On the wisdom of atelic activities

I had a lightbulb moment this week while listening to a conversation with MIT professor Kieran Setiya. I became reacquainted with the terms telic (pronounced tea-lick) and atelic, which helped capture some of my feelings about work and life in a way I had previously struggled to put into words.

Stemming from the Greek word “telos,” which refers to an end or a goal, these terms serve as gentle reminders to question the actions we engage in every day and the kind of satisfaction we derive from them.

Telic activities, as you’ve probably gathered by now, are goal-oriented and have a clear outcome or objective to work towards. We find these deeply embedded in our modern society in a way that overemphasizes their importance. Whether it's pursuing a degree or working towards a promotion, these types of activities are pervasive and often put on a pedestal.

While goals can provide a sense of direction, they can easily spiral into a relentless and never-ending pursuit, leaving us feeling like there’s always “something missing,” a void that feels impossible to fill.

Ironically, both failure and success in achieving goals can ultimately feel like failure. You reach a coveted milestone, only to realize that the joy is fleeting, the satisfaction momentary. Soon enough, that achievement becomes a thing of the past, leaving you with an unsettling sense of emptiness and the desire for more. Left unchecked and unexamined, we can find ourselves stuck on the notorious hedonic treadmill, running tirelessly yet somehow remaining in the same spot.

It doesn’t have to be like that though. Atelic activities offer a much-needed counterbalance. These are activities that we engage in for the sheer joy and contentment they bring, not contingent on a final outcome. Reading a captivating book, engaging in meaningful conversations, or enjoying a beautiful day at the beach are all good examples. These activities offer an intrinsic enjoyment that doesn’t diminish over time.

Living a good life, Setiya argues, is an atelic pursuit. It's about cherishing the present and enjoying the process without being overly concerned about the future. It's an affirmation that living well is simultaneous with having lived well, with no strings of regret or longing attached.

Happiness research suggests that life satisfaction follows a U-curve. Happiness is high in the early adulthood of our 20s, declines in our 30s through mid-life, and then rises again the older we get. I don’t think that’s a coincidence—younger and older people have a knack for understanding the importance of atelic activities, whether by chance or experience, and make time for them in their lives.

To be clear, it’s not about choosing one type of activity over the other but rather about finding the right balance. It's not about dismissing goals but fostering a mindset where we can enjoy the journey towards the destination. This approach offers a richer and more nuanced view of life, where fulfillment is not solely tied to achievements but also encompasses the simple, ongoing pleasures of everyday life.

During my sabbatical, I’ve started embracing more atelic activities in my weekly routine, like reading, writing, meditating, and nurturing relationships with loved ones. This shift has been necessary, given my previous emphasis on goal-oriented activities which, albeit rewarding in some ways, left me feeling trapped in a cycle of constant pursuit.

Meditation in particular is a crucial practice for me. It encourages being present in the moment and savoring simple, ongoing activities like breathing, sitting, or listening to natural sounds. It's a reminder to pause, to appreciate the mundane yet profound moments that life offers us.

As I continue on this path, I encourage you to explore the balance of activities in your life. It’s an invitation to reassess our priorities and carve out space for a range of activities that help us grow, nurture us, and fill our lives with a sense of meaning and contentment that's both enduring and enriching. After all, isn't that what living well is all about?