Psychologist and educator Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (born 1934) has gained wide recognition and even best-selling author status for his investigations into the nature of happiness and creativity. He is best known for the concept of "flow"—the state of "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake," he told John Geirland of Wired. "The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
Psychology as a discipline is more often concerned with human dysfunction than with situations or activities that result in deep satisfaction. When Csikszentmihalyi published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1990, readers found in it a set of blueprints for the pursuit of happiness. The book affected world leaders (United States President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair both numbered among Csikszentmihalyi's admirers), business management theorists, a leading National Football League figure (Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson used Flow in preparing for the 1993 Super Bowl), and others, on down to ordinary readers who had occasionally lost themselves in challenging tasks and wondered why they found the experience so enjoyable. Csikszentmihalyi was a research psychologist, not a self-help writer, and his books were based on academic methodologies. In the 1990s and 2000s, though, they were read far beyond the academic discipline of psychology.
Played Chess as Escape
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee) was born in Fiume, Italy (now Rijeka, Croatia), on September 29, 1934. His family was Hungarian, and his father Alfred, a member of the Hungarian diplomatic corps, had been posted to Italy. Csikszentmihalyi grew up in Fiume, Florence, and Rome, speaking Hungarian, Italian, and German fluently. World War II disrupted Csikszentmihalyi's life completely. Though still a child, he was held for a time in an Italian prison camp. He fared better than many people he knew, however. By 1944, he told Dava Sobel of Omni, "Many relatives and friends in Budapest had been killed. One of my brothers died in combat, and another had been taken prisoner by the Russians and sent to a forced labor camp in Siberia. I discovered chess was a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those things didn't matter. For hours I'd just focus within a reality that had clear rules and goals. If you knew what to do, you could survive there."
Csikszentmihalyi's father was named Hungarian ambassador to Italy after the war, but was fired after Communists took over the Hungarian government in 1948. The family decided to stay in Rome as refugees, opening a restaurant there. After finishing school, Csikszentmihalyi worked as a travel agent and news photographer. He did paintings on the side and began to realize how addictive creative work could be. Traveling in Switzerland when he was about 16, he heard a lecture by the early psychoanalyst Carl Jung about the mass delusion that had seized the European mind and resulted in the destruction of the war. "That struck me," he told Sobel, "because as a child in the war I'd seen something drastically wrong with how adults—the grown-ups I trusted—organized their thinking. I was trying to find a better system to order my life. Jung seemed to be trying to cope with some of the more positive aspects of human experience."
Fascinated by psychology, Csikszentmihalyi began reading Jung's books and those of Sigmund Freud. He decided to study psychology at the university level, but he found that few European universities offered courses in the still-young discipline. Learning that psychology was better entrenched in American universities, Csikszentmihalyi applied to the prestigious University of Chicago. His interest in the idea of happiness as something humans could make for themselves was deepened when he met Hungarians who had spent time in the gulag prison system in the Soviet Union. Why, he wondered, did some of them seem serene rather than psychologically destroyed?
Csikszentmihalyi was accepted at Chicago, but several obstacles remained in his path. He spoke little English, but he partially remedied that situation by studying "Pogo" comic books owned by U.S. armed forces members he met. A bigger problem was the loss of his parents' life savings to a scam artist they had employed at their restaurant in Rome. Csikszentmihalyi landed in Chicago in 1956 with a total of $1.25 in his pocket.
Worked as Hotel Auditor
Csikszentmihalyi solved the immediate financial crisis by getting a job as a night auditor at a downtown Chicago hotel. He was discouraged at first by the curriculum at Chicago, which focused on issues of conditioning by means of techniques such as rat experiments rather than on the studies of human psychology that had attracted him to the field. There were precedents in the U.S. for what Csikszentmihalyi was trying to accomplish, however—the writings of psychologist Abraham Maslow on self-actualization focused on optimum life paths.
Csikszentmihalyi did well enough in his coursework, in his fourth language, that he was given a scholarship at the beginning of his junior year. As he got to know the faculty at Chicago better, he met one who was interested in the phenomenon of creativity and agreed to serve as his advisor. Csikszentmihalyi graduated from the University of Chicago in 1959 and was accepted into the psychology Ph.D. program there. He married writer Isabella Selega in 1960, and the couple raised two sons.
After receiving his Ph.D. in 1965, Csikszentmihalyi was hired at Lake Forest College in suburban Chicago as an instructor. He was elevated to assistant professor (in 1967) and associate professor (in 1968), serving as chair of the sociology and anthropology department from 1967 to 1969. In 1968 he became a U.S. citizen. The following year he returned to Chicago as an associate professor, and became professor of human development in 1980 and remained there until 2000. Chicago offered Csikszentmihalyi the chance to pursue the large-scale, survey-based, multi-year projects that would be necessary to the development of his ideas.
Csikszentmihalyi, who has written over 120 articles and book chapters on a variety of subjects, came to his formulation of the idea of "flow" from a variety of different approaches, contributing to studies of creativity and focusing at first on young people in his own research. One key to human satisfaction, he realized, was that it was never passive, and was never simply the result of a set of external conditions. Csikszentmihalyi had moved from the hell of Europe during World War II to the wealthiest country in the world, materially speaking, but he found that young people were especially disaffected and alienated. Csikszentmihalyi's first book was Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, published in 1975. One of his best-known works prior to the publication of Flow was Being Adolescent: Conflict and Growth in the Teenage Years (1985), which he co-authored with Reed Larson. That work relied on a unique research method: Csikszentmihalyi gave beepers to 75 high school students and had teams of graduate students contact them at random points during the day and ask them about their feelings at that moment. The high schoolers were unhappy most of the time, unsurprisingly, but Csikszentmihalyi observed patterns in their lives and found that they turned around when they directed their energies toward challenging tasks. He continued to write about adolescence throughout his career, coining the term "autotelic" for an activity that is done for its own sake, and arguing that teenagers who engaged in such activities benefited from avoiding passive experiences such as television viewing.
Csikszentmihalyi first used the term "flow" in a 1988 collection of essays, Optimal Experience: Studies of Flow in Consciousness, that he co-edited with his wife, Isabella. He was occasionally conflicted about the use of the term because of its potential association with the passive "go with the flow" ethos espoused by adherents of some forms of New Age spirituality, but "flow" seemed to capture the suspension of time that people experienced when engrossed in a task that stretched their abilities. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was published by the nonacademic Harper house in 1990, during a period in which few high-profile academics addressed general audiences. Even so, Csikszentmihalyi had no ambitions to become famous and was surprised when the book, which was based partly on observations of artists, appeared on bestseller lists. By late 1991 it had sold more than 300,000 copies.
Presented Eight Characteristics of Flow
Some critics took Csikszentmihalyi to task for what they saw as a simplistic quality in his reasoning. "It's just tautology," British psychologist Oliver James told Maurice Chittenden of the Times of London, England. "If people are very absorbed in something it stands to reason that they are going to be happier—a drug addict would be absorbed with pursuing cocaine." Csikszentmihalyi, however, developed the idea of "flow" in detail that went beyond simple characterizations of enjoyment or job satisfaction. "Flow" was not just a feeling of well-being, but had eight separate components. First, it is the result of a challenging task. Second, the person experiencing "flow" becomes part of the task rather than standing outside it. "Flow" is involved with the pursuit of definite goals (third) and depends on immediate feedback (fourth). It requires a high level of concentration (fifth). Sixth, it gives the user a sense of control without a striving for control, something Csikszentmihalyi called the paradox of control. Seventh, a sense of self disappears. And finally, the sense of time is altered. Various parts of this scheme had shown up in other classifications of psychological states, but Csikszentmihalyi's combination of them was unique. "Flow" was not the same as fun, or as joy. It did not depend, as did Maslow's idea of self-actualization, on the meeting of a basic need for security, and indeed it sometimes arose in highly negative situations.
Csikszentmihalyi extended the idea of "flow" in several more books: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1996, based on interviews with more than 90 creative figures from all over the world), Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997), and Flow in Sports (2000, written with Susan A. Jackson). An enthusiastic mountain climber, he often used that activity as an example of the sort of structured, demanding task that could produce the "flow" experience. Csikszentmihalyi took one criticism to heart, however: "flow" as he first formulated it could apply to socially undesirable tasks as well as desirable ones. A bank robber executing a complex heist might well experience "flow" in Csikszentmihalyi's terms. Csikszentmihalyi tried to join the idea of "flow" with that of evolutionary progress in his book The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium (1993). "Flow" resulted not just from surmounting complexity, he argued, but, as he put it to Sobel, from the realization of "future-oriented goals." "Individual enjoyment seems an evolutionary potential in humans, responsible in large part for technical and social advances," he told Sobel.
New York Times writer Richard Flaste called Csikszentmihalyi "a man obsessed by happiness," and in a society likewise obsessed, Csikszentmihalyi became known as something of a guru. Followers held meeting devoted to "flow" theory, in Europe as well as the U.S., and government officials wondered how to translate the idea of "flow" into public policy.
Csikszentmihalyi's greatest appeal, perhaps, was to the business community, which tried to apply his ideas toward the goal of maximizing employee productivity. In 2000, Csikszentmihalyi left Chicago for the position of professor of psychology and management and director of the Quality of Life Research Center at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management in Claremont, California. A 2002 Scientific American article he co-authored with Robert Kubey argued that habitual television watching bore scientifically demonstrable resemblances to physical addition; the article received wide publicity. Csikszentmihalyi made his own contribution to the discussion of business applications of "flow" in his 2003 book Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning, and, past retirement age, he remained a vital voice in the modern dialogue over how to make a well-lived life.
Independent (London, England), October 30, 1991.
New York Times, October 8, 1989; March 18, 1990.
Omni, January 1995.
Psychology Today, January-February 1994; July 1999.
Sunday Times (London, England), December 21, 1997.
USA Today, April 21, 2003.
Washington Times, July 14, 1996.
Wired, September 1996.
Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales, England), January 26, 2002.
"The Man Who Found the Flow," Shambhala Sun Online, http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Features/1998/Sep98/Flow.htm (January 13, 2006).
"Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow Theory," Brain Channels, http://www.brainchannels.com/thinker/mihaly.html (January 13, 2006).