How “Flow” and the Autotelic Personality Can Make You Happier and Healthier

Matthew Dickson
4 min readOct 15, 2021

What is the definition of “flow”? Flow is that feeling when you’re doing something and time seems to fly by. We’ve all had it at times. Jazz musicians say they get it when they are improvising. Race car drivers sometimes report being “in the zone”, where all of a sudden a “tunnel” appeared and they knew exactly what path to take, like they were on autopilot.

Being in a state of flow can be very beneficial to you and your health. Sometimes people ask, “When you are in a state of flow, are you happier?” As it turns out, when you are in a state of flow, you are not overly concerned with how you’re feeling. Yes, you are obviously experiencing a good feeling, but mostly your thoughts are focused on the task at hand.

The definition of flow includes more casual terms such as: on fire, in the zone, in the moment, centered, wired in, on the ball, in the groove, in tune, or present.

In my opinion, the best case for why flow should be in your life more than it is was given by Martin Seligman in his TED Talk called “The New Era of Positive Psychology”. As a bit of background, positive psychology was developed in the 1990s by Martin Seligman. Up until then, scientists had only studied how to make sick people less sick. They had never studied how to make healthy people more healthy. Thus, positive psychology was born.

Martin Seligman makes a case for two big things that can dramatically make our lives more enjoyable: 1) being in a state of flow more often and 2) philanthropy. Philanthropy is another entire conversation, but basically, helping others makes us much more satisfied with our lives. I’ll stick to flow in this article.

(By the way, his TED Talk is a major driver of what I try to do in my life. It really had an effect on me and I keep coming back to it when I am trying to realize my life’s ambitions. I highly recommend you watch it. It really helped me focus my life on helping other people.)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the best person to teach you about flow. Try reading his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”.

The 10 Factors That Make up the Definition of Flow

The definition of flow, as according to Csikszentmihalyi, includes the following ten factors:

1. Clear goals

2. Concentrating

3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness

4. Distorted sense of time

5. Direct and immediate feedback

6. Balance between ability level and challenge

7. A sense of personal control

8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding

9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs

10. Absorption into the activity

Note that you don’t need to experience all of these in order to be in flow.

The Definition of Flow in the “Autotelic Personality”

Csikszentmihalyi describes someone who is able to be in a state of flow more of the time as an “autotelic personality”. This is something I strive for in my life.

Csikszentmihalyi also describes the autotelic personality as someone who “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 “fully immersed in the current of life”.

Flow can dramatically cut down on the time you spend stressed out. An autotelic personality may not cut out all the stress from your life, but it definitely is something to shoot for.

Think of how many minutes you spent today in an unhappy mood, whether it was stress or sadness or anxiety. Count up all those minutes. What about yesterday? How many minutes could you add up in similar states?

Now think if you added up all those minutes for your unhappy states for the entire year. How many minutes would you have? How many hours would those equal? How many days would those equal? How many weeks would those equal?

Those are hours, days or weeks of your life that you will never get back. Spent in misery. They have become your history. Unable to be changed. They have become part of your life story.

I know we can’t always be in a good state, but wouldn’t it be nice to have more happy times? More times of flow?

Try to work more flow into your life. See if you can be that autotelic personality!



Matthew Dickson

Advocate for people with mental illness in developing countries at Bicycled across Canada twice, books, nature, fitness, learning, dancing!