Adding Challenge to What You Love

Think of an activity you really love doing. It can be playing a game, putting together a puzzle, creating art — anything as long as it is something you want to do and it has a completion point or goal. Now that you have it in mind, do you prefer the activity to be:

  • Relatively easy, or
  • Relatively difficult

If you picked the latter option, you are similar to other people regarding their autotelic activities — “intrinsically motivated, goal-directed activities that require significant energy output” — whose interview responses suggest that enjoyment of these activities is dependent on the “presence of relatively difficult challenges that nevertheless were not beyond the participant’s perceived capacities.” A large amount of research shows that in general people prefer low levels of challenge. So, why the discrepancy?

Researchers Sami Abuhamdeh and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed that it is the intrinsic motivation associated with the activity (which is seldom preserved in research experiments) which mediates the interaction between challenge and enjoyment. In other words, we prefer ease in activities we don’t choose to do, and we prefer challenge in activities we do choose to do.

To test this, Abuhamdeh and Csikszentmihalyi constructed two studies, presented in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. In the first study, researchers tracked 90 online chess players, collecting data on skill difference during games (challenge) and perceived enjoyment, and showed an inverted U-shaped relation between difficulty and enjoyment (as difficulty increases, so does enjoyment — up to a certain point at which enjoyment starts to decrease).

In the second study, researchers electronically prompted 6th-12th graders throughout the day about what they were doing, how challenging it was, and how much they were enjoying the activity. By coding each activity, researchers found that challenge was preferred in intrinsically motivated, goal-oriented activities.

So what? We have limited time, energy, and mental resources to devote to activities; therefore, with enjoyment as a goal (as it often is in positive psychology), it is important to optimize these activities. We often fall into a pattern of looking for the easiest route and avoiding difficult challenges. However, when it comes to these autotelic activities, we need to break out of that mindset. We might surprise ourselves in how much more we love pushing ourselves.


Sami Abuhamdeh1 and Mihaly Csikszentmihayli2
1Istanbul Sehir University; 2Claremont Graduate University
The Importance of Challenge for the Enjoyment of Intrinsically Motivated, Goal-Directed Activities
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin


1 Comment

  1. I can agree that challenges are important, in the sense that they mentally stimulate us, foster new thoughts, ideas, and emotions as opposed to easy actions or activities that allow us to go through the motions, and essentially, fall asleep! Having experience with that, I know I prefer mental challenges, instead of writing down random words for the sake of it, I rather force myself to write a creative story, brainstorm a plot and characters, and so forth.

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