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Getting in the Flow: Changing Behavior

New ways to think about how to create emotional bonds and lasting meaning in behavior change.

Let me start this blog post with a bold statement: I’m a happy man. I love my work at frog and all of the challenges that come with it. I love to share my knowledge with other fellow designers and learn from them. I love my family and my friends who make my life special and always support me during the difficult moments. I love to stay fit and I do everything I can to have a healthy lifestyle. And finally, I love to travel, to experience new cultures and to visit new places.

In order to keep this happiness flowing, I make extensive use of a set of well-proven tools. I use Twitter to exchange professional information with my colleagues. I use Facebook to stay in contact with my family members and friends all over the world. I use Nike Plus to track my movement and stay motivated. I use Foursquare and Dopplr to discover new places and track my trips.

Apparently I’ve managed to turn my entire life in what American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “flow experience”: a challenging activity that a) requires skills b) provides clear goals and feedback c) requires concentration on the task at hand, d) implies a (partial) loss of self-consciousness and e) a transformation of time.

Flow experiences bring happiness and harmony to people’s lives by cultivating purpose and by forging the resolution needed in the pursuit of one’s goals. And this means that if we are able to design the appropriate flow experiences, we, as designers, are able to actively influence people’s lives and make them happier and more harmonious.

Right now there is a lot of talk about gamification and the power playful experiences have in changing people’s behavior. In a previous blog post I also illustrated a few successful examples in this space. When it comes to changing people’s lives,  I think that games and game mechanics are great tools for cultivating purpose – they set goals and enforce the appropriate rules – but they fall short when it comes to forging resolution.

How can we make people’s flow experiences enjoyable in the short term, but also sustainable and meaningful in the long run? In their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard,authors Chip and Dan Heath suggest 3 solutions:

1.      Find the feeling
Although our instinct tells us to teach people why they should do something, this often leverages negative emotions like guilt and fear (“smoking causes lung cancer”) that have a narrowing effect on their thoughts. If we want people to successfully deal with broad and complex problems such as “living a healthy life,” we need to leverage positive emotions like joy or pride, which broaden the kind of activities people contemplate for the future and encourage them to pursue even bigger goals.

2.     Grow the people
Some people think the most intimate traits of their personality, their abilities or even their intelligence, are finite and cannot be changed or increased. Others think that their abilities are like muscles and can be strengthened through effort and practice. According to Stanford’s Carol Dweck, the former have a “fixed mindset,” and the latter have a “growth mindset.” When designing for a lasting change, promoting a “growth mindset” will help people to stretch their abilities and do things they didn’t even consider in the first place.

3.     Shrink the change
Sometimes a goal will appear too challenging even to the most willing and enthusiastic person. In these cases we can shrink the change and get the ball moving with simple and approachable goals, and let people face increasingly challenging goals only after confidence and enthusiasm have been gradually built.

Game mechanics have proved to be successful in cultivating purpose, but only by forging resolution and making changes sustainable and meaningful over time, can we bring harmony in people’s lives. Once we reach harmony, our consciousness is so ordered that, to put it in Csikszentmihalyi’s words, we “need not fear unexpected events, or even death. Every living moment will make sense, and most of it will be enjoyable”. 

Creating Emotional Bonds and Lasting Meaning
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Image by flickr user lululemon athletica