The Autotelic Self

To be in a state of flow as often as possible seems to be the secret to a fulfilling life. After reading the book Flow, I have seen all the ways in which even the smallest and most mundane tasks can be truly enjoyable. How I can create an optimal experience out of something as simple as washing dishes seems to have a very direct link to the overall feeling of happiness in life.

In case you don’t already know, the state of flow can be described as the feeling of being 100% involved, mentally, in whatever task you are performing. To describe it a little deeper, it is also the ability to control the consciousness of the mind to find the moment to moment enjoyment of life. This might sound like mindfulness, but it is far deeper, and far more effective in cultivating happiness and deep meaning in life.

Of course, some of my favorite examples from the book Flow were of people who live very primitive lives, like living in a small cottage on the side of a mountain where you wake up every day and tend to your garden and your animals. Very simply indeed, and these case studies showed that you don’t need an amazingly complex “movie star” or iconic life to attain flow.

Flow is also about growing ones self and facing challenges with a certain type of attitude, known as the Autotelic Self. When in a state of flow, the background noise of life seems to go silent as you hone in on the work that you are doing. And this can be anytthing from a physical activity to an intellectual conversation, or even reading this post.

If you google Autotelic you get a brief definition, but you’ll also see the name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author and true expert behind Flow. I encourage you read a bit about him.

This post is about how to become more autotelic in your life. There are many benefits to becoming more autotelic in your day to day life. Obstacles will seem less like problems and more like fun challeneges, as opportunities for growth. You’ll slowly move away from the ego and towards a state of enlightenment. You’ll transform potentially entropic experiences into flow.

Setting Goals

To be able to experience flow, you must have some goals to strive for. It is good to have a blend of extrinsic and intrinsic goals. Most importantly, you yourself must create these goals, they must be “self-contained.” In other words, you know without the slightest doubt that it is you who naturally created the goal. On the other end, having mostly or only extrinsic goals will make it harder to be more flexible and true to your own nature and life purpose.

Don’t make the goal to achieve flow though. Flow becomes the byproduct of the focus and intentions created from pursuing the goals you have set for yourself. And these require focus and control of the conscious mind. Which brings us to numero dos.

Becoming Immersed in the Activity

The autotelic personality grows deeply involved with whatever it is doing. It is important to balance the opportunities for action with the skills one possesses. For example, saying you’re going to become a millionaire before you’re thirty sounds nice and all, but it’s unrealistic to act upon in the fleeting present moment. Thus it would be hard to focus on that specific “goal” or aspiration. Instead it would make more sense to do something to create the opportunities to make lots of money and build wealth based off of the skills you have at this moment. Wanting to save the world is very noble, but actually focusing on the day to day actions you can take is what truly makes a difference.

This may sound obvious, but immersion is a big factor in flow, because it helps us forget in a sense the controlling voice in our head (ego) that wants us to sit and watch TV or go out for a drink.

But if you do go out for a drink…

Pay Attention to What is Happening

Despite being engrossed in the activity, we must also pay close attention to the feedback. After all, to attain flow and have true levels of enjoyment, we must measure it against something. Things need to be challenging enough to keep our attention and enjoyment at a high enough level.

As for distractions, having an autotelic self implies the ability to sustain involvement. Self-consciousness, which is the most common source of distraction truly, is not a problem for someone who is autotelic.

Being immersed, but also paying attention to what is around you is the key to becoming “one” with something. I’m sure you’ve all heard that cliché before.

As Mihalyi says in the book – “The autotelic individual grows beyond the limits of individuality by investing psychic energy in a system in which she is included. Because of this union of the person and the system, the self emerges at a higher level of complexity. This is why ’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Learning to Enjoy Immediate Experience

Being in control of the mind means that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy. It requires determination to do this of course. A relaxed no-care attitude is not a sifficient defense against the choas that is the modern world.

Knowing how to develop the aforementioned skills (or whatever you want to call them) is the key to attaining flow, especially in moments when life can seem either dull or downright nasty. People who have survived the harshest of conditions in life (holocaust survivors for example) were able to attain flow during these times, and it’s fair to say it is the reason they were able to keep their sanity.

To be able to transform random events into flow, one must develop skills that stretch capacities that make one become more than what one is. Or in other words, to grow ones self. Flow drives individuals to creativity and outstanding achievement.

It is also key to create a harmony between the goals that we choose to pursue. To just jump from goal to goal all willy-nilly serves no deeper purpose, thus will not create the life and experiences one truly desires. To have vivid memories of the high-times of life is also a very important thing for long term happiness and fulfillment.

There is a great video on YouTube about meditation and the Autotelic Self that originally brought me to read the book Flow. I had known about it for a long time and despite being published in 1990, the information in the book is timeless and utterly life changing. Check out the video here. (I highly recommend it, you will learn a lot!)

Thanks for reading, and remain forever a student to life…


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