When we look at biological mechanisms that give us meaning, like flow, we see they are bound a certain set of “rules”, parameters really. These parameters have been well defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. To understand why these parameters more deeply well look at the devised structure to categorize flow.
Activity 1 or Zone 1 Is characterized by Low Skill and Low Challenge = Apathy Activity 2 or Zone 2 Is characterized by High Skill and Low Challenge = Relaxation Activity 3 or Zone 3 Is characterized by Low Skill and High Challenge = Anxiety Activity 4 or Zone 4 Is characterized by High Skill and High Challenge = Flow
(as devised by: OID is the organizational Identification scale developed by Mael and Ashforth (1992), and Graphical is the Bergami and Bagozzi’s (2000) graphical measure.)
Care to take a guess where the majority found the highest meaning?
“These findings revealed that high-skills activities (i.e., Activity 2, Activity 4) are associated with greater flow experience, and high-challenges activities (i.e., Activity 3, Activity 4) are associated with greater reported flow, in comparison with low- skills activities and low-challenges activities.” (source. Mao 2016)
The high-challenges,high-skills activity category gave people flow, flow is conducive to meaning. We don't tend to feel much meaning or satisfaction by completing something we can do too easily. Which corresponds to activity 1 or 2. We generally don't get more satisfied in anxiety, activity 3. We are satisfied when we rose to the challenge and overcome our perceived limit. This is largely what flow does. According to research the challenge shouldn't surpass a certain percentage or we'll feel anxious instead of flow, like we bit off more than we can chew. Flow threads a careful balance between too much and hitting that sweet spot that is right outside our limits.
Which brings me to this: Meaning is hardly found in a low challenge environment or low challenge activity. People in general are apprehensive towards hardship, it's not like don't understand that, but that's a dual edge blade. Because if we don't venture there we miss out on the vehicle of meaning. This why I generally push for the discomfort and a high challenge environment: it gives me meaning. The research just backs up my own experience. The moments I derive the most meaning of are the moments that have challenged me the most, where I really had to dig deep to overcome my struggle (obstacle). All to often people think that means you need to be in discomfort all the time or that comfort is the enemy. None of these are true. You enjoy and appreciate comfort more when it is earned, on top of that: you need to recover from your discomfort to grow. We don't need to sleep on the floor and deprive ourselves constantly of our wordy pleasures. Once you've gone beyond what you thought was possible you come back to your hovel and grow from your experience.
The best night I've had in years was when I came back after hiking Trolltunga fully fasted and slept in a shack on top of the mountain. Slept in a “bed” that was nothing more than a foam mat, with an empty stomach, a cold room and no pillow. I learned to love my bed very fast the day after. You build and adapt and make the challenge bigger, the discipline greater, you test the new limits: we rediscover,entrench and reinforce meaning.
Both Stoicism and Buddhism perpetuate the idea of finding meaning in hardship, which we'll tackle in second part.