Csikszentmihalyi discovered “flow” during his research on the psychology of happiness. Rather unexpectedly, when asked to describe their most enjoyable experiences, participants from all around the world didn’t necessarily describe “pleasurable” ones. Of course, the kind of activities that made them feel happy were all very different; but they had one thing in common: they induced a unique mental state characterized by complete absorption in a task for its own sake. Faced with an appropriate challenge, the participants needed to use a particular set of skills to the utmost, leading to intense concentration and an exhilarating sense of achievement.
One reason why this mental state relates to education is because the enjoyment it affords is directly related to the growth, or “complexification,” of the self. In that sense, learning activities could and should provide students with “flow” experiences. This does not mean that learning should be “fun” in the usual sense of the word. All too often, entertaining classroom activities are actually very ineffective ways to teach and learn as they do not provide real challenges or help practice complex relevant skills.
To be truly engaging and productive (i.,e., to induces states of “flow”), learning activities should, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s research:
Reference: Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990) Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. London: Harper and Row.