Can we consider Schopenhauer a precursor in Psychology of Learning?

It is incredible how literatures that are distant, in purpose and time, can be connected by a thin thread. For instance, I find the influence of certain philosophies on the modern sciences of learning so evident.

A concept I am accustomed with is the one of optimal experience, described from Csikszentmihalyi in the form of Flow. The psychologist describes the process of learning any skills, and any experience more in general, as a struggle between our level of competences and the degree of difficulty of the task we undertake.

The process, described as Flow (1990), encompasses a plethora of emotions. We cannot dismiss the fact that when we learn, our feelings alter our state of mind, thus influencing the experience we are having. But while some emotions are already in place when we are about to spend time on learning a skill, other ones will manifest during the experience. This is said to be “optimal” once the right subset of emotions is in place: and that is a soft balance.

Let’s have a look at the simplest form of this theory. There are two particular states of mind that are determined by the product of skills and challenges. Those occur when one of the two factors outclasses the other one. Interestingly, both of them will be derives negative emotions.

  • Frustration takes place when challenges are too way high to our level of competences for us. When we feel outperformed, we might become anxious, nervous, angry. We may worry whether we are good at what we do. We can eventually decide to quit altogether. And that’s a pity.
  • Boredom occurs when challenges aren’t up to our level of competences. While sometimes this can offer a moment of relax and a feeling of control, soon we might feel bored, unaccomplished. When we do not feel enjoyment in what we do, we look for something else.

What I really find fashinating about this theory is that it has been already discussed in other fields. That would occur to you, if you read Flow after Schopenhauer‘s The World as Will and Representation, published for the first time in 1844.

Schopenhauer is quite famous for being the greatest pessimist of his time. He believed that we live in the worst of all possible worlds, where we are at the mercy of illusions that take form in our desires.

To paraphrase the philosopher, desires are what we pursue to feel pleasure: but such pleasure is ephemeral. And are more the troubles we go through to achieve it than the nice moment itself. Finally, he describes our life as a “pendulum” that swings between pain and boredom. Pursuing happiness, we live the hell when we do not achieve what we want. When we are satisfied, we immediately feel bored, looking for another object to desire.

However, I think that Schopenhauer missed a point. We are surely going to live this way when we live for our goals. But what happens when we treasure the journey to the goal? Then, we feel enriched and happy. That is the first, big difference between the Pendulum and the Flow.

When we are not in struggle for survival (thinking of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), to seek our object of desire becomes more pleasant than the goal itself. The efforts, the experience, the growth we experience on our journey are factors in how we write our existence.

Schopenhauer was writing at the end of an age where mankind yearned to achieve the “sublime”: the greatest greatness, in everything. Sure, he did not live in an easy age neither. Today we know that while daydreaming, we can set realistic goals for ourselves and move towards them with small steps. You can think of the experience as a macro-journey, built up on smaller steps.

With the right mindset, and awareness that sometimes frustration and boredom will be kicking in, we can have more Flow experiences than horrible ones. At last, we can feel having greater control on our lives.

All it takes is to accept, and live, the “here and now”.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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