Atelic Activities

Doing things for the sake of doing them.

The philosopher Kieran Setiya introduces the notion of atelic activities as an antidote to Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view of the world. Without diving too deep into where these views are derived from, let’s have a more practical look at what our human lives are constituted of.

Our lives consist of many moments. A moment is the present we live in. As our lives are an accumulation of moments, our decision on how we spend a particular moment impacts how we live our lives. When we make a decision on how to spend a particular moment, we are, in essence, deciding between activities we can possibly engage in. An activity can be doing some work, taking time to rest, reading a book, meeting a friend, or cooking dinner. Everything we do is an activity that determines how we spend a given moment that determines how we spend our lives.

You can group any activity into one of two groups: Atelic and telic activities.

Telic activities, derived from the Greek word for purpose, telos, are activities aimed at a terminal state. A state by which the activity is completed.

Atelic activities, in contrast, are activities done for their own sake, not to achieve a particular end.

Most of our moments in life are spent on telic activities. We always are doing something to get to the next thing.

We are attaining a bachelor’s degree to get a good job.
We are cooking dinner to feed our family.
We are finishing that project to get a raise.

Purely spending your moments on telic activities, however, is a path to misery. It’s important for us to do things for their own sake. It’s important for us to engage in atelic activities.

Going for a hike just for the sake of going for a hike.
Paining a picture just for the sake of painting.
Having a conversation with a friend just to have a conversation with a friend.

It’s important to accommodate atelic activities in our lives because those are the activities in which we find most joy and fulfillment.