If you’ve read my last article you’ve hopefully made a list of activities in your life that give you a sense of flow. Just as a reminder, these activities should be challenging with clear goals and feedback. They should involve a great deal of concentration. Finally, you should lose any sense of self-consciousness and time. Maybe you found playing hockey, poker, guitar, fishing, dancing or some other activity provides you with these sensations.
Now it would certainly be great to do your favourite activity all day every day. However, most of us have non-flow jobs and responsibilities. In this article, I’m going to explain how one can experience the flow state as an everyday occurrence in their lives no matter what your present circumstances may be.
The Autotelic Personality
Firstly, you might already have a natural tendency towards the flow. It should be noted that to experience flow is to order one’s consciousness. Our consciousness can become quite disordered, especially in moments of solitude. Those Sunday mornings plague us with anxiety as we confront boredom and, subsequently, our own thoughts. So we turn to Instagram or Twitter to fill our consciousness with the thoughts of others.
However one who experiences flow deliberately exercises their attention on flow activities to a constant degree. As Csikszentmihalyi calls it, those with an autotelic personality (“autotelic” meaning having an end or purpose to itself) have the urge to challenge their mind at every turn, cracking open a book, tuning their guitar, and starting conversations on the subway rather than staring at their screens. Certainly you know someone like this.
Who Has An Autotelic Personality?
There is a genetic advantage some people do in fact have in their ability to deliberately focus their attention on activities that they find most interesting instead of easiest to perform. The reversal of this, to an extreme degree, would be schizophrenics. They attend indiscriminately to everything and are hence excluded from any sense of enjoyment. To a lesser extent are those with attentional disorders, creating a life guided by instinct.
Interestingly, there is also a large role played by the families. Families that provide clear feedback for what they expect of their kids, act interested in their child’s pursuits, give their kids a sense of autonomy, give the child a sense of trust and provide them with complex opportunities generally shapes the autotelic personality.
Finally, it should be said that the ‘people of flow’ or those with autotelic personalities aren’t people who get to fish or play soccer or paint all day. Instead, these people are able to find enjoyment in situations that would be entirely unbearable for the average human being.
Cskiszentmihalyi gives a great many examples of men and women who were imprisoned in concentration camps, lost in harsh environments, or lived through repressive totalitarian regimes and found ways to give life meaning. Each of them did three thing:
- They paid intimate attention to the details of their surroundings and found within them hidden opportunities for action.
- They set goals appropriate for their situation and closely monitored progress through feedback.
- Whenever they reached their goal they would set another complex challenge for themselves.
One such example is that of Tollas Tibor who was imprisoned during the repressive Hungarian Communist rule. Him and his fellow prison-mates would stage great and increasingly complex poetry translation contests using a film of soap on the soles of their shoes and a toothpick to carve the letters. Here, one sees the significance of holding onto art even in the most dire of situations.
How To Develop The Autotelic Personality
Of course, even if one hasn’t won the familial or genetic lottery, you can still develop a drive towards fulfilling and meaningful action. This will take a great deal of work but is, as you can tell by now, completely worth the effort. Although not listed explicitly by Csikszentmihalyi, I’ve compiled a list of methods in developing the autotelic personality that coincide with many of the points in his book
Learn to be alone
The first trait that autotelic people have is their ability to order their consciousness in the most disordered of times: when they’re alone. For many, keeping order in your mind becomes quite difficult when you become the sole subject of your thoughts and behaviours. Here, Csikszentmihalyi speaks about the power of television. Nowadays we can replace television with social media just as easily.
“The screen invites attention to itself as a manageable, restricted aspect of the environment. While interacting with television, the mind is protected from personal worries…of course, avoiding depression this way is rather spendthrift because one expends a great deal of attention without having much to show for it afterward”. (169)
Coping with ones solitude may also amplify to drug and alcohol usage. Whether how scary it is I would suggest tracking your time spent on social media. Additionally, try meditation and write out your thoughts at the beginning and end of your day. And remember, by constantly filling your head with the opinions of others, how are you to ever truly discover yourself?
The person who strives for flow seeks to increase the complexity of their self through appropriate challenges. However, we live in an age of increasing choice for these challenges and yet fail to see anything liberating emerging out of this fact. As Kierkegaard wrote “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. Hence, choosing a worthwhile activity requires a great deal of mental energy and deliberation nowadays.
With so much offered by the internet, such as the chance to learn a language, learn an instrument, and study philosophy, and so on it’s quite interesting that we all gravitate towards very basic, unfulfilling social media platforms. They cure our dizziness by providing us with cheap-and-easy timekillers. This allows us to enter a sort of flow purgatory where we experience the immediate benefits without changing as people.
I would propose that for a day one should ask themselves at every activity why they are doing it. Why are you on Instagram in relation to your life? The justification may be difficult but hopefully it goes beyond “I’m lazy”. What are you really getting out of Instagram?
Compare this with certain flow activities such as cooking or reading. Ask again, why you are spending time pursuing these activities when there exists take-out and television. Chances are that you’ll arrive at an autotelic response, that the reason why you cook and read is justified in the act itself. It’s fulfilling.
Learn to cope with stress
Of course, you can’d do fulfilling activities 24/7. The flow is great and all but how do you apply it to work deadlines and financial burdens? Think of the power of transforming hopeless and awful situations into flow activities! But how?
Use self-conscious assurance
Try to see yourself as part of the environment. In doing so, you accept a great more deal of things than you would if you were going through your day regularly. Instead of a you-vs-them attitude, use an all-together approach. One example is that of the pilot who has confidence in their ability to cope with whatever conditions. This is not because they force their plane to obey their will but rather because “she will be the instrument for matching the properties of the plane to the conditions of the air” (204).
2. Focus your attention on the world
“People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves”. Even though your attention is fully set on your goal, you understand that this requires full attention to your environment and, thus, you can’t start giving into personal fears or anxieties if you wish to remain responsive. As well, this promotes your self-conscious assurance, unifying you with your environment
3. Try to actively discover new solutions
By focusing on the entire situation, you may actually find room for growth. In fact, one only has to turn to stories of near-death experiences in order to see that stressful experiences can allow a person to reframe their life and thus readjust their goals and attitudes towards it. We become so robotic in our ways that we ignore the option of choosing anything other course of action (207). Sometimes we just need that shake-up.
Learn to enjoy the immediate experience
By coping with stress as an enjoyable challenging activity, searching for a why, and learning to live with yourself one may finally be able to gain that flow experience. Hence, this last one is less of an instruction and more of destination. However, one does not need to to do the former in order to arrive at the latter.
After all, as Czisentmihayli states “Feeling a breeze on a hot day, seeing a cloud reflected on the glass facade of a high-rise, working on a business deal, watching a child play with a puppy, drinking a glass of water can all be felt as deeply satisfying experiences that enrich ones life” (213).
In enjoying these experiences, one brings order to their conscious. They see the world as is and accept its beautiful flaws. This is far from the hedonistic character implied in ‘enjoying the immediate experience’. Rather, it requires great deal of discipline and attention that stretches your capacities and makes you more than who you once were. In doing so, you create order in experience and, hopefully, your life itself. Good luck!