Autotelic Aspirations

Growing up, I always understood the difference between what we might call hedonism and joy, or fun and gratification. These nuances on a theme define how we each engage in the pursuit of happiness. Genetics plays a likely role in one’s preferences for selecting a hedonistically pleasurable experience over one absent any obvious elements of indulgence, and research in the field of positive psychology suggests that individuals who find it easy to “get into the zone” demonstrate a preference for the latter.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist, coined the term flow to describe the sort of single-minded zoned-in immersion that leads to gratification, joy, and even states of ecstasy in the immersed. He hypothesizes that people with specific personality traits may be in a sense “flow-ready.” These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a preference for taking on activities for intrinsic reasons alone. Called autotelic personalities, a disposition toward high-action-opportunity, high-skills situations leads to growth, learning, and even transformation in these individuals, all through the mechanism of flow.

As the neuroscience literature increasingly reports, personality is malleable, and thus adaptations of habitual thought and behavior can occur through intervention and help people shift toward a preference for flow experiences.

I would argue that the goal of modern free society is to build institutions and organizations that promote targeted exploration and conscious learning such that the end result is the collective realization among people of their unique means for achieving flow. Whether this be through mathematics, engineering, and computer science, or literature, music, and art, civilization benefits when more people discover their path to realizing their potential, and apply their energies in the service of others. I believe that the best and most successful organizations understand this, whether consciously or unconsciously, and seek to optimize physical and virtual environments in order to cultivate states of flow in those engaged in the organization’s work.