Developing an Autotelic Personality, or, How to Enjoy Everything

Imagine deriving the utmost enjoyment and pleasure out of nearly every aspect of your life.  Listening to music, doing dishes, talking to a friend, cooking a meal, or doing errands--what if you looked forward to all of these activities equally? In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes a type of person with an "autotelic" personality.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, "The term "autotelic" derives from two Greek words, auto, meaning self, and telos meaning goal.  It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward." 

Engaging in autotelic activities is what many people describe as "flow."  Think back to a time you were doing something you loved and really got wrapped up in the project.  You probably lost sense of time and you felt challenged, yet capable, of handling whatever you faced.  This is the making of an autotelic experience and the more of these occurrences we can have, the greater enjoyment we can get out of life.


Some activities are conducive to entering this flow state.  For example, athletes and surgeons both report high levels of autotelic experiences while they partake in their professions.  The true test of an autotelic personality, however, is being able to enter that state of flow even while doing things that many people consider boring.  A person with an autotelic personality can take something as mundane as mowing the lawn and turn it into an opportunity for growth.  Therefore, the argument that developing an autotelic personality will directly impact your quality of life is quite easy to make.  Deriving true enjoyment out of every aspect of is the key to separating the quality of our lives from external (and therefore uncontrollable) forces.

Becoming somebody with an autotelic personality is not something that can be done overnight.  It must be actively practiced until it becomes part of your personality.  The rules are very simple and can be broken down as follows:

  1. Setting goals: To experience flow you have to have clear goals to strive for. This includes massive lifelong goals to something as small as figuring out what to do this afternoon. An autotelic personality can make these decisions with a minimum of extra effort which allows her to focus energy on attaining that goal.

  2. Becoming immersed in the activity: An autotelic personality will give all of his or her attention directly to the task at hand. Being in control of your own attention is one of the most powerful skills a person can develop. A wandering or constantly distracted mind is a the mercy of every passing stimulus and therefore attention is spread and diluted.

  3. Learning to enjoy immediate experience: Our bodies and minds have incredible capabilities of enjoyment. Gaining control of your mind opens an individual to experience almost anything and derive joy. Every taste, smell, sound, thought, and observation can be the anchor of immediate enjoyment if we take the time, focus, and effort to experience it.

We all have amazing capabilities to control our level of enjoyment in everything we do.  Practicing the steps to developing an autotelic personality is a very concrete way to improve the quality of your own life. As Csikszentmihalyi writes, "Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment." 

What can you do today to derive enjoyment in your life? 

Want to learn more about flow? Robert Wall of Untitled Minimalism interviewed me for his podcast and we spent most of the time talking about flow. Check it out here.