From a very young age, goals are set for us by others. As babies we are encouraged to walk and talk, as children we are encouraged to do well in school, as teenagers we are encouraged to get a good degree and as adults, we are encouraged to be a model member of society. Advertisements put forward money, fame and power as models of success. Motivational speakers give speeches telling us paths we should follow to succeed. Parents tell children that they should listen to their advice if they wish to lead a comfortable life in the future. Amongst all of this external pressure, sometimes it seems difficult to have a say in what direction your life should go in.
The word autotelic is derived from the Greek words auto, meaning “self”, and telos, meaning “goal”. An autotelic is one who does not need external reminders to tell them who they are. They have a purpose in and not apart from themselves. They are driven by their own goals, curiosities and motivation. An autotelic does not live life like a connect-the-dots puzzle drawn by society, but chooses to paint their own life on a blank canvas.
The defining feature of autotelic personalities is that they are not driven by the want to be successful, but by the desire to seek challenges and be in flow state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term flow, defined the mark of the autotelic personality as “the ability to manage a rewarding balance between the “play” of challenge finding and the “work” of skill building“. They are far less interested in external rewards, such as a gold star from a teacher or a raise from a employer. Their reward is the flow state they enter while they work on their goal and the satisfaction that comes with knowing that they completed a challenge.
Some of the greatest achievers in history were autotelics. They did not achieve amazing feats because of the promise of money and fame, but because they were internally driven by the thirst for flow. When questioned why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famous mountaineer George Mallory replied: ”Because it’s there“. An autotelic personality is not necessarily something you have to be born with. All you need is to constantly challenge yourself, discover whatever brings you to flow state and not let outside forces sway you from your own goals. For the only judge of your life that matters is you.
(If you don’t get the reference, go watch some How I Met Your Mother, coz it’s awesome 😛 Barney Stinson always sets new challenges for himself, always pushing himself to the limits of awesomeness. Examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iOi_iPNC50)
For me, the things that put me in flow state include playing my guitar, writing ARK and obsessing about a topic and reading everything about it. It’s so hard to describe, but in that state you feel like nothing else matters. It’s just you and whatever you’re doing. The moment.
One of the best advice for having a happy life I’ve found so far is to discover what your flow is. Whether it be playing an instrument, engaging your creativity or sweating it out through sports, if you find even ONE hobby that will put you in that state of mind, trust me, it’ll change your life.
Of course, one of the best flow states to be in is when you’re so engaged in a conversation with a person that time becomes infinite and you never want to leave that conversation.
Have you ever had a moment of pure passion, where you are so immersed in what you are doing that everything around you does not matter and you are in a state of total bliss? In that moment, you feel fully alive, present and completely engaged with what you are doing. When the happiness and creativity expert Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi was studying how painters work, he noticed an odd thing. When their painting was going well, they did not care about getting tired, hungry or uncomfortable. They just carried on. But when the painting was finished, they rapidly lost interest in it.
Csíkszentmihályi described this state of mind as a flow state: the experience of being fully engaged with what you are currently doing. When in a flow state, an hour can pass in the blink of an eye, action and awareness merges and the experience is intrinsically rewarding. You feel that what you are doing is important, in full control and not self-conscious. Flow state does not just involve ultimate concentration. It is a complex state of mind where you are solely driven by focused motivation, operating at your peak level of mental and emotional engagement. Essentially, your mind uses 100% of its capacity for the task at hand, rather than wondering what is for dinner or peeking at the beautiful girl across the road. Because of this, a person in flow state not only works with great efficiency and creativity, but they also feel positive, energised and happy. In fact, the intense spontaneous joy brought on by flow state can almost be considered the mental equivalent of an orgasm.
So how can you achieve flow state? Flow state is not something that one chooses to go into. It is only attained when certain criteria are met.
Flow state can happen with any activity, but it is more likely to occur if you are internally motivated (i.e. you are doing the activity mainly for its own sake).
You should have clear short-term goals for what you are trying to achieve. This adds direction and structure to the task.
An important aspect of flow is that the activity must be challenging enough to stretch your skills almost to the limits, but not more. If it is not challenging enough, you will get bored. If it demands more skill than what you are capable of, you will become anxious. That being said, the balance only has to be between “perceived” challenge and skill. In other words, all you need is confidence that you can take on the challenge.
The activity should provide immediate feedback on how you are doing (e.g. seeing how a painting is turning out, hearing yourself sing). This allows you to adjust your performance in order to maintain flow state.
Flow is an incredibly useful thing. Through flow, you can forget about your worries and your strife, reach a state of pure happiness and inner peace and produce something truly great. The key to happiness is knowing what allows you to reach flow state and routinely entering flow state. For example, I know that the three things that give me flow are: music, humour and obsessions. Ergo, I play my guitar and sing, watch television shows that make me laugh and write an entry for the Encyclopaedia of Absolute and Relative Knowledge every day. All of these activities allow me to be truly happy, no matter what the situation may be.