Does flow come after struggle?

Earlier this week, I went to talk about the concept of flow and high performance. I am always interested in learning more and staying up-to-date with what people are talking about. The concept of flow was researched and written about by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly and for those of us in the gamification world, I think most people have quoted his framework at some point. In a nutshell, it means providing enough challenge for a person to be a little stretched for their skill level. In an ideal scenario you create enough stretch for them not to get bored or on the other extreme anxious about not being able to do it. Striking this kind of balance isn’t easy. In gamification, we aim to design to encourage flow states by taking them through the various emotional states in the framework, to help individuals reach their next level of skill and performance.

In the talk a lot of emphasis was placed on the biochemistry supporting the experience of flow. Personally it makes me cringe a little when I hear science being dumbed down so we can all understand it. The usual suspects of hormones, neuropeptides and neurotransmitters made the list: adrenaline (epinephrine), dopamine, endorphin, serotonin, oxytocin, nitric oxide and anandamide. I am not a trained scientist even if I have studied neuroscience for the last 15 years it was always with the application to business in mind and less the biochemical reactions supporting it all. I find testing things out to see if it works, works for my kind of science and Einsteins 99 ways something didn’t work also comes to play.

The speaker raised the concept that in order to achieve flow, you must attain a sense of struggle to cause a release of nitric oxide which then facilitates the other reactions on which flow is based. The examples given included mainly adrenaline focused activities from surfing big waves to snowboarding, playing in an orchestra, singing on stage. Then we went into an exercise of meditation, where he explained we followed the same process. To be honest that is when I started questioning the struggle concept. Deep breathing and closing my eyes, sure didn’t feel like a struggle to me. Having worked with hypnosis and neurolinguistics for some time, maybe has me trained to be able to go there without struggle.

In my experience, often flow happens as a result of momentum. You get started and then at some point you hit flow, sometimes when intended, sometimes by pure accident. Now, the prerequisites typically are a base level of skills and something you want to achieve. From reading up on the ideal flow state, some activity tests point towards incremental shifts of 4% to keep becoming better and staying in flow. From a gamification design perspective it is looking at the concept of mastery and breaking it into tiny incremental shifts towards that improvement point upon which you can flex your way around most situations because you have the knowledge to do so.

From my own experience, I can get into a state of flow consciously and I know athletes and performers have developed similar techniques to get there. The killer of flow is definitely worry, anxiety and any other judgement you place on the activity. So if we can recreate a state of flow in an instant moment, then where is the struggle?

For me it is an unanswered question, so I would love other perspectives on it? I think it would help in understanding how to design for flow experiences and I guess the other underlying question is, can you experience flow at any level of competence?


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