Image by Frederik Vercruysse
There are two reasons why we do things in life. The first is to achieve an outcome - we work to acquire money, we exercise to stay healthy, we teach our children so that they can have a better life. However, the second are those activities that we pursue for their own sake and not in order to achieve another outcome.
Shifting the focus of our actions away from ultimate goals and back onto the activities themselves, being fully engaged in their process, has a profound effect on how we begin to feel about these activities. Adopting a non-judgmental curiosity about process anchors us in what we are doing and gives the activity an entirely new purpose. And this purpose, freed from any potential outcomes, becomes rewarding in itself.
Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly wrote about this experience in his book titled Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. More than four decades of rigorous research have led to the realisation that what makes experiences truly enjoyable is a state of complete absorption in the activity. A state where time passes without awareness and nothing in the world exists but the activity we are engaged in. Csikszentmihaly called this state of complete immersion 'flow' because the people he studied would explain that when they were immersed in a task and entered into this deep level of concentration, the work just flowed out of them without requiring any effort on their part.
But not only is engaging in activities for their own sake incredibly rewarding, it also has an extraordinary side effect. Cultivating this attitude creates a kind of positive spiral whereby we want to do more of the activities we enjoy, which in turn means that we master them more readily. And once we learn to do what we do for its own sake rather than in hope of achieving something else, it starts to fundamentally change how we relate to the world around us, and indeed how the world relates to us.
Being around someone who is fully engaged in the activities they do, with no concern for praise or reward is infectious. People who are able to dedicate their full attention to what they are doing, becoming completely immersed in it so that nothing in the world exists but them and the task at hand, create a desire in the rest of us to want to do what they are doing. Making the activity appear so effortless and yet so rewarding allows observers to be inspired by the joy in the process, regardless of the outcome.
Csikszentmihalyi describes people who regularly pursue activities for their own sake as autotelic. He highlights all of the benefits of cultivating this approach to what we do and how we related to the world:
"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."
Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
To extract joy and reward from those activities of daily life often overlooked by others, to find meaning and significance in what we do, and to do them, not because we want to achieve something else but because doing them is a pleasure valued in its own right. To achieve this deeply intrinsic state of well-being must surely be one of the ultimate goals for a life well lived.
People who pursue activities out of passion are inspiring. But those people who find a way of retaining this passion throughout their entire life become fascinating. The video shared below has been a source of inspiration for a long time. The subtle yet powerful way in which these artisans describe the joy they get from their craft, perfectly elucidates the state Csikszentmihalyi calls flow and is beautiful to witness.