The Pursuit of Life

There are many grand theories about the altruistic nature of humans and the fundamental pursuit of life is to create positive change for the greater good of humanity, but belief has many glaring holes. Most notably, the millions and millions of people around the world who are all actively working in the opposite direction; those who pursue violence, destruction, greed and inflicting emotional distress on those around them.

If the pursuit of life is to do good, then how and why is the world being constantly torn apart by those actively taking the world in the opposite direction? They would have to violate their basic biological programming to do so, which doesn’t have a plausible foundation.

The pursuit of life, instead, is something far simpler. It’s not some grandiose vision of a humanitarian utopia or working to lift the poor and sick from their misery. It is simply, the pursuit of an optimum experience.

In any moment, every person on this planet is attempting to pursue an optimum experience. They’re attempting to, in this very specific second, given the challenges, issues, and beliefs about their skills and the world in which they operate, enjoy an engaging, rewarding, and fulfilling experience.

They’re attempting to pursue this optimum experience when they wake up, while they eat lunch, when they choose a seat on the bus, when they buy a house, in the moment before they speak up in their meeting, and in every second in between.

What is an optimum experience?

An optimum experience is a

Is an optimum experience the same as Flow?

The concept of an optimum experience was first developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in his groundbreaking work on Flow.

While Flow and optimum experience are similar, they are also different.

Flow is the peak of optimum experience, where the individual is fully engaged in the activity, the world around them melts into the background, and time distorts. But an optimum experience doesn’t have to achieve this level to be rewarding.

A person can have a wonderful conversation with a close friend at a cafe while still being interrupted by the passing traffic and the conversations of those around them. A person can thoroughly enjoy participating in a sporting game without needing to lose their awareness of their fellow teammates and the crowd around them.

People can have optimum experiences without a full descent into a state of Flow and so while Flow does represent the pinnacle of optimum experience, it is not necessary and so they are not the same thing.

What is an ‘intrinsically significant’ task?

How does a task, goal, or activity become intrinsically significant?

How does a person create an optimum experience?

There is a basic formula for creating an optimum experience: an intrinsically rewarding goal pursued at a challenging but achievable level.

Why do people want an optimum experience?

There are many ways to justify the pursuit of an optimum experience, and I’m sure you could get different answers from all the different major (and minor) psychological schools of thought — from evolutionary psychologists who could come up with something about us not getting kicked out of a cave to the psychoanalytic crowd saying something about my relationship with my mother — but the truth is much simpler: it feels nice. Or more specifically, not achieving an optimum experience feels bad.

As mentioned previous, an optimum experience is achieved when the individual pursues an intrinsically significant goal at a challenging but achievable level. But, when these elements fall out of alignment, the individual experience moves away from an optimum experience to a less desirable experience.

When skill exceeds challenge

In the pursuit of an intrinsically significant goal, there are moments where the individual will perceive that they have the skills to easily overcome the challenge. In these moments, they will experience boredom. They will cease to be engaged by the activity, their mind will wander, and they will experience boredom.

When challenge exceeds skill

When an individual perceives that the challenge of an intrinsically significant task is greater than their perceived skill level, they will feel overwhelmed by the challenge, lose confidence in their ability to achieve their goal, and experience anxiety.

When the goal is not intrinsically significant

When an individual is forced, either through some personal obligation (such as parental direction) or through some legal structure (the education system) to pursue a goal that is not intrinsically significant, they become distracted, defiant, and disengaged.

Challenge and Skill

The pursuit of an intrinsically significant goal at a challenging but achievable level contains specific subtleties that need to be addressed.

Actual challenge and skill vs perceived challenge and skill

Is it important to achieve an exact balance of challenge and skill?

No. A person’s experience of an activity isn’t rigidly confined to strict categories of experience. An activity is not either enjoyable or boring. Personal experience of an activity exists on a continuum and so it is not necessary for an activity to exactly meet the requirement of ‘a challenging but achievable level’.

Instead, there is a zone in which the perceived challenge and perceived skill of an intrinsically significant task must fall. This zone is called the Zone of Optimum Experience and it allows wiggle room for the balance of challenge and skill to fluctuate throughout the course of the activity.

Optimum Experience: Present vs Future

A person’s experience of life isn’t just rooted in their present moment activities and desires. The human brain can not only project into the future and anticipate the challenges and issues that we may face, but is also able to determine if we possess the skills and abilities necessary to create this future.

This means that our ability to achieve an optimum experience is also heavily influenced by perception of our future because the rules for achieving an optimum experience hold true for not only activities in the present moment, but also for our perception of our future.

If a person perceives that they have the skills and abilities to overcome all future challenges, they will experience boredom.

If a person perceives that they do not have the skills and abilities to overcome future challenges, they will experience anxiety.