Pleasure Vs Enjoyment:
If we are to consider what sort of experiences make our lives rewarding, the first thing that people often think is that happiness consists in experiencing pleasure; whether that be eating good food, sex, enjoying an exotic holiday break or even sitting in front of the TV with a glass of red wine. The more money we have, the more we can afford to spend on opportunities that optimize such pleasures, and voilà you have the socially conditioned narrative tale that commonly leads us to believe that more money is equated to more happiness. This is WRONG. Pleasure is a feeling of contentment or satisfaction that is achieved when expectations set by biological programs or by social conditioning have been met. Sleep, rest, food and sex provide this feeling by helping restore the body to natural homeostasis. Such experiences however do not produce psychological growth. Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring psychological growth and lasting happiness.
When thinking about what makes our lives better, in addition to experiences that give pleasure, there are also experiences that overlap with pleasurable ones but fall into a category deserving of a separate name: enjoyment. Enjoyment doesn’t come from simply satisfying a biologically programmed or socially condition need, but rather involves pushing ourselves to go beyond our own expectations to achieve something that before we didn’t think was possible. Through this challenging process, whilst in the moment the experience might not have been necessarily pleasurable, we look back on it with a new sense of accomplishment under our belts and say ‘that was really fun, I want to do that again’. As a result of the experience we have a sense that we have grown a little as a person, and that as a result our self-concept has indeed strengthened. Any activity that achieves this is called a ‘flow state activity’.
The research for the writing of the book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Happiness – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’ studied 100s of people who reported optimal experience in a variety of activities from playing tennis, football and chess, to sailing, rock climbing and learning a new language. The descriptions of each of their experiences were analysed and the commonalties between them then identified. As indicated by these results, what is interesting is that whenever someone is reflecting on a positive experience, whatever the activity, encompassed is at least 1 if not all of the following.
A Challenging Activity That Requires Appropriate Level of Skill:
Enjoyment comes when we are appropriately challenged in that there is a balance between the level of difficulty of the challenge and what our level of skill is. Swimming in a race against others who are really good, means you will have a low level of relative skill and a high degree of challenge, thus you are likely to experience anxiety. Swimming in a race against others who are nowhere near as good as you means that you have high level of relative skill and a low degree of challenge, thus you are likely to experience boredom. Swimming against others who are slightly better than you means you have a high level of relative skill but high degree of challenge, and this is where you will experience arousal, feel appropriately challenged, and where learning and enjoyment take place.
One of the benefits of swimming and even more specifically learning how to swim is that you can be challenged in an endless amount of ways whether it be racing a partner, trying to swim a specific distance in a given time, or simply performing a specific sequence of moves correctly. A good swimming teacher will ensure that challenges are tailored to individuals’ capabilities so that the swimmer is always at the boundary of experiencing boredom and anxiety, as this is where enjoyment occurs.
Clear Goals & Feedback:
How do you know if you’re being appropriately challenged? Challenges can be made measurable by setting clear goals, and we can know if they are appropriate to our level of skill by judging how well we do on the challenge, and this constitutes feedback. Therefore setting clear goals, and receiving immediate feedback sets up a continuous loop cycle whereby we always know how to modify our behaviour so as to optimize enjoyment. If a swimmer’s goal is to complete the challenge of swimming 4 lengths without stopping, and the feedback was that she completed 2 lengths without stopping, she should firstly ask herself what does this feedback mean? In relation to this example, it either means the goal was of too large degree of difficulty and so making the goal three lengths instead of four might be more appropriate. Or she might decide that the goal is at the appropriate level of difficulty to her skill and the fact it wasn’t achieved means that she needs to improve on something, whether it be technique or stamina, thus, these things can be worked on before having another stab at completing the four lengths.
The main point here is that by knowing how to make goals measurable and through constantly evaluating your feedback, a cycle is set up whereby you will always know what to do next so as to always be optimizing your learning, progression and ultimately enjoyment. You should never get bored, and never feel completely out of your depth in swimming (excuse the pun).
Concentration on the Task at Hand:
We can only process about 115 bits of information per second. If we are challenged by a flow state activity, our brain uses up most of the bits for performing that very activity and therefore the brain doesn’t have capacity to process the thoughts and worries the usually occupy us. Most jobs and home life generally lack the pressing demands that a flow experience activity requires of us making it extremely difficult to escape these incessant thoughts.
It can go so far that a flow state activity can make it feel like you are on drunk or on drugs. These substances lower the brain’s capacity to process the usual 115 bits of information and so as a natural consequence, the negative thoughts and worries fade away simply because there is not enough mental RAM to process them. The difference between flow and being drunk is that in flow, you don’t lose your focus or will power, and there is zero affects to your health. When you’re in the zone in a flow state activity, you experience an inner calmness and naturally feel you know what needs to be done. You then have intrinsic motivation, which is that you do the activity for the process and getting into state, rather than for any outcome.
Transformation of Time:
One of the most common occurrences that seem to happen when participating in a flow state activity is that time appears to slow down. Hours seem like minutes whilst the activity is performed and this freedom from our usual experience of progression of time adds to the enjoyment that we feel during a state of complete involvement.
The Loss of Self Consciousness:
We have seen that during a flow state activity the brain is unable to process thoughts about the past, future or anything not relevant to the activity at hand. One thing in particular that we stop being aware of though is the concept of the self and the information we use to represent to ourselves about who we are. This, I feel, is of particular importance and in need of mentioning because its what we spend so much of our time thinking about everyday. When completely engrossed in a flow state activity, the feeling is often described as a zen-like state, similar to meditation where there is single pointedness of mind. It can even go so far as swimmers feeling that they are an extension of the water moving with it (something I have experienced). Similar experiences are described in other activities such as a pianist feeling like he is part of the harmony of the sound he creates. These experiences aren’t poetic metaphors, but are as real as feeling hungry or tired. It appears that temporarily giving up self consciousness is not only enjoyable in itself, but is also necessary for building a stronger self concept after the flow state activity has ended. The relationship is paradoxical in that during the activity, the concept of self dissolves as our mental RAM is being taken up by processing only the bits of information relevant to the challenge. After the activity has ended and self-consciousness resumes, the self that the person reflects on is not the same self that existed before the flow experience as it has been enhanced by new skills and achievements.
I must stress that these principles are by no means exclusive to swimming, but are universal to any activity that has the potential to provide a long lasting and deep-seated enjoyment. Life is filled with an infinite amount of activities that have the potential to generate this flow experience, and I urge you to seek out and get involved with as many of these activities as possible. The potential to enrich your life is huge! If you would like to read more about this topic, you can read the book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Happiness – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’.