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Can learning make people happy?

14 Comments

Jennifer-Skuza.jpgDo you ever get involved in something so deeply that nothing else seems to matter, and you lose track of time? If you answered yes to that question, then you have experienced flow.

Flow describes a sense of effortless spontaneous action that people feel in moments that stand out as some of the best in their lives. The concept stems from the seminal research of Mihály Csikszentmihalyi.

He found that most people are happy when they are in that state of flow - a state of concentration or complete absorption in the activity at hand. Athletes call it "being in the zone." Artists and musicians describe it as being passionately focused on their creative work. Children experience it when they are fully engrossed in their play.

What does flow have to do with learning? Well, the experience of flow can serve as a magnet for learning -- that is, a draw for developing new levels of challenges and abilities. The learning environments found in youth work can offer prime opportunities to foster flow. Csikszentmihalyi identified a number of factors that accompany the experience.

I have taken eight of those factors and described them in the context of youth work practice to provide some ideas on how to build learning environments that support flow.

Clear Goals
Flow is most often achieved when goals have been set by youth themselves, and are focused.jpgachievable and measurable.

Focus
In a relaxing and engaging environment where they can focus, youth may also develop persistence, which comes when they are given time to practice endurance. In our well intended rush to give youth answers and to provide an efficient learning experience, adults deny youth the vital opportunity to explore long enough to find out the answers for themselves.

Loss of self-consciousness
Youth often feel as though they are surrounded by an invisible audience. Concerns such as how youth look to others or how well they measure up to others' expectations will rob them of flow. So, incorporate methods or curricula that help youth bolster their self-esteem and shape a strong sense of self.

Direct feedback
In flow, youth know how well they are doing in real time. This can happen in a variety of ways. Adults or peers could give youth clear and immediate feedback on their performance. Eventually youth can learn how to judge the quality of their own performance and improve by seeking out resources for themselves.

Altered sense of time
Youth have the innate ability to become so absorbed in an activity or topic that fascinates them that time seems to stands still. Equally they can turn off quickly when they decide something is boring. Adults can ruin youth learning processes by rushing them through too much material, in too short a time, and by not giving them the chance to relate a new idea to their earlier experiences.

Ability, balanced with challenge
Anxiety can set in if an activity is too challenging. Boredom can be experienced if the activity is not challenging enough. Apathy can occur if both challenge and ability are too low. Gradually increasing both ability and challenge will help youth experience flow.

Control
It is important to feel in control of an activity. In this case, control is the confidence that comes from having the self-knowledge to predict what you can do because you have prepared for the activity.

Intrinsically rewarding
Flow cannot be imposed or rewarded with artificial recognition. Rather, it stems from an inner joy that comes from being engaged in an activity. Help youth find their internal motivation by creating vibrant learning environments that allow for sparks to emerge.

Do you see a relationship between happiness and flow? Do you see youth experiencing it? Could an emphasis on flow serve as a magnet for learning?

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD
Extension professor and program leader, educational design & development


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14 Comments

Cece Gran said:

Thank you for this post Jennifer. Wouldn't it be great if all young people were offered intentional opportunities to find flow in school as well as in programs? Having the ability to have control, the ability to establish clear goals for one's self, receive direct feedback, and the luxury of losing one's sense of self-consciousness is really how all human beings learn best.

Kate Walker said:

Thanks for the great post on a great concept, Jennifer! I have to add that my mentor Reed Larson (who’s mentor was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) has found youth program to be the ideal arena for young people to experience flow. As you note, flow is that “sweet spot” where the level of challenge and ability are matched. In school teens report being challenged, but not motivated; with friends they are motivated, but not challenged. Turns out youth programs are the one context in teens' lives where they consistently experience high motivation in challenging activities (Larson, 2000).

Carrie Olson said:

Thank you for bringing forth the concept of flow in your post, Jennifer. I am intrigued by how flow might also be influenced by our brain development and decision making abilities. How do you think age impacts the experience of flow? Are there curtain periods of time that "being caught up in the flow or an altered sense of time" is easier or more important to do? Thanks again for this discussion!

jennifer skuza said:

Hi Cece -

Thanks for chiming in with your comments. That point about losing one's sense of self-consciousness is imperative in my opinion. Feeling like everyone is watching you (and/or judging you) can be a major roadblock to flow and can be difficult to overcome. Over the years, I have collected stories about those pivotal moments that have helped youth shed their self-consciousness. Very powerful.

Colleen said:

Ah, flow. One of my favorite concepts as it relates to youth development. I wish it were more well-known in edcuational circles. I've sadly seen so many young people shut down just as their having a "flow moment" in school classrooms. It's these moments that keep me energized and fresh as a youthworker....reminding me why I do what I do, but are also truly humbling. Sure, there are many things we can do on our end to create and encourage opportunities for young people to experience flow, but often (at least in my own experience) these moments occur spontaneously and without initial recognition.

Jerilyn Ezaki said:

I have always been interested in the concept of flow and it is go good to see that you are bringing to our attention as youth development/youthwork professionals.

I think youth workers experience this when they are working with youth who are engaged in their work.

I am involved with the Shine On! Youth Editorial Board right now and we have two hour meetings twice a month in the evening. Sometimes I think, "oh I have to work tonight", but when I am with the youth and they are totally involved in editing or other activities, the time goes by so quickly that I am surprised when it is 8pm and I still feel good energy. That is flow for me and for the students too.

jennifer skuza said:

Hi Carrie –

Your question about age is very interesting. I cannot help but think about young children and how uninhibited they can be in their “play”. It is as if flow comes naturally for them. I think we can learn a lot about flow by observing and studying young children.

In an earlier comment, Cece Gran highlighted the point about self-consciousness and how this can be a barrier to flow. Self consciousness is something that grows over time. For instance, in a study on middle school aged youth in the New Directions for Youth Development edition on Rethinking Programs for Youth in the Middle Years (2006), the authors pointed out that many youth this age resist trying new activities with this common refrain - “No, I am not good at that…”. So essentially these middle school aged youth were stopped by their fear and self-consciousness and were socially afraid to put themselves out there. This level of self-consciousness can pose barriers to flow. So as we work with youth, we need to think about scaffolding in the learning environment that can help reduce these fears while helping youth to discover their sparks.

jennifer skuza said:

Hi Jeri -

Shine On! is a great example of flow. What I find particularly interesting about your example is that flow happens for a group of people working on the same project. So often flow is viewed as an "ideal" individual experience but your example demonstrates how it can be a group experience too.

Thanks for joining in the conversation.


jennifer skuza said:

Hi Kate -

Thanks for reinforcing the importance of the environments found in youth programs as being the one context where teens can consistently experience high motivation in challenging activities.

Thanks for joining in the conversation.

jennifer skuza said:

Hi Colleen –

You raised a really good point about the “spontaneity” of flow. You indicated that “… these [flow] moments occur spontaneously and without initial recognition.” So, flow isn’t an experience that can be forced or imposed. But rather stems from a relaxing and engaging environment that has space for the spontaneity to occur. I am really glad you raised this point because it suggests that flow can happen anywhere and at anytime with the right constellation of conditions.

Anne Stevenson said:

Hi Jennifer:
I loved the line under Intrinsically rewarding: help youth find their internal motivation by creating vibrant learning environments that allow for sparks to emerge. That key concept of sparks is one I haven't delved into so it led me to do a little quick reading from the link you provided. Thanks! It made me think about the wide range of "sparks" and how we must intentionally plan for, and train and support volunteers to, help create spaces for sparks to fly! I appreciate the resource pieces around this and how the 8 elements you listed helps make the flow concept become more tangible.

Josey Landrieu said:

Jen, Thanks for a great post and thoughtful conversation throughout the comments. I think that learning DOES make people happy (to answer your initial question) and the concepts of flow and sparks help us illustrate how this happens in the context of youth programs. The one thing that also came up for me that it's not part (at least explicitly) of the 10 factors described by Mihály Csikszentmihalyi is sense of belonging. I think I see it throughout these factors; for example...getting direct and positive feedback and feeling in control probably happen in contexts where youth feel like they belong. I wouldn't add it as another factor but I wanted to make the connection that came up for me in reading this...how throughout the experience of flow youth also need that sense of belonging (so important in order to have a positive YD experience).
Thanks again for a great post!!

jennifer skuza said:

Hello Josey and Anne -

Thanks for joining the conversation.

Anne, I am glad you found this piece helpful in making flow more tangible. Sometimes an appreciation of flow can pass people by because it gets sold short as being something too “ideal” or “only reserved for a special few”. But I think flow is in everyone’s reach. For young people, finding that intrinsic motivation can be the key to tapping the endless satisfaction that come from learning.

Josey, your point about belonging is interesting. Now that you have pointed it out, like you, I see how it is implied in many of the conditions. Thanks for sharing your observation.

mysocialclix UG said:

Ah, flow. One of my favorite concepts as it relates to youth development. I wish it were more well-known in edcuational circles. I've sadly seen so many young people shut down just as their having a "flow moment" in school classrooms. It's these moments that keep me energized and fresh as a youthworker....reminding me why I do what I do, but are also truly humbling. Sure, there are many things we can do on our end to create and encourage opportunities for young people to experience flow, but often (at least in my own experience) these moments occur spontaneously and without initial recognition

Cheers

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