Design for optimal engagement

With optimal engagement, I refer neither to the distraction of individuals via continued excitation of their various pleasurable organs, nor the authoritative control, manipulation and guidance of individuals from which only dependence on external suggestion and factitious experiences are attainable

What is Optimal Engagement

Optimal engagement can be described as a state in which a human has potential to reach a peak experiencethe most pleasurable, most wonderful, most ecstatic, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state a person can experience (Maslow, p. 163; McGonigal 2011, p.45). Such experiences have also been described as the creative experience, the esthetic experience, the lover experience, the insight experience, the orgasmic experience, & the mystic experience (Maslow, p. 163).

Nothing records the lived experience so completely, so graphically as the human body.

The human organism

It is essential to look into the composition of the human organism in order to understand the conditions necessary for optimal engagement.

A human organism is composed of 2 indissolluble integral entities: body and mind (Maslow, p.117 – 121; Maté, 2011 p. 1 – 12). The elements  of the mind – what we may think of as higher needs and capacities in the hierarchy of needs – are not obvious or easily seen; they are weak and not strong, equivocal not unequivocal, doubtful, uncertain, and conflicting, and are too easily ignored, influenced and inhibited by culture and by learning (Maslow, p. 117). They nonetheless exhibit their vitality under free conditions (Maslow, p. 118).

The 2 integral entities are equally important to the organism. In effect, the organism’s body is the collective experience of the 2 integral constituents and the best indicator yet of their healths.

While it takes different phenomenon for different people to have a peak experience, it is nonetheless described similarly. At least two conditions create the potential for peak experiences (Maslow, p. 163-164).

Conditions for Optimal Engagement 

1. An integration within the individual – body and mind – and thus between the individual and his environment. This occurs when an individual is facing either a great joy/creative moment or else a major threat/emergency (Maslow, p.13). For the immensely joyful or creative moments, integration also implies a number of innate human capacities (that surpass a struggle for mere survival) including a drive from within – intrinsic motivation, self expression – autonomy, and a striving for higher experience – mastery (McGonigal 2011, p. 28, 29, 42). It is paramount to pay attention to the joyful and creative moments as humanity has already eradicated threats posed by forces of nature (McDermott, p. 617).

2. A complete loss of fear, anxiety, inhibition, defense and control, delay and restraint and a giving up of renunciation. Integration of all dimensions inevitably removes any opposition among them resulting to the absence of fear in its various manifestations.

Conditions for optimal engagement
Conditions for optimal engagement: integration of body and mind

At optimal engagement

Integrated, and without fear, the individual

  • Is fully functioning, more spontaneous, more open to experience
  • All his capabilities are heightened and combine in their most efficient integration and coordination, organized and coordinated much more perfectly than usual that the individual acts like an animal; without doubt or hesitation, with energy yet effortlessly.
  • The individual can attempt things that would have otherwise seemed impossible and may later be surprised by his unsuspected skill, confidence, creativeness, perceptiveness and virtuosity of performance.
  • Is at potential to reaching a peak experience; the most pleasurable, most wonderful, most ecstatic, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state
  • Is potentially healthy; most psychopathology results from the suppression, frustration or twisting of essential human needs and capacities; it is the neurotic individual who is split within himself; his reason struggles with his emotions, etc (Maslow p. 115 – 116) .

Design for optimal engagement

We may thus describe design for optimal engagement as a design strategy aimed at designing phenomena from which individuals engaged in it can be integrated in all their human dimension and capacities and be without fear in all its manifestations. And there is perhaps not a task as daunting as this – that of remaking society to foster optimal engagement in individuals (McDermott, 1973 p. 612).

McGonigal (2011, p. 4-6) claims that a vast multitude lack meaningful, satisfying and pleasurable experiences in their lives. Dewey (McDermott, 1973 p. 612) argues that this is because while individuals are engaged in various phenomena, none enables them to be optimally engaged. In the absence of optimal engagement, these individuals are in a state that we may call split engagement where an individual is disintegrated within himself and thus between himself and his environment and is with fear in one or various forms. Dewey (McDermott, 1973 p.600) bemoans the split engagement, not necessarily for the vast number of individuals who are experiencing it, but mostly for our inability to comprehend their moral and psychological predicament. In all truism, it is fundamental to redesign society so as to improve the living experience of individuals.

In design for optimal engagement, I refer neither to the distraction of individuals with excitation of their various pleasurable organs, nor an authoritative control, manipulation and guidance of individuals, from which dependence on external suggestion and factitious experiences are attainable (McDermott, 1973 p. 426 – 430, 601 – 602; Humans are not machines).

Rather, I refer to the human purpose – the acknowledgement, respect, gratification of human needs and the expression of human capacities, as subtle and unique as they are (McDermott, 1973 p. 605 – 607). In this effect, I introduce design for voluntary participation as one strategy for design for optimal engagement. Voluntary participation because the delicate elements of the mind exhibit their vitality under free conditions (Maslow, p.117).

To reiterate, in addition to being healthy – due to an integration within themselves and with their environment – it is at optimal engagement that individuals can be at potential to reach peak experiences. The heightening, alertness and energetic exercise and expression of human dimensions and capacities experienced during optimal engagement should be of interest to social institutions that respect the human purpose.

…self realization cannot be achieved by intellect or rationality alone. …we must modify considerably our picture of the psychological organism to respect equally rationality, emotionality, and the conative or wishing and driving side of our nature, [which] are not necessarily antagonistic but can be cooperative and synergic. The healthy person is all of a piece (Maslow, p. 116).


  • Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
  • Maté, G. (2011). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Random House LLC.
  • McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.
  • McDermott, J. (Ed.) (1973). The philosophy of John Dewey. Chicago and London. Chicago Press.

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