In most self-development interventions, the term “optimal functioning” is used. But what does that actually mean? Can a human function optimally, and based on what criteria? Is it your own perception, or against a list of benchmarks? Let’s unpack this.
The term optimal functioning is about flourishing and realising your potential. Researchers have identified four quadrants that make up functioning: autonomy, social relations, meaning and personal growth. You may be surprised that words like performance, productivity, efficiency, goal orientation and perseverance are not included. I was! However, optimal functioning is a subjective self-identified thing with the emphasis on creating and executing plans that lead to fulfilment of our needs and goals. Optimal functioning is not a concrete outcome, but a self-perceived evaluation.
Let’s clarify what each of these four quadrants of happiness and optimal functioning means
- Autonomy refers to the combination of power and choice to what you endorse in life.
- Social relations are what makes humans thrive. We need to be engaged and be accepted by others to function. Social connections contribute immensely to our wellbeing.
- Meaning is a more complex component and its crux is about understanding the purpose of our tasks and activities.
- The fourth quadrant is personal growth. Although many people strive to develop themselves, few understand that growth is about the cognitive structure of being flexible in the unknown and adapting to change. A pleasant mind is easily distracted whereas an engaged mind keeps focusing on the current goal needed to enhance personal growth.
The common perception is that optimal functioning is synonymous with feeling good, but that is not the case. Optimal functioning means deliberate practising of tasks, skills and knowledge to stimulate personal growth. Enjoyment contributes very little to the process of attaining optimal functioning. Enhancing your proficiency requires extra focus and consistent time on the task. This is why optimal functioning is unrelated to pleasure or satisfaction with the task. The phrase “no pain, no gain” summarises this point.
Furthermore, not all functioning is automatically optimal. One main component that makes it un-optimal is if we compare ourselves to others and then stop growing as we see the process as too difficult or unattainable.
The last point I wish to discuss is how to grow and develop your optimal functioning. Firstly, everybody has a different zone of arousal versus performance. You need to identify for yourself what the sweet spot is that does not cause you anxiety or boredom. It will differ from person to person based on your readiness, emotional state and current competencies.
Step 1: Identify your optimal functioning zone.
Step 2: Focus on what gives you autonomy, meaning and personal mastery in your life. Is there any room upwards? I am sure there is. What would that mean for you practically?
Step 3: Optimal functioning means balancing and attending to all your life domains at the same time. It does not mean a trade-off of optimising the one at the expense of another i.e. work for relationship. Bring in all of your life domains.