Is this why we can do fun stuff for hours but work stresses us out?


I’ve always wondered why if something is “fun” we can do it for hours, yet if it’s “work” it stresses us out and leaves us exhausted when the distinction between the two is often arbitrary and idiosyncratic. (Doing your taxes is frustrating while solving puzzles is fun. How different are they really?)

Certainly, interest in the task at hand is a big factor but this study touched on an interesting element as well:

This study examined pilots’ vigilance during an extended general aviation flight as measured by their capacity to exercise control over the aircraft during a planned flight. Thirty-one qualified pilots flew a flight simulator from Wagga Wagga to Bankstown, Sydney, a distance of 207 nautical miles. The flight comprised five separate legs, although three legs were subjected to analysis. On the basis of attentional resource theory, it was hypothesised that task performance would differ based on the requirement for memory retrieval. Consistent with the hypothesis, the results revealed a deterioration in those tasks for which there was a substantial requirement for memory retrieval. Further analysis revealed that the deterioration in performance was best predicted by pilots’ perception of the workload associated with the flight and their perception of their ability to exercise control over aircraft during normal conditions. The implications are discussed in terms of system design and training.

Source: “Vigilance decrement during a simulated general aviation flight” from Applied Cognitive Psychology

This very much ties in with flow, a concept proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi which I strongly believe in.

The thing I’ll probably be most likely to take away from the study above is the repetition of the word perception. Deterioration in performance had nothing to do with how much work there really was or the actual level of the pilot’s skill. It was the pilot’s perception of workload and skill.

Perhaps I’m being too picky about wording; maybe they mention perception here because that’s all the pilot really could know. But the distinction might still remain, nonetheless.

In the latest Radiolab podcast (which I can’t recommend strongly enough) they discussed the body’s ability to regulate the perception of energy and pain. It seems the body has a governor of sorts that tells you how much gas you have left in the tank and doles out discomfort when it thinks you’re working too hard. Turns out this regulator is extremely conservative. It tells us we can do no more long before our muscles actually give out.

Some people can ignore it. Those people run ultra-marathons and multi-state cycling races that last days. Their bodies aren’t all that different than yours or mine. So, no, you don’t get to look at them and say they are physically gifted freaks of nature. It seems the majority of what allows them to do what they do is mental.

A while back I posted about the techniques the Navy Seals started teaching which dramatically increased passing rates. None of them had anything to do with training the body.

So much of our ability to enjoy the good things and persevere the bad has little to do with the world as it is and much more to do with how we perceive it. Just something I’ll be trying to keep in mind today.

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