Why do we do what we do? What gives us the motivation to pursue life, goals, strive for certain endeavors, and engage in growth-related experiences that are oftentimes really hard?!
I was asked recently why when a person doesn’t believe in an after-life, should there be any motivation toward behaving responsibly in this life? The answer seemed obvious, but I replied, “If this is the only life I have, isn’t it that much more important that I take advantage of the time I have?” I think this relates.
Various theories have been proposed to assert the reason we choose to live and how we go about living. Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchical Needs states that we have a basic drive or need for self-preservation—survival. If this need isn’t being met adequately, then all other needs become obsolete. If I cannot put food on the table for my family, I am unconcerned with completing coursework for school or practicing the guitar. My need for survival supersedes any needs or motivations I may have toward acquiring competency or autonomy goals.
Self-preservation may also be perceived as the will to live. Freud reduced this will to one of a libidinal nature—he called it eros. This was defined as the sexual act necessary for fulfilling our physical potential, and from an evolutionary perspective, is in line with reproductive acts necessary for propagating the species.
Self-preservation goes deeper than this though. We need much more than sex to survive. With a prefrontal cortex and consciousness, which begets the ability to weigh the consequences of our actions, to second-guess our decisions, and to exert a level of choice, we also need agency. In other words, we need to learn to master our environment and influence what we do and how we do it in order to develop into more fully-functioning human beings. How many of us want to “just survive?” I hear all the time how my clients want to thrive. They desire to create, to grow, to expand their knowledge, to learn, to discover, and to challenge themselves in new ways. They do not want to be stagnant. They want to feel purposeful, meaningful, and passionate!
Jean Piaget, in his interpretation of the stages of childhood development, illustrated an infant’s need to seek novel stimuli, an early example of a human being’s need to be the causal agent in life. Attachment theory took this a step further, describing how a child, based on the health of their relationship with their caregiver, will move toward experimentation and develop a strong level of curiosity as opposed to acting in ways that indicate a stunting of the nervous system and psychological development. Other researchers expanded this theory in the ‘50s and ‘60s, capitalizing on how stimulation is necessary for psychological growth, all derived from the outside environment.
Self-determination theory advanced this line of thought, with studies conceptualizing the actual experience of motivation. Researchers began asking what it is about an experience that keeps us captivated and engaged and found that intrinsically- and extrinsically-motivated goals result in significantly different levels of autonomy and the persistence with which an individual will exhibit drive and ambition. Moreover, they discovered that factors of control stemming from outside the individual can result in serious detriments to well-being and reduced vitality. Think of the athlete with an overbearing coach or a parent who pressures them to play the sport. The motivation the athlete would demonstrate (and feel) toward the goal pursuit would be vastly different in this situation as opposed to one in which they have an internalized sense of enjoyment for the activity.
The concept of flow stems from our understanding of humans as distinct entities who think about their behavior, who ponder their actions, and who engage in activities that reduce cognitive dissonance. Put simply, we move toward opportunities that we believe we can master, that will serve to meet our needs for autonomy and competence, and that give us a sense of connectedness not only with others, but also within our own spheres of personal understanding. Many of these experiences are pursued purely out of enjoyment. These are called autotelic activities and have been described as having qualities of flow— the subjective experience of “a current that carries one along effortlessly” (Csikszenthmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, & Nakamura, 2005).
The flow experience is characterized by number of distinct variables. Like mindfulness, which is a non-judgmental awareness, flow is defined by its subjective experience of forgetting everything outside of the activity itself. In other words, it is “intense experiential involvement in moment-to-moment activity” (Csikszenthmihalyi, et al., 2005, p. 600). Within the flow state time stands still; self-consciousness is suspended; and fatigue is outside of awareness. For example, self-evaluative statements like “I’m doing this incorrectly” or “I need to keep my eye on the ball” are absent. Simultaneously, there is a felt sense of being in an alternate reality, except you’re not thinking about being in an alternate reality. Recall instances of “losing yourself” in a conversation, becoming completely absorbed in a stimulating novel, or your last run feeling completely effortless.
Where flow diverges from the experience of mindfulness is in its capacity to weave action with awareness. In mindfulness, one is conscious of the thoughts floating across the mind and watches them, yet is in a state of detachment. As such, there is a sense of dualism—me and my thoughts. Individuals describing the flow experience, on the other hand, explain how attention is directed so intensely that no objects outside of the interaction breach the awareness boundary and as George Herbert Mead states, “the ‘me’ disappears…and the ‘I’ takes over” (Csikszenthmihalyi, et al., 2005, p. 601). In this state, no fear or anxiety exists for how one is doing, what mistakes might be made, or judgment regarding possible consequences. How different this is from regular life!
Flow is so intensely rewarding due to its capacity to take us out of the cognitive dissonance we often feel in our everyday lives. Consider the typical questions of competence related to your job: Will I succeed in completing this PowerPoint satisfactorily? Can I give this presentation successfully to secure the big sale? Or in your relationships: What is creating his animosity toward me? How come I can’t seem to reach my teenager? This psychological conflict we often feel is absent in the flow state. Instead, we are enveloped with a sense of control that “reflects the possibility, rather than the actuality, of control” (Czikszenthmihalyi, et al., 2005, p. 601).
In interviews conducted among rock climbers and race-car drivers, for example, apparently the riskier the activity, the greater the flow state due to the microscopic margin of error. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? You might be thinking, “Um, one slip up and that person dies.” That’s exactly the point. Daily activities of life that cause what researchers also term “psychic entropy” are at the mercy of outside factors in a much bigger way than those that often result in flow states. Put simply, with flow, the back-and-forth cognitive effort is removed.
So how can we achieve more flow in our lives? This is the million-dollar question, right? Societally we seem to be governed more and more by the clock. There’s not enough time in the day, but it’s in reference to an ever-demanding schedule that is saturated with anxiety and fatigue. Sounds like flow’s evil twin. What we know is that three conditions exist that help facilitate the flow experience. While it’s rare in everyday life situations, opportunities abound in your typical environments—work, recreation, and spirituality, for example. Optimizing these conditions may not be as difficult as you think, but pay attention, “difficult” is a prerequisite!
1. Clear goals:
Flow is inclined to occur during engagement in an activity with a defined direction and purpose. As such, attention is optimally routed to provide structure to the experience. In one of my most memorable experiences of flow, I was running a four-mile race. At the start of the race I was cognizant of the pace I was moving—I was actively concentrating on trying to stay with my slower friend, and I distinctly remember feeling thwarted and tight. I had decided at the start of the race that I was unconcerned about time and purposely did not wear a watch. Despite the absence of a concrete time measure, I “felt” slow, sluggish, and bored, so early on I told my friend that I was going to go ahead without her. I wanted to enjoy the experience. I stretched out my stride and ran. I can’t tell you where I was running, what I passed, or what the terrain looked like. All I remember is the rhythm of my breath, and it wasn’t until I approached the finish line that I was removed from my reverie and felt my lungs burning. I had no time goal. I directed my attention toward completing four miles, and then I just ran.
2. Balance between perceived challenges and skills:
The key word is perceived—you must anticipate that the activity will require a certain demand but also that you have the skill (or can develop it) to overcome it. The balance is delicate. If the activity becomes too easy, and skill outpaces it, boredom may ensue. If the challenge is perceived as too great and far outweighs the skills one has mastered in order to achieve it, anxiety and frustration can occur. Arousal is crucial—too little is just as risky as too much. When I was running at a 10-minute-mile pace to stay with my friend, I was steeped in boredom and would rather have abandoned the race altogether. I did not have a sufficient level of arousal. At the same time, I had never run a four-mile race before. I had completed a few 5Ks, however, and ran consistently for cardiovascular conditioning, so it was within the realm of possibility that I could do this well.
3. Clear and immediate feedback:
With any activity, we are required to continually adjust to the presenting environmental demands. Without feedback regarding how the activity is progressing, or how our actions are impacting the progression, we minimize our ability to negotiate the terrain. Even if the feedback is negative, as mine was when I felt I was running at a snail’s pace with my friend, this was not detrimental to my performance. I perceived I had the skill to not only reorient in the relationship (i.e. I wasn’t afraid or anxious about telling my friend that I was going to go ahead of her) but also to run faster and harder. Those of us who demand a lot from ourselves often solicit negative feedback for the purpose of improvement, and if we’re doing so with an activity that we find personally fulfilling, we’re more likely to use it positively.
In my coaching work with clients, we find ways to bring all these of these variables into their practices. My clients pursue a coaching relationship with me to receive support in setting in motion, developing into, and engaging around a process of change and skill acquisition! They know they will need to challenge themselves and walk into the fear, anxiety, or resistance that they will experience, but they are also aware that we won’t move beyond a threshold into overwhelm. Simultaneously, they receive ongoing support from a teammate whom they trust to share her observations, make suggestions, and celebrate the wins that they can easily gloss over!
Ask yourself why you do what you do. Are you surviving or thriving? I don’t run to propagate the species. I don’t write to survive. I don’t treat others with compassion to get to a place called Heaven. I do these things to expand my capacity by aligning with what I value. For me, that comes in the form of genuine relationships, helping others to feel a sense of ease and peace, stimulating career opportunities, intellectual challenge, and psychological and emotional growth. Flow just happens to be an awesome ancillary benefit!
If you are interested in the powerful change that can occur through a coaching relationship, please reach out. We can discuss the areas that you would like most to understand on a deeper level and the shifts that can make a big difference in your life! Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.