a more individual goal such as playing a complex piano piece or completing a difficult crossword puzzle, our greatest reward is not the successful completion of the task, but rather the transcendent mental state we experience during the attempt.  In the end, it is not whether we win or lose the game, but how much of ourselves we invest in the attempt. 

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