Discover more from Mэntal Musings
Thank You to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi
He helped us find our flow
Not long ago, I wrote about the passing of a psychology icon. Just this week, the field lost another. Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me high? Cheeks sent me high”) passed away on October 20, aged 87. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi was best known for his work with flow, and for being a co-father of the field of positive psychology.
Csikszentmihalyi, born in what is now Hungary, came to the United States in the mid 1950s, having survived the horrors of World War II. (Two of his half-brothers, however, would not. One was killed during the Siege of Budapest. The other was lost to the Soviet labor camps of Siberia.) It was in the United States that he earned both his B.A. and PhD from the University of Chicago.
His most famous work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, was published in 1990. In it, Csikszentmihalyi described a state in which people often describe they are at their happiest. In flow, individuals lose awareness of a sense of self, becoming totally absorbed in whatever it is they are doing. As Dr. Csikszentmihalyi once said, flow is "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. 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."1
Think of a race car driver in the midst of a tight race. Every thought is focused on making a skillful pass. Or a pianist, playing a complicated melody. When you are in flow, your skills and the challenge you face are commensurate. If something is too challenging, frustration sets in. If the activity is too easy, boredom reigns. The following model explains the relationship between perceived challenge and skill:
In addition the balance required between perceived challenge and skill, two other aspects are required for an activity to induce flow. They include:
The activity must provide structure and direction through established goals (for the race car driver, think “I want to win this race!”)
Immediate and clear feedback must be available (for the musician, think, “I need to pick up the tempo a little bit here!”)
A New Direction: Positive Psychology
At the turn of the new millennium, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, in conjunction with Dr. Martin Seligman, upended the traditional order of psychology, which at the time focused almost exclusively on what ails us, by introducing a new era: the era of positive psychology. In an article of American Psychologist, co-authored by Dr. Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi wrote of the influence of World War II, and how he recalled, despite the autracities and depravity that ran rampant at that time, how select individuals managed to maintain their “integrity and purpose despite the surrounding chaos. Their serenity was a beacon that kept others from losing hope.”2 He went on to add that science should not only strive to understand what is, but also what could be. For Csikszentmihalyi, those WWII beacons of human dignity pointed a direction towards a higher humanity, what could be, and it was to this direction that Dr. Csikszentmihalyi devoted his life. Thank you, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, for your kindness, and your inspiration.