Ever wondered what the secret to truly enjoying life is? According to renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the keys is to cultivate what he calls an autotelic personality.
The word autotelic is derived from two Greek words: auto, meaning ‘self’, and telic, meaning ‘goal’.
Autotelic people don’t do things for specific end results, awards or recognition. They do things for the sheer enjoyment of doing them. The goal isn’t the destination, it’s the journey, which is its own reward.
As Csikszentmihalyi explains:
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. 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.
Autotelic people tend to be creative, free-spirited and self-motivated. But that doesn’t mean they’re in any way disconnected from the world around them.
On the contrary, Csikszentmihalyi says, “they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.”
A mindset that changes everything
If we’re capable of finding enjoyment in each moment we don’t have to search for or chase after happiness.
It’s already there!
What we do is then no longer a means of achieving happiness, but an expression of our happiness.
This doesn’t imply some kind of narcissistic hedonism. To be autotelic isn’t simply to do what we want all the time. That’s not possible anyway. We all have obligations, duties and responsibilities in life. The key isn’t trying to avoid these things, but changing the way we approach them.
Autotelic people have the ability to find enjoyment in the simplest and most mundane of things.
In fact, to the autotelic, there’s no such thing as mundane.
Every moment is fresh and alive, and if we pay attention to what’s happening around us, we become less concerned with ourselves and more engaged in the present moment.
By adopting the autotelic mindset we can experience immense pleasure in the simplest of things.
Focused attention can make everything come alive!
Be here now
Want to be autotelic?
Then consider this —
Wherever you are right now is the most important place in the world.
Whoever you’re with is the most important person in the world.
And whatever you’re doing is the most important thing in the world.
We can’t truly find enjoyment in life until we bring our full attention to where we are.
By continually living in our head, we become disconnected from the flow of life — which is only ever found right here, in the present moment.
To be autotelic is to be a master of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is bringing our full attention to where we are and what we’re doing.
It means being PRESENT, alert and awake.
Countless studies have shown that by conditioning our mind to be present, we experience significantly greater levels of satisfaction, happiness, enjoyment and even higher self-esteem.
The power of focused attention
The key is learning to focus our attention.
To control one’s attention means to control one’s experience and therefore the quality of life.
We can’t enjoy life if we’re not even paying attention to life!
Most of the time our mental energy is channelled into what neuroscientists call the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN).
This manifest manifests as the endless stream of self-referential chatter that makes up our internal dialogue (ie., the voice that’s constantly droning away in our head about everything under the sun).
We get so consumed by this internal narrative that we completely lose touch with the tangible, objective world. We become lost in a subjective internal ‘reality’ and unable to appreciate life for what it actually is.
The key to taking back control of our mind is to focus our attention on the world around us.
When we invest attention in our environment — not for what it can do for us, but without expectation or demand — we immerse ourselves in the current of life. It’s not until we actually bring our attention to things that they come alive to us.
Csikszentmihalyi calls this the “flow” state, which is also the title of his highly influential book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which has made a lasting impact in the world of psychology.
Pleasure and enjoyment are not the same
Csikszentmihalyi makes an important distinction between pleasure and enjoyment.
It turns out there’s a difference between the two.
He defines pleasure as something passive, something in which we seek instant gratification with little effort on our part. A classic example is watching television or other forms of nonparticipatory entertainment. The pleasure is limited, time-bound and doesn’t contribute to the overall quality of our lives.
Enjoyment, on the other hand, brings more lasting satisfaction and comes from developing and using our skills and abilities and actively engaging with the world.
How to become autotelic in 3 easy steps
Here are three simple, practical ways to cultivate an autotelic mindset.
1. Bring your full attention to where you are and what you’re doing.
Immersion, or mindfulness, is bringing our full attention to whatever we’re doing.
Practised consistently, this has a profound effect on our lives.
No matter what we’re doing, by bringing our full attention to every action, we find even the most mundane of tasks — such as washing dishes, getting dressed, cooking or walking — can become portals to enjoyment.
Bypassing the tendency to get lost in our minds, we do whatever needs to be done with full presence rather than unconsciously chugging along on autopilot.
By immersing ourselves in the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures around us — and by really observing and experiencing life — we no longer need to chase after novelty and excitement in order to feel alive. We naturally feel alive in every moment.
2. Find out what you love — and do it.
The second key is to be willing to shake up our routine and start doing more of what we actually enjoy.
Obviously, there are many things we can’t get out of doing. I mean, try not brushing your teeth for a month and see how much enjoyment that will bring next time you’re at the dentist!
However, the key to a life well-lived is to realise that our time is finite.
If we’re not doing what we love doing now, then when will we?
Philosopher Alan Watts noted:
The most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.
Never forget that ‘later’ is promised to no one.
If you love writing, sculpting, hiking, bungee jumping, or knitting socks — get to it! By doing what we love, we begin to shine from the inside out. The world needs this light and it’s contagious.
Don’t know what you really love doing? Experiment! Do new things; things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Have fun by pushing the boat out, and seeing where the tide takes you.
3. Don’t make excuses.
Csikszentmihalyi suggests we transfer energy from tasks we don’t enjoy, or from things like passive leisure, to doing or finding activities we truly love and enjoy. It might be we need to build some skills or experiment with new ways of doing things.
Again, life is far too short not to be doing things we love.
He compels us not to make excuses as to why we can’t do this.
Time is often the number one excuse — specifically lack of it.
But even the busiest of us have the ability to streamline, prioritise and reorganise our routines to minimise the activities that fritter away our time and energy and increase the activities that leave us feeling passionate, energised, enthusiastic and alive.
“Make the time,” Csikszentmihalyi says, “or before we know it we’ll have none left.”
In his book, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life, Csikszentmihalyi quotes Hazel Henderson, who perfectly sums up how the autotelic sees life:
When I was five — you know, like when you just open your eyes and look around and say, “Wow, what an incredible trip this is! What the hell is going on? What am I supposed to be doing here?” I’ve had that question in me all my life. It makes every day very fresh…And then every morning you wake up and it’s like the dawn of creation.
This is clearly a wonderful way to approach life!
It’s also quite rare, because as we ‘grow up’ we tend to lose with the wonder and joy of simply being alive.
In conclusion, the key is to being autotelic is to master our attention and bring the fullness of that attention to everything that we do.
That, and engaging in the things we most enjoy — participative activities which cultivate skill and which challenge and inspire us.
We then find we’re no longer driven by results or external rewards, but we simply do things for the sheer love and enjoyment of doing them. That is the power of an autotelic personality, and it’s something you can learn to cultivate today!