What Is Enjoyment? Psychologist Answers

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is enjoyment? What are the nine characteristics of enjoyment? Do non-professional athletes feel the same enjoyment as surgeons do?

Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, conducted and experiment to identify the characteristics of enjoyment. The results were shocking in that despite their age, location, gender, class, culture, etc, all the participants described the elements of enjoyment in the same way.

Here are the results of Csikszentmihalyi’s research on enjoyment and what they mean.

What Is Enjoyment?

What is enjoyment? Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, wanted to know so he conducted two surveys to identify the characteristics of enjoyment. The first survey focused on people who were very good at what they did but received no incentive (such as money) for doing it. Examples included rock climbers and non-professional athletes. He later surveyed average people about what made them feel the most fulfilled and happy. Examples included mothers, teens, professors, and surgeons. 

In both surveys, people described how they felt while doing an enjoyable activity using nearly identical language—the activities people described varied, but the language used to describe them was the same. For example, someone swimming the English Channel used similar language to that of a skilled chess player describing an enjoyable match. The use of similar language to describe enjoyment also held true despite differences in age, class, gender, culture, and other variables among the participants. 

The 9 Elements of Enjoyment

When people describe an enjoyable experience conducive to flow, they mention one or more of the following elements:

  1. You’re able to concentrate on what you’re doing for an extended period of time.
  2. The task involves a clear goal.
  3. You receive immediate feedback on your progress.
  4. You have the skills to complete the task.
  5. You feel a sense of control.
  6. You feel absorbed in the task without feeling like you’re applying much effort. You’re so focused that you’re not thinking about stresses in your life.
  7. Your sense of time is altered. You feel as though time passes quickly, or is slowed in a helpful way.
  8. You don’t feel self-conscious, and your sense of self emerges stronger.
  9. The experience is autotelic, or so enjoyable you want to repeat it.

Next, we’ll explore these components in detail.

Elements 1, 6: You’re Absorbed in the Task

In day-to-day life, you’re bombarded by distractions. For example, your brain might wonder why you’re focusing on a certain activity, and it might distract you by wishing you were doing something else. But during a flow state, you’re too absorbed in what you’re doing to be distracted. The activity is challenging enough that it requires your complete attention, and because you feel so absorbed, your actions are automatic. 

Example 1: In the survey, a dancer described feeling completely immersed in dancing. Her mind wasn’t able to focus on anything else, and it was simultaneously relaxing and energizing.

Example 2: A mother described feeling totally absorbed while reading to her daughter—her full attention is on her daughter.

Example 3: A chess player described steady, effortless concentration during a tournament. A section of the roof could have fallen, and they wouldn’t have noticed it.

Elements 2-3: The Goal Is Clear and the Feedback Is Frequent

When you have a clear goal with instant feedback, you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve and whether you’re making progress.

The goal has to be significant for it to be enjoyable. For example, if your goal is merely staying alive watching TV on your couch for as long as possible, you’ll likely meet this goal easily. In contrast, a rock climber can make a goal of climbing a rock face uninjured and alive, and she will feel exhilarated by the challenge because of the challenge and risk involved. 

Activities don’t have to involve risk, but they should involve effort and feedback. By deciding what feedback you’re looking for ahead of time, you can make any task more enjoyable. For example, a painter might not know exactly what he wants to paint, but he may set out with a goal to start painting and decide after each brushstroke, or at a certain point, whether he’s on track to achieving his goal. 

What feedback looks like varies depending on the activity—for example, feedback for a surgeon (vital signs) will be different from feedback for a psychiatrist (body language). Different people may be motivated by different types of feedback, and people’s natural abilities or life experience may influence how they like to spend their time and the type of feedback they prefer. For example, if you’re sensitive to sound, you might be drawn to becoming a musician and hearing certain types of sounds. The author’s surveys found additional examples of enjoyment tied to feedback:

Example 1: An Italian farmer described her enjoyment of tending her crops. Even though it took time to grow crops, she got consistent feedback that showed her she was on track to achieve her goal.

Example 2: An ocean sailor described the thrill of navigating open water using the position of the sun and different charts, and the satisfaction of seeing land emerge on the horizon, thanks to his skills and effort.

Element 4: You Have the Skills to Complete the Task

In a flow experience, you’ll be able to complete a task because you have the right skills. A skill is the ability to manipulate symbolic information. For example, reading includes not only knowing the letters and words on a page, but also understanding the cultural and historical context of what you’re reading, making predictions, and asking questions about the work. 

If you don’t have the right skills for the task, it won’t affect you in the same way as it affects someone who does. For example, setting up a chessboard will exhilarate someone who has the skills to compete in the game, whereas someone unfamiliar with chess might not feel anything at all. Similarly, a rock climber will look at a cliff face and be able to recognize the specific challenges it presents, while someone unfamiliar with climbing may just see an interesting rock formation. 

Element 5: You Feel a Sense of Control Over Your Experience

It’s common to worry about losing control of parts of your life. But during an experience of enjoyment or flow, you feel in control of a situation and free from your usual worries. Though you may not have true control over the situation, you have the skills and abilities to reduce the risks involved in the activity, giving yourself a sense of control. 

For example, a rock climber faces two kinds of dangers: objective and subjective. Objective dangers include avalanches and falling rocks. The climber can prepare for them, but she can’t predict when she’ll face them. In contrast, subjective dangers are dangers the climber may face because she doesn’t have the skills to successfully navigate a challenge. For example, if a climber doesn’t have the ability to judge whether a certain route is suitable to her skill level, she may attempt to do the route and be unprepared to complete it safely. By focusing on building her skills, she’ll succeed in reducing her risk of being harmed by objective risks and eliminate the risk of subjective dangers entirely, enabling her to feel more in control in any situation.

One major exception to this rule is people who enjoy playing games of chance or gambling. Some people who play these games become convinced that they’re in control when playing, or that they have skills that help them control the situation. For example, people who play roulette may develop elaborate theories of how the wheel ultimately lands on a given slot. If a poker player loses, they may blame bad luck, but they’ll also try to see if they made a mistake that resulted in the loss. 

Regardless of whether you’re in control or not, the feeling of control can be addictive. If you depend on one activity for your enjoyment, you lose the ability to control your consciousness: Instead of your participation being a conscious choice, it becomes a necessity. For example, chess players may feel such a strong sense of control over the world of chess that they use the game as an escape from their problems in the real world. 

Element 7: Your Sense of Time Is Altered

When you experience flow, your sense of time changes. People often report time passing faster than usual. But some report time passing more slowly. For example, ballet dancers report feeling as though time slows down when they’re doing a complicated turn—instead of the turn taking seconds, it seems to take minutes. 

There are exceptions to this rule. Some people experience a flow state but can still keep perfect track of time. For example, one open heart surgeon may be involved in doing a specific, difficult part of the surgery on three different patients whose surgeries are taking place at the same time. To succeed, the surgeon has to keep track of the time and arrive at each surgery room within thirty seconds of when he needs to be there. Runners also develop the ability to sense time because it helps them keep the pace they need to win or break records.

Element 8: You Don’t Feel Self-Conscious, and Your Sense of Self Emerges Stronger

In the course of your life, you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself. You face constant threats to your sense of self that consume your psychic energy and attention. For example, if people start laughing at you and whispering to their friends, you might feel self-conscious and wonder whether you have a smudge on your face. But during flow experiences, you’re so absorbed that you don’t have time to feel self-conscious. For example, a violin player is so focused on her fingers and where they need to be while playing a complicated piece of music that she’s not wondering whether her makeup is smudged. 

Escaping self-consciousness allows you to feel a sense of connection with the world outside of yourself. When you look back on the experience, you’ll feel that you’ve expanded your boundaries and feel a sense of achievement in doing so. In this way, your sense of self emerges expanded and stronger after flow experiences. 

An important note: It’s possible to feel you’ve grown as a person just from participating in religious activities or mass movements. These activities require your participation and loyalty, but you’re not engaging with the belief system if you let yourself be passively absorbed into it. The system may provide order, but it’s given to you rather than defining it for yourself and the sense of achievement that brings.

Element 9: The Experience Is Autotelic—You Want to Repeat It

We often do things because we have to or because we think doing them will benefit us. For example, you may not enjoy your work or feel it improves your life. And as we’ve discussed, many people use their free time in ways that are pleasurable, but not enjoyable. Experiencing more activities that are inherently enjoyable will help you live a more satisfying life.

How can you tell the difference? An exotelic activity is one that you do because you anticipate experiencing certain benefits or consequences as a result of doing it. In contrast, an autotelic activity is one that you do because you enjoy doing it. (“Auto is the Greek word for self, and “telic” is the word for goal.) For example, being a teacher because you want to help develop the next generation of young minds isn’t autotelic, but being a teacher because you like working with children is. Autotelic experiences tend to feel more meaningful: You feel involved, energized, in control, and that you’re growing as a person.

Most activities are both autotelic and exotelic, and sometimes, an activity that you dislike can become enjoyable in time. For example, Csikszentmihalyi had a friend who was gifted at reproducing the melodies played by a symphony orchestra. His friend had begun going to the symphony at age three with his father, but he hated it. Eventually, at age seven, he found he could pick out the melody he heard at a concert. Suddenly, the world he’d detested transformed into one he could appreciate. 

Csikszentmihalyi’s friend was lucky: Some children never learn to appreciate an activity and end up disliking it for the rest of their life. Sometimes, it’s necessary to incentivize children and adults with external rewards so they have a chance to connect with an activity that will benefit them but isn’t enjoyable at first. Eventually, if the person engages with the activity enough, they may start to receive feedback that lets them know they’re gaining skill, which can make the activity more enjoyable.

Caution: Flow and Violence

Flow is energy that can be used for constructive and destructive purposes: It can help you become more complex and enrich your life, but just because the outcome is good for you doesn’t mean the effects of that activity are universally good or beneficial. 

For example, people may be attracted to violence, which is harmful to others, particularly if they haven’t learned how to enjoy more complex, stimulating activities. In Victorian England, for example, members of the upper class gathered to watch terriers kill rats. And Romans enjoyed watching gladiator fights at the Coliseum. 

More modern examples include:

  • War. Fighting a war involves many of the elements of a flow experience, including having a specific goal, minimal distractions, and a sense of control. Some veterans describe these elements of their service with nostalgia.
  • Petty crime. Vandalism and theft are flow experiences for certain people, especially minors, who lack access to more constructive flow experiences. For example, some people in Csikszentmihalyi’s survey said they enjoyed breaking into a house at night and stealing jewelry without waking up the residents.

If society can’t offer fulfilling, complex autotelic experiences to everyone, then crime and violence will continue to be attractive. Plus, people need access to flow experiences that help them enjoy their lives without taking away the opportunity from others to enjoy theirs.

What Is Enjoyment? Psychologist Answers

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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