Credit Olimpia Zagnoli
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WE have all had to work on tasks we detest: Calculus homework, for example, is boring and hard. As soon as we start, we feel mentally exhausted, and the quality of our work suffers.

Now imagine you are an aspiring architect. Learning how calculus can help you design more creative and ambitious structures could be fascinating. Instead of feeling exhausted by your homework, you might feel energized and could work on it all night. The same work, but with a very different psychological effect.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist at the Claremont Graduate University, has been studying this latter phenomenon for decades. He calls it flow: the experience we have when we’re “in the zone.” During a flow state, people are fully absorbed and highly focused; they lose themselves in the activity.

But while we know intuitively that tasks we find interesting can feel effortless, what does it actually do to our mental gas tank? Can interest help us perform our best without feeling fatigued? My research with the psychologist Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia of Michigan State University, which we published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests that it can.

In our research, we asked a group of undergraduates to work on word puzzles. Before they began, we had them tell us how exciting and enjoyable they thought the task would be. Then they read a statement that framed the task as either personally valuable or of neutral value.

Those who read the first statement, and who also thought the task would be enjoyable, solved the most problems. Moreover, their work didn’t flag, meaning they did not perform best simply because their interest made them want to work on it longer, thereby causing them to solve more problems. Instead, their engagement was more efficient. In other words, they were “in the zone.”

We then wanted to see if this increased performance would make people feel fatigued, or if their high interest in the task would maintain their mental resources. In a follow-up study, we assessed undergraduates’ anticipated enjoyment of the task as well as its personal value. After working on a set of word puzzles, they squeezed a spring-loaded exercise grip for as long as they could, a task commonly used in psychology experiments to assess mental exhaustion. Much like the self-control needed to stay on task when we would rather do something more fun, resisting the urge to let go of your grip when it becomes uncomfortable also requires self-control. And that exertion of self-control is mentally fatiguing.

We found that people who thought the puzzle was highly enjoyable and highly important not only performed among the best, again, but they also squeezed the hand grip the longest. In other words, they solved the most problems, and it was not mentally exhausting for them. In contrast, those who were uninterested in the task generally performed worse, and were mentally fatigued by the effort.

Some of us are lucky enough to find our goals interesting — but that won’t always be the case. If interest is critical, how can we take a boring activity and make it interesting?

Research by the psychologists Chris S. Hulleman of the University of Virginia and Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin suggests that for most of us, whether we find something interesting is largely a matter of whether we find it personally valuable. For many students, science is boring because they don’t think it’s relevant to their lives.

With this in mind, the researchers asked high school science students to periodically do some writing over the course of a semester. They randomly selected half of them to summarize what they had learned in their class. The other half wrote about the usefulness of science in their own lives, thereby making it personally relevant and valuable.

At the end of the semester, the researchers found that, compared with those who simply summarized the material, the ones who reflected on its personal relevance reported more interest in science — as well as significantly higher grades, on average by almost a full grade point. This was particularly true for those with the lowest expectations for performing well in their class.

Research also shows that social engagement in activities can foster interest. In a study I co-wrote in the Journal of Educational Psychology, we had middle school students play a math-focused video game either alone, in competition with another student or in collaboration with another student. Compared with those who played alone, those playing with a partner reported greater interest in the game and a stronger desire to master it.

Moreover, the psychologists Priyanka Carr and Gregory Walton of Stanford have shown that merely believing you are working with another person, compared with separately, can make you more interested in a task and less mentally exhausted by it. Taken together, interest matters more than we ever knew. It is crucial to keeping us motivated and effective without emptying our mental gas tank, and it can turn the mundane into something exciting. Teachers, managers and parents must play an instrumental role in fostering interest in their students, employees and children — interest that will help them achieve their most important goals.