Csikszentmihalyi on autotelic work and the conditions that create “flow”

There’s an oft-cited quote in the Bhagavad Gita[1] that explains the role of work in a person’s life. Loosely translated, it states that one should “perform work in this world without selfish attachments [desire for money, fame etc.], and alike in success and defeat.” In other words, when performed with attention and without regard for consequences, the act of working becomes the most elevated state of living.

Now, centuries later, author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, backed by several decades of research, presents a more approachable version of unattached action: autotelic work. In Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Csikszentmihalyi shows how autotelic work affects our sense of accomplishment and well-being, and serves a crucial role in determining one’s satisfaction with life.


Here’s how Csikszentmihalyi explains autotelic work:

It [autotelic work] 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. Playing the stock market in order to make money is not an autotelic experience; but playing it order to prove one’s skill at foretelling future trends is – even though the outcomes in terms of dollars and cents is exactly the same. Teaching children in order to turn them into good citizens is not autotelic, whereas teaching them because one enjoys interacting with children is. What transpires in the two situations is ostensibly identical; what differs is that when the experience is autotelic, the person is paying attention to the activity for it’s own sake; when it is not, the attention is focussed on its consequences.

Central to the idea of autotelic experience is an elevated state of mind Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” one where “unusual investments of attention” are directed to the task at hand, generating the kind of experience we associate with “losing all sense of time” or “being lost in our work.”

This dependence, of enjoyment on attention, hints at a possible reason for the discontent that pervades contemporary society – a distracted, hyper-connected, productivity-obsessed organism that heeds every impulse, dissipates its limited stores of personal attention, and in the end, achieves little. The solution to the problem is ridiculously simple: just pay attention.

We know from personal experience, that we show higher levels of interest and attention for some activities more than others. Can we learn something from these experiences that could be applied to other areas of our lives? It turns out there is. Csikszentmihalyi’s research has uncovered a few conditions that increase the likelihood of focus. It’s not necessary that we experience all of them, but at least one of these conditions was found in every reported case of “flow”:

First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing [have some skills]. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered: hours pass by in minutes and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.
We rarely know why an experience was enjoyable. Mostly, we attribute it to factors outside our control. Csikszentmihalyi’s research suggests the opposite – that how we experience an activity is completely within our control. And this realization can help us gauge, calibrate, and tune our experiences, and with it, the ability, in the right kind of way, to “go with the flow.”

Footnotes and References

[1] Bhagavad Gita verse 2-47