Pleasure and enjoyment

One of the things I've been working on this month is to read down the pile of books next to my bed. These would be the books that I've started, but haven't finished before picking up another book. They are all non-fiction. In general, I like to have one non-fiction and one fiction book that I am reading at a time. I'm not quite sure when or how the non-fiction pile got away from me, but it did, and it's been bothering me. How can a person who only likes to have one book from one genre going at a time have so many books with book marks in them? I don't know, but I've decided that something has to be done.

I finished one yesterday, and am now working on the next in the pile. Currently, I'm working on Flow: the psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (That would be pronounced: Mee-high Chick-sent-mee-high, emphasis on second syllable of the last name.) This is one of those books which appears on nearly every bibliography I come across in my light, neuroscience-brain stuff reading. It seemed as though I should actually read it, so I asked for it for Christmas.

The jury is still out as to what I think about it, but today I came across this quote:

"During the first few years of life every single child is a little 'learning machine' trying out new movements, new words daily. The rapt concentration on the child's face as she learns each new skill is a good indication of what enjoyment is about. And each instance of enjoyable learning adds to the complexity of the child's developing self.

Unfortunately, this natural connection between growth and enjoyment tends to disappear with time. Perhaps because 'learning' becomes an external imposition when schooling starts, the excitement of mastering new skills gradually wears out. It becomes all too easy to settle down within the narrow boundaries of the self developed in adolescence. But if one gets to be too complacent, feeling that psychic energy invested in new directions is wasted unless there is a good chance of reaping extrinsic rewards for it, one may end up no longer enjoying life, and pleasure becomes the only source of positive experience."

Before I discuss this, you need to know that Csikszentmihalyi defines pleasure as a feeling of contentment when outside experiences meet expectations. Pleasure is short-lived; it does not cause growth in an individual. Opposed to pleasure is enjoyment. Enjoyment is reached when the is novelty and accomplishment; it causes growth and helps to create a more complex person. Pleasure takes no effort, whereas enjoyment can only happen with 'unusual investment of attention.' Pleasure can be obtained by the use of drugs, while drugs are the antithesis of enjoyment.

Knowing this, go back to the quote I shared. A child starts out learning naturally, and gaining enjoyment from the ongoing struggle and eventual mastery of new information and skills. We all know that if we feel enjoyment while doing something, we are that much more motivated to do that same thing again, and often at a deeper level, even if it felt hard initially. Or maybe because it felt hard, and we kept going and mastered it.

But at some point the child stops feeling enjoying from learning new things. Csikszentmihalyi proposes it has something to do with starting school. As I think about this, I would propose that many traditional classrooms (please notice I didn't say all, before you click that comment button) teach children to enjoy the easiness and quick fix of pleasure over the hard work and more intensive effort of enjoyment.

The child in a traditional classroom is learning on someone else's time table. The content of the learning is dictated, as is how it is to be learned. It doesn't really matter if the child is interested or even ready to learn what is put before him, that's what's on the plan. Instead of being invested in the learning for its own sake, the child then learns that pleasing the teacher, by turning in appropriate work, is what is going to be the most rewarded. An 'A' on a paper or test provides a bit of pleasure at the end of the work. Or, for a child who does not fare well in this environment, she learns that there is no pleasure whatever, and that just finishing or ignoring the assignments will provide the most pleasure because it will be done, or even just ignored.

These are two vastly different students, but ultimately they learn the same lesson. There is not intrinsic enjoyment of learning. The idea that there is something positive to struggling to master something, or to accept an intellectual challenge other than the sheer enjoyment which comes with success.

It is a damning statement he makes at the end, and it is actually a chilling indictment of modern schooling. Extrinsic rewards can eventually rob a person of enjoyment of life. It's something to ponder, isn't it?

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