Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Six Cent Mihaly) was seven years old when World War II began. He and his family were Hungarians and faced terrible hardships. In addition, Mihaly’s two elder brothers died when he was young. This, together with the tragedies of war, drove him to study why some people were happy, despite their surroundings and why others could not cope.
Mihaly’s father lost his job when the Soviets invaded Hungary. As a result, Mihaly had to leave school to start earning for his family. However, when he was 22 years old, he emigrated to the US and started going to night school while working during the daytime. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1965 from the University of Chicago.
Mihaly conducted research, interviewing hundreds of creative people from all walks of life. He found that happiness resulted from people being creatively involved in an activity where they were in “flow.” He defined “flow” as a state of complete absorption and immersion with the activity being undertaken. A flow state is effortless and spontaneous.
Mihaly said in an interview that 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.”
Giving a broader perspective, an Olympic athlete said that when in the flow, “It just clicked. Everything went right; everything felt good. [When pursuing the activity] you feel you can go on and on and on. You don’t want to stop because it is going so well.”
Requirements for Flow
Challenge and Skills
Mihaly emphasizes that flow is obtained through preparation. First, one has to train hard at a task so that a certain level of expertise is obtained. “To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.”
Mihaly wrote that “If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills.”
The second aspect of flow is that the activity that results in flow is not pursued for any external rewards (such as money or fame). Instead, the actions that give rise to flow are those that give inner satisfaction. Such people are driven by “curiosity, persistence, and humility.”
Mihaly advises that “To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. A person has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”
Mihaly’s research showed that when people spent most of their days in flow, they were more likely to be happy. So if we all moved in this direction, the world would become a much better place to live!