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Fulfillment and Flow through MarioKart

Submitted by Lori Conlan January 18, 2022

While the past two years mark a time of profound loss, they also mark a time of extraordinary social transformation, particularly in the virtual realms. After the initial shock and grief that the world felt in lockdown, we collectively experienced the widespread rekindling of old hobbies, mass Twitter activism, many failed attempts to make Dalgona coffee, and a near-universal feeling of meh. To describe this feeling, we were (re)gifted the word ‘languishing’ by Adam Grant in his viral 2021 New York Times article “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing”. Grant joked that he had “…never seen people so excited to talk about their utter lack of excitement” and explained that giving a name to this feeling helped many people take the first step in processing the unprecedented events of this pandemic.

A few months after this article’s release, Grant shared his MarioKart theory of peak flow in a TEDMonterey talk titled “How to stop languishing and start finding flow”. Through this talk, he brilliantly tells a highly relatable story about how his family creatively connected despite not being able to travel to see each other.” Over videocall, his family played MarioKart together and became closer than ever. Now, some might initially wince at the idea of spending even more time in the virtual world, but Grant expertly breaks down the three conditions that separated this experience from forms of escapism like doomscrolling or binging Netflix:

  1. Mastery is progressing as the result of effort. The satisfaction we get from a task of “just-manageable difficulty” is motivating, whether it be finally getting your sourdough to rise, learning a complex laboratory technique, or figuring out a difficult level in your favorite game.
  2. Mindfulness is paying full attention to something, and dedicating time to focus on something is at the core of flow.
  3. Mattering is knowing that what you are doing is making a difference to other people. Flow is experienced at its peak when we know the names, faces, and/or stories of the people who benefit from what we are doing.

For Grant, the mattering in MarioKart was connecting with his family. He cheerfully reminds the audience that we can overcome languishing through activities that are not traditionally considered productive. We have a tendency to equate our worth with our productivity, which implies that fulfillment comes solely from purpose, especially in our work. You can hear more about focusing on wellness rather than purpose in Chloe Hakim Moore’s excellent TEDx talk. This is not to say that fulfillment at work and career satisfaction are not important, but rather to say that they are not the only way to feel fulfilled in one’s life. To embrace the full spectrum of our mental health and well-being, we may need to first ask where we each experience flow. The next step then, may be to connect with others. If we can experience languishing as a collective, we can work toward sharing the experience of flow as well.

Guest Blogger: Charlesice Hawkins
Part of the “Voices of OITE” series.

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