I discovered a gem in my obsessive pursuit of productivity. A marvelous concept called flow, and autotelic personality.
This concept of flow, or to put it more precisely, this framework, ended up being something far more than just a productivity tool. It bestowed me with a framework for both a productive and happy life. A framework that if you tap into, robs you of all the anxiety and boredom and fills the void with pleasure, joy, and growth.
When it comes to flow, the ultimate goal is to cultivate a personality which makes you capable of entering the flow whenever you desire. Such a person is called autotelic.
Autotelic people can enjoy situations that ordinary persons would find unbearable.
Autotelic people can manage to be happy even if lost in a desolate island or confined to a prison cell. They transform their agonizing conditions into a manageable and even pleasurable struggle and unlike other people, they do not succumb to the ordeals.
An autotelic person can turn a boring party into a vibrant one, a plateaued sex-life into a passionate one, a dull career into an engaging one, and a dreadful situation into a tranquil one.
As an autotelic person, you can invoke the flow as an antidote to any circumstances that might be plagued by boredom or anxiety.
To cultivate an autotelic personality, you have to first, know what flow is, and what are the comprising elements.
What is Flow?
Flow is the state in which you are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the concentration is so intense that there is no attention left to think about anything else, or to worry about any problem.
While you’re in the flow, self-consciousness disappears and you lose the sense of time, you are unaware of any stress or anxiety, and the experience itself fills you with delight.
In addition, flow-activities are intrinsically rewarding, the more you practice them, the more you seek to replicate similar experiences.
Flow, a productive antidote to anxiety and boredom
I have experienced all sorts of uncomfortable emotions for a prolonged duration of time, and anxiety has been the most torturous one.
There can be many reasons behind anxiety. But, all those reasons share the same root and that is the human’s ability to think about the future. This projection into the future, psychologists suggest, makes the mind chaotic. To alleviate anxiety, then, is to establishing order in consciousness.
One can establish this order in his/her mind by following one of the three paths. The path you choose to step into, can either make or break you in the long run.
Generally, there are three different paths that you can take to establish order in your consciousness and expel away the anxiety and/or boredom.
- The destructive path: Examples include using alcohols, cigars, or drugs. Indulging in such activities momentarily establishes an order in mind that numbs the anxiety, and needless to say, at extreme costs.
- The degenerative path: The second way to relieve the anxiety is through less destructive activities such as watching TV, Netflix, playing video games, and so on. And no, these activities are not benign. If you consider how much time you put into such activities and if you evaluate the long-term consequences you will realize that slowly and steadily you are degenerating. As Bob Dylan puts it:
“If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”
- The Productive Path: The third way to banish anxiety or extinguish boredom, is to immerse yourself in a flow activity. Such activities in addition to relieving you of anxiety and boredom will cultivate and enrich your personality and character.
Almost everyone can experience flow through different activities. I, for instance, enter the flow most readily when I’m solving a programming problem. Dancing, rock climbing, chess, making music, reading an engaging book, etc. are some other examples of flow activities.
The question, now, is, what makes such activities flow-friendly, what are the conditions, and how can you design a flow activity of your own?
The Elements of Flow
An activity has to have three elements to provide a room for the flow. These elements are:
- A Vivid Goal or Challenge — If you want to enter the flow through an activity, it has to have a specific and vivid goal. If you are trying to play the Piano, you know that the goal is to master a specific note. Or when you are practicing shooting, you know the ultimate success is to hit the bulls’ eye. But having just a goal doesn’t guarantee you to reach the flow which takes us to the second element.
- Feedback and Measuring — For the goal you chose, you have to specify a way to measure your progress towards that goal. Having this feedback is essential to create the flow. In the case of shooting, gaining feedback is as simple as looking at the score panel. In the case of playing the Piano, you are constantly noticing how close you are getting to figuring out the note.
- Matching the Challenge with Skills — If the challenge of reaching the goal you have chosen is far beyond your current skills, it will cause you anxiety. For instance, if as an amateur, you choose to play a complex Piano note, instead of entering the flow, you will be repelled by anxiety and frustration. If, on the other hand, the challenge of achieving the goal is far below your skills, it will cause you boredom. As a way of illustration, if you choose to play football with kids, the lack of challenge would soon drift you into boredom.
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Flow and the Autotelic Personality
As I mentioned earlier, the ultimate goal here must be to reach the ability to enter the flow at will. The person who can achieve flow on demand has cultivated an autotelic personality. Autotelic persons live the happiest life.
Before I elaborate on what makes up for an autotelic person, there are some caveats I must point out that might prevent some people to cultivate an autotelic personality.
Internal barriers to flow
Some people might be constitutionally incapable of experience flow. Schizophrenics, for instance, suffer from anhedonia which literally means “lack of pleasure.” This symptom, psychiatrists suggest, seems to be a product of “stimulus overinclusion,”. This means that schizophrenics are condemned to notice irrelevant stimuli and to process information, whether they like it or not.
A profound implication lies in the above, if we fail to direct our attention we may, too, suffer from anhedonia or “lack of pleasure.”
A less drastic impediment to flow is excessive self-consciousness. A person who is concerned about how others perceive him. A person who is worried about creating the wrong impression, or indulging in something inappropriate is condemned to the same faith as schizophrenics: a cold an joyless life.
In addition to Schizophrenics and excessive self-conscious people, there is a third attribute that obstructs flow: being self-centered. Such people evaluate everything merely in terms of how it can benefit them. A flower is not worth a second look unless it can be used; anyone who cannot advance their desires and interests does not deserve further attention.
Both self-centered and self-conscious people fail to direct psychic energy towards achieving flow.
Towards becoming autotelic: How to enter the flow
Richard Logan, who has studied accounts of many people in extremely difficult situations, concludes:
People in harsh conditions survived by finding ways to turn the bleak objective conditions into subjectively controllable experience. They followed the blueprint of flow activities.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi the author of the book “flow”, this is the behavior of autotelic people:
- First, they pay close attention to the most minute details of their environment, discover in it hidden opportunities for action that matches their capabilities given the situation and circumstances.
- Second, they set goals appropriate to their precarious situation, and closely monitor progress through the feedback they received.
- Third, whenever they reach their goal, they up the ante and set increasingly complex challenges for themselves.
Christopher Burney, a prisoner of the Nazis who spend a long time in solitary confinement during WWII, recounts a fairly similar experience:
If the reach of experience is suddenly confined, and we are left with only a little food for thought or feeling, we are apt to take the few objects that offer themselves and ask a whole catalogue of often absurd questions about them. Does it work? How? Who made it and of what? And, in parallel, when and where did I last see something like it and what else does it remind me of?…So we set in train a wonderful flow of combinations and associations in our minds, the length and complexity of which soon obscures its humble starting-point…. My bed, for example, could be measured and roughly classified with school beds or army beds…. When I had done with the bed, which was too simple to intrigue me long, I felt the blankets, estimated their warmth, examined the precise mechanics of the window, the discomfort of the toilet…computed the length and breadth, the orientation and elevation of the cell.
The very same ingenuity in finding mental challenges and setting goals is similar to the experiences recounted by other survivors of excruciating circumstances, from diplomats captured by terrorists to elderly imprisoned by Chinese.
Eva Zeisel, a prisoner in Moscow during Stalin’s reign preserved her sanity by trying to figure out how she could craft a bra out of materials at hand, playing chess against herself in her head, hold imaginary conversations in French, and memorizing poems she composed.
Albert Speer, Hitler’s cherished architect, maintained his tranquility in Spandau prison for months by pretending he was taking a walking trip from Berlin to Jerusalem along which he tried to imagine as many events and sights as possible.
When adversity strikes and it shatters our serenity, or when boredom sneaks in and feeds on our soul, we must find new ways in which to invest the psychic energy. Otherwise, our chaotic minds will become our living hell.
Even if we might be objectively slave, subjectively we can be free.
Richard Logan provides further insights into what other elements constitutes an autotelic personality based on the writings of many survivors, including those of Viktor Frankel and Bruno Bettelheim. He concludes:
Most important trait of survivors is a “nonself-conscious individualism,” or a strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking. People who have that quality are bent on doing their best in all circumstances, yet they are not concerned primarily with advancing their own interests. Because they are intrinsically motivated in their actions, they are not easily disturbed by external threats. With enough psychic energy free to observe and analyze their surroundings objectively, they have a better chance of discovering in them new opportunities for action
So far we can conclude that a key factor for cultivating an autotelic personality is to be free of excessive self-consciousness and individualism. This is how Bertrand Russel, one of the greatest philosophers of our century, describes his path to achieving personal happiness:
Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.”
Around the concept of flow, the bottom line for me is that I must learn how to create flow in every situation. Whether it is walking around the block, being stuck in traffic, it is up to me to take charge and give structure to my thoughts.
And now thanks to the framework of flow, I know how to establish order in my mind an enjoy the moment, regardless of the situation or circumstances.
- Entering the flow requires three elements: clear goals, having feedback on the progress towards that goal, and the challenge of reaching the goal must exceed our skills to keep us hooked.
- We can achieve flow in EVERY situation if we take charge of our attention and using the framework of flow, give structure to our mind in the given circumstance.
- Autotelic people can easily achieve flow even in dreadful situations like Nazis concentration camps.
- Three groups of people have a hard time to cultivate an autotelic personality: Schizophrenics, overself-consciousness people (who are obsessed with the opinions of others about them) and self-centered people.