The difference between pleasure and enjoyment (and which one leads to flow)

Isola Bella in Italy

Isola Bella in Italy

If you haven't noticed already, I'm a little obsessed with "flow".  It's only because my whole perspective on life has changed since I found it.  

"Flow" is where you forget about yourself and get totally absorbed into an activity.  The activity has to be challenging enough to require your attention but close enough to your skill level that you feel like you can do it.  You lose track of time.  Your self-doubt falls away and everything just clicks.  

I felt this often as a child when I was playing "pretend" - "Little House on the Prairie", "Star Wars", "librarian".  But as I grew older, there were fewer and fewer activities that brought me "flow".  I think I was drawn to fashion, because I found "flow" there.  It was a more grown-up type of "pretend".  Strangely enough, I also found "flow" in Chemistry class.  

Then, for years, I just thought life was boring.  I started to pursue "pleasure", because that was where happiness seemed to exist.  Cookies and cream ice cream, a great glass of wine, a really good TV show.  Maybe all together.  Occasionally "flow" would pop up in the perfect social conversation, but being an introvert, I didn't know how to recreate that.  

Then, I went to New York during Fashion Week.  When I walked up to Lincoln Center and saw all of the fashionable people just standing around, my eyes lit up.  I started to take photos.  I stayed for hours.  My feet were killing me, and I was drenched in sweat.  But I was in a dream world.  "Flow".

I went home and sat at my computer for hours to edit and organize and blog about my photographs and experiences.  It was magic.  It was "flow".  

Surprisingly, it showed up again while reading the "Einstein" biography and also while reading a book about "flow".  (I make jokes to my family that I am going to grow up to be a neuroscientist.)  I've seen "flow" pop up recently in conversations and am starting to be able to guide it there more easily, but I have to have a full tank of social energy.  

But I never even thought about the difference between "pleasure" and "enjoyment" until I was reading a book called "Flow" -  

Pleasure is an important component in the quality of life, but by itself does not bring happiness...[Pleasurable experiences] do not produce psychological growth....When people ponder further about what makes their lives rewarding, they tend to move beyond pleasant memories and begin to remember other events, other experiences that overlap with pleasurable ones but fall into a category that deserves a separate name: enjoyment...Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment...After an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it.
— Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

"Enjoyment" and "flow" are very closely linked.  I haven't finished the book, so I don't know if the author believes the two to be the same.  I think enjoyment is the little sister of "flow".  "Enjoyment" is the preview and the gateway to "flow".  But when you feel the full magic of "flow", it's on another level.  "Pleasure" seems to be the neighbor of "enjoyment" and "flow", because they incorporate some of the same feelings.  However, activities that produce "enjoyment" take effort and "pleasure" is usually more passive.  We often default to "pleasure" because it is easy, it seems to have very little positive lasting effect on us. 

Some of you may be thinking, "Duh.  I already know all of this."  But for someone like me who spent years being mostly bored, I want to figure out how to produce more of "flow".

So far, I've determined that these are the factors that are necessary to produce real "enjoyment" and to make it possible to move into "flow" - 

1. You engage in an activity that you find challenging but one that you think you can accomplish.

2. You can fully focus on that activity and are free from distraction.  (This is why parents with young children in the room very rarely experience "enjoyment" or "flow" while trying to accomplish something that is not directly relating to or fully involving the child.)

3. You have clear goals and immediate feedback.

4. You have a sense of control over your actions.

5. You have a personal interest in the activity. 

6. There is some personal growth or some link between what you already know and something new.  

These factors usually lead to "enjoyment" and set up the environment for "flow" to be possible.  But "flow" is almost like falling asleep.  You can set up the environment to make it probable, but I don't know if you can directly make it happen.  "Flow" feels like your brain is opening up, but in reality part of it is shutting down.  Steven Kotler states in "The Rise of Superman" that during "flow", part of the neocortex shuts down.  That's the part of the brain that is always second guessing what you should do.  We lose our ability to properly track time and our focus tightens down to only the task at hand.  We begin to process data faster which "elongates the current moment...More data gives us a shot at sudden insights.  Better data leads to more creative solutions."  This is our brain at its best.  I'm still investigating how this state can be produced more often and more directly.

I could have experienced "flow" while writing this article, but I was interrupted too many times by my children.  However, I still fully "enjoyed" it.  Now I am going running, which will be slightly "enjoyable" but not very "pleasurable".  (I'm guessing the "runner's high" is related to "flow", although I've never experienced it.  Any runners out there can feel free to chime in on that one.)  After dinner, I will watch "Teen Beach Party" with my children, which might be "pleasurable" but probably won't produce "enjoyment" unless we all get up and start dancing.