In Honor of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Who Gave Us Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Photo by Anna(rita) Eva via Flickr)



My exultant “Ha!” woke the library. I had just read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of “flow”—that magical feeling of getting so caught up in what you are doing that you lose track of where you are, what time it is, who might want something of you. I knew that feeling, and I craved it. Freed from space and time, oblivious to chores and deadlines, I could think and breathe and imagine. These bursts of oblivion drove everybody around me crazy, of course. I re-entered the world in a daze and had to scramble back into task-mind. But I came back refreshed and happy.

Eager to learn how to summon the state at will, I read Csikszentmihalyi’s criteria. First, the challenge must be proportional to your skill. Too difficult, and you will be anxious; too easy, and you will be bored. Next, you must be completely involved in the task at hand, focused, and concentrating (an ability we are all fast losing). Your motivation must be intrinsic, rooted in the task itself. You must have a clear sense of what you are doing and how well you are doing it.

All this struck me with such force that I memorized both the spelling and pronunciation (chick-SENT-me-high) of the man’s name, tossing it into conversations whenever possible. Once I even wrote to him at the University of Chicago, and he answered graciously—why did I not print and frame that reply? I was trying to be adult about it, a fellow scholar, filled with the untested hubris only grad school makes possible. Yet this man had given me the secret of the universe, or at least of life. Once you are in flow, self-consciousness dissolves. The clock stops ticking. You are sprung from everyday routine, and you feel part of something larger than yourself. On a good day, you come close to what he dares call ecstasy.

Csikszentmihalyi died on October 20, and I now know far more about him. (Why is that so often the case? We should publish obituaries when people turn seventy, not after they die.) His theory of flow first sparked in 1944, when he was ten years old, living in Hungary, taking refuge in the absorption of chess games while the world crumbled around him. “I felt completely involved, my mind was working, I had to be alert,” he explained later. “I didn’t have any chance to be distracted or any chance to worry about anything.”

Chess was only fun, though, when his opponent’s abilities matched his own, allowing neither an easy win nor an inevitable, crushing defeat. Just-right challenge allowed the state of flow, and he felt it again when he tried mountain climbing in the Dolomites, and again when he began painting.

At twenty-two, Csikszentmihalyi came to the United States to study psychology. He was alarmed to realize that almost all the research focused on pathology. “There was no notion that people could actually enjoy life. It was not part of the canon,” he said later. He began to study play—adult play. And then he turned his attention to work and heard surgeons describe the same sort of elation.

“It’s not really play that makes you feel good,” Csikszentmihalyi realized, “but the playfulness which can be in play.” Once you experienced that relaxed, utter absorption, you wanted to feel it again and again.

The key seemed to be intrinsic motivation: you had to be engrossed in an activity for its own sake. Not because someone was watching over your shoulder. Not because you would be handed ten bucks when you finished. What then followed was hard work that felt effortless. “The ego falls away,” he said. “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.”

Back in 2004, Csikszentmihalyi dropped in at the Edge editorial office for a chat, and he confided a longtime urge to understand “how people end up living lives that are either based on faulty assumptions or denial.” Americans, for example, were conditioned to love “passive relaxation,” yet if you probed, you discovered that most people actually preferred meaningful work to mindless downtime.

Why did so many people loathe their jobs? “In many disparate professions, the whole notion of success or performance is being collapsed into very short-term financial results.” Journalists, scientists, lawyers, professors—all were being judged by what they were worth to their organization’s bottom line, not by the ethics or altruism or even quality of their work. “We are going to be reduced to a culture of greed,” he warned.

That was seventeen years ago. Csikszentmihalyi knew greed was a constant in human life, but he also knew that at certain times in history, societies have found counterweights: “religion, patriotism, a notion of honor, or a notion of community.” By the time he died, none of that was working. “If we cleared up the goals and determined what makes a person’s life happy,” he had argued, “people would have the feeling that their lives are not wasted.”

More than two decades ago, Csikszentmihalyi  wrote that “the most important unreported story concerns the reasons for a return of right-wing extremism in Europe, and for the first time in the U.S.” This sort of extremism frightened him: he knew repression and fear solved nothing, and people’s lives “are by necessity diminished.” Why the right-wing resurgence, he wondered: “Is it that people are running out of hope and meaning? Have the western democracies run out of believable goals? What conditions favor fascism and what can we do to prevent them from spreading?”

A year later, he noted that “we are perceived increasingly as a country willing to trample underfoot anyone who interferes with our God-given right to the latest appliances and diversions.” He worried that emphasizing material success diverted energy from curiosity, creativity, and long-term thinking, and blocked all access to the state of flow. Now I wonder if the hunger for stuff weakened democracy as well.

A member of the National Academy for Leisure Studies, Csikszentmihalyi made sure its existence was not an oxymoron. Though he first explored his theory through the creative arts, the Wall Street Journal listed Flow as one of the six books “every well-stocked business library should have.” Translated into more than twenty languages, it won audiences both inside and outside academe. It made work and play, which we had kept at arm’s length, happily overlap. Had we been less concerned with the bottom line, I suspect it also could have transformed the world of work, given our lives more meaning and joy, and made right-wing extremism far less appealing.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.