Interest and Motivation

In keeping with Fredrickson's (1998, 2001) "broaden-and-build" theory, positive emotions may also guide us toward novel stimuli and help us "fall in love" with something (Torrance, 1983). One of these emotions is "interest," defined by Silvia (2001, p. 285) as "a basic emotion with significant long-term adaptational functions; it cultivates knowledge and diversifies experience at all stages of life," and thus leads to "covertly building skills and expertise." By defining interest as an emotion (with specific associated facial and vocal expressions, and subjective feeling), scientists can better understand how interest leads to engaging in meaningful activities (Izard & Ackerman, 2000; Silvia, 2006).

The emotion of interest, aside from helping diversify experiences and engage with intriguing unknown stimuli, also helps us work hard to build expertise in a domain. In keeping with this, the vast literature on the "social psychology of creativity" has shown that intrinsic motivation (i.e., the degree to which one engages in an activity for its inherent rewards, rather than for external outcomes) enhances creative thinking (Amabile, 1996). Intrinsic motivation can keep us going during otherwise daunting practice (Ericsson et al., 1993; Ericsson & Ward, 2007).

Intrinsic motivation may enable "flow" during the creative process. Csikszentmihalyi—a living example of general knowledge who brings his knowledge of the arts to bear on his science—first documented this phenomenon in the 1960s as a result of observing artists painting (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Flow is a psychological state defined by the presence of both high skills and high challenges, giving individuals a sense of control over the activity at hand. Flow is characterized by intense focus and concentration, a merging of action and awareness, and losing track of time. In a state of flow, individuals pursue and master novel yet manageable challenges. After experiences of flow, individuals report a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment.

Interest, motivation, and aging. Do interest and intrinsic motivation change with age? We can only speculate here. To the best of our knowledge, no study has followed creative adults across various domains to assess how their motivation—intrinsic or extrinsic— changes with age. The state of flow, which is facilitated by intrinsic motivation, is described similarly by individuals of varying ages (Massimini, Csikszentmihalyi, & Delle Fave, 1988; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005), but it is unknown if flow changes with age.

It is possible that one's intrinsic motivation for a particular domain remains stable, or even increases as skill levels increase. The specific questions examined and methods used within a domain may change over the course of decades, but the motivation to better understand probably remains unchanged. Conversely, the fires of ambition likely bank with age (although we know of no relevant research), so we do not know how age affects the balance of the entire complex of motivation.

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