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The Science of Being in the Flow

By Tanja Taljaard on Monday February 8th, 2016

The power of cultivating an 'Autotelic' personality

Can you recall doing something in which you were so completely immersed that hours flew
by unnoticed? So connected in the action you performed that it became a goal in itself,
effortless, and left you feeling deeply and completely satisfied?
People with autotelic personalities experience this regularly.
To a degree, we all perform duties and activities that arent intrinsically enjoyable. What
distinguishes people with autotelic personalities, are that they find pleasure and value in
almost everything they do as opposed to people who seldom feel that what they do is worth
doing for its own sake.
The word autotelic means having a purpose in and not apart from itself.
This is the real secret of life to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here
and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play. Alan Wilson Watts

Children naturally enjoy being present in the moment

Are you an Autotelic person?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist, has done years of research and writing
on happiness and creativity, and describes an autotelic person to be internally driven, curious
and purposeful. Recognition, riches or comfort are not motivating factors in their external
An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power,
or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons
experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when
alone with nothing to do, they are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others
motivated to go on with a life composed of routines. They are more autonomous and
independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the
outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they
are fully immersed in the current of life. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi developed the psychological concept of Flow, a highly focused mental state.
He discovered that people find genuine satisfaction in this state. They are entirely absorbed in
an activity, especially one that involves their creative abilities. During this optimal experience
they feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their

Artists are often immersed in the current moment

Without Flow there is no Creativity

People with autotelic personalities tend to have a greater preference for challenging
opportunities, and learning skills that stimulates them and encourage development. They are
also willing to go through an initial stage of activation that overloads the brain with
information or taxes the body with new challenges.
He says that most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one
is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the persons skills,
it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding. Most people never push this first stage far
enough, notes Steven Kotler, which is why they constantly miss the doorway to the flow
Autotelic individuals are more creative and innovative. Without flow, there is no creativity,
says Csikszentmihalyi. People most likely to experience flow are those who have a complex
personality, and have mastered both differentiation and integration. Differentiation involves
developing unique skills, and becoming autonomous and different from others. Integration is
the union with other people, ideas and the world in general.

Autotelic individuals are masters of integration

The five Cs of an autotelic person:

Clarity: clear realisation of goals knowing what you want to do as you go through
the everyday activities of life
Center: focussed and at one with what you are doing, able to recognise and diminish
Choice: of all the possible choices of action to be taken, which among them proceeds
to Flow
Commitment: the ability to deeply care about, and commit to the activities you do.
Challenge: setting of higher goals for yourself as you master your current skill level

Can we cultivate Autotelism or Flow?

Csikszentmihalyi insists that happiness does not simply happen. It can be prepared for and
cultivated by learning to achieve flow in our lives. The key aspect to flow is control: in the
flow-like state, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than
allowing ourselves to be passively steered by external forces.

Musicians often experience a flow-like state of consciousness

Are there activities that are more likely to create Flow?

Autotelic activities can be as diverse as playing a musical instrument, weaving,
mountaineering, martial arts, yoga or sports. Flow tends to occur more often at work than in a
leisurely setting.
Activities that create Flow have specific properties:

There are clear goals every step of the way.

There is immediate feedback to ones actions (one knows whether one is doing the
activity appropriately or not)
There is a balance between challenges and skills (too difficult for the persons skill
creates anxiety, and not difficult is enough creates boredom)
Action and awareness are merged.
Distractions are excluded from consciousness (the removal of the interference of the
thinking mind)
There is no worry of failure.
Self-consciousness disappears.
The sense of time becomes distorted.
The activity becomes an end in itself.

(Also read our Uplift article Understanding how our brains learn)

Learning to be both engaged and carefree at the same time

Maintaining order in the Universe

The Buddhists have a good piece of advice: Act always as if the future of the universe
depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do
makes any difference.
It is this serious playfulness, a combination of concern and humility, which makes it possible
to be both engaged and carefree at the same time. One does not need to win to feel content
helping to maintain order in the universe becomes its own reward, regardless of the
consequences. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi