The classic work on how to achieve happiness.
We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like …
1) Philosophy and Background.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote the best-selling book Flow. Flow experiences are those where you become completely absorbed and ‘time goes away’.
You start by doing something stimulating – be it writing, skiing, solving a problem, tackling a challenge or whatever. You set a clear goal, employ your skills and stretch yourself to achieve success. Then something odd happens, says Mihaly.
“Your awareness of self disappears but, after completing the task, your sense of self emerges even stronger.”
You flow, focus, finish and, as a by-product, find fulfilment.
Mihaly’s work shows how people can find and follow certain principles to create flow in the future. His books have had a profound effect in fields such as sports, education and work.
(His full name is pronounced ‘Me-high Chick-sent-me-high-ee’: though sometimes his English-speaking friends call him ‘Mike’!)
Mihaly was born in Rijecka, Croatia. (It was then called Fiume and part of Italy.) His family was Hungarian, and his father Alfred, a diplomat, had been posted to Italy.
Living in cities such as Rome and Florence exposed Mihaly to different cultures and he became fluent in Hungarian, Italian and German. Despite being a child, he was interned in Italy for a while and tried to make sense of events. Interviewed years later by Dava Sobel for Omni Magazine, he said:
“As a child in World War 2 Europe, I was dismayed to find that grown-ups had no idea what was going on and were helpless to extricate themselves from the mess they had created. I resolved to figure out how one could live a better life. I tried many things, such as art, fiction, philosophy and working in youth organisations.
“I discovered psychology through the writings of C.J. Jung, and thought that perhaps this was the best way to understand behaviour and history. I can’t say I have, but in the process I learned a lot and had a good time.”
Mihaly’s father lost his ambassadorial post when the communists took over in Hungary in 1948. The family stayed in Rome as refugees, however, and opened a restaurant.
After leaving school he worked as a travel agent and news photographer, but after becoming addicted to painting he realised the joys of doing creative work. Travelling to Switzerland when he was around 16, he heard Carl Jung lecture about the human soul and this had a profound effect on Mihaly. He told Sobel:
“Because as a child in the war I’d seen something drastically wrong with how adults – the grown-ups I trusted – organised 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.”
Choosing to study psychology at university level, he found the most attractive courses were in America. He applied to the University of Chicago and, despite speaking little English, was accepted. He improved his English by reading comic books, but a greater difficulty was his parents losing their life-savings to a fraudster employed in their restaurant.
The University of Chicago
Mihaly arrived in Chicago in 1956 with little more than a dollar in his pocket. He did well at university and went on to study for a Masters. Explaining his chosen field of study, Mihaly told Elizabeth Debold of Enlightenment Magazine:
“I did my doctoral dissertation on young students at the Chicago Art Institute.
“One thing that I noticed – and I knew also from my own experience – is that when they started painting, they almost fell into a trance. They didn’t seem to notice anything, and they just moved as if they were possessed by something inside themselves.
“When they finished a painting, they would look at it, and they’d feel good for about five or ten minutes. Then they’d put the painting away and not look at it much after that. What became important was the next canvas …
“So I tried to understand what psychologists have written about this kind of thing, this state of complete involvement.”
Mihaly moved on to studying chess players, rock climbers, musicians and basketball players. He asked them to describe what happened ‘when what they were doing was really going well’.
Despite coming from different fields, people reported similar experiences. Explaining this in an interview with Sarah Trevelyan, Mihaly said:
“Many of the interviewees described their feeling as ‘being carried away by a force greater than myself,’ or ‘being in a current,’ or ‘being in flow.’ I chose the last of these analogies as being the most simple.”
Since then he has written – and co-written – many articles and books on the concept of ‘flow’.
Mihaly’s work explores peoples’ experiences of feeling fully alive. So let’s consider some of the principles it highlights.
* People from all walks of life can experience a state of flow.
Beginning by asking artists, musicians and surgeons to describe their flow experiences, he then interviewed people from all walks in life, such as factory workers in Chicago, farmers in Italy and teenagers in Tokyo.
Since then he and his colleagues have talked with tens of thousands of people from all around the world. These included:
“Women who weave tapestries in the highlands of Borneo, meditating monks in Europe, also Catholic Dominican monks, and so forth. They all said these same things. So ‘flow’ seems to be a phenomenological state that is the same across cultures.”
‘Tragedies Transformed’ is the title of a study conducted by Professor Fausto Massimini, from the University of Milan, who interviewed paraplegics.
Many said the accident that caused paraplegia had produced both positive and negative consequences. Tragic events presented them with extremely clear goals. Learning to live again was in itself a matter of pride.
People who mastered the fresh challenges experienced a clarity of purpose which they had not felt before their accidents. Lucio had been a 20-year-old gas station attendant when a motor cycle accident paralysed him below the waist. He said:
“When I became paraplegic, it was like being born again. I had to learn from scratch everything I used to know, but in a different way. I had to learn to dress myself, to use my head better.
“I had to become part of the environment, and use it without trying to control it … it took commitment, willpower and patience. As far as the future is concerned, I hope to keep improving, to keep breaking through the limitations of my handicap. Everybody must have a purpose.
“After becoming a paraplegic, these improvements have become my life goal.”
Franco also suffers from paraplegia. Before his accident his most intense flow experiences came from acrobatic dancing on Saturday nights. Now paralysed from the waist down, he has set new targets. The most important goal in his life is:
“To feel that I can be of use to others, help recent victims accept their situation.”
Franco, Lucio and other paraplegics have focused on what they want to accomplish in their lives.
* People follow certain principles to achieve a state of flow.
So what do people do right to achieve flow? Mihaly identified certain principles they follow. They pursue these as individuals, but also sometimes as a team. He writes:
“Surgeons say that during a difficult operation they have the sensation that the entire operating team is a single organism, moved by the same purpose; they describe it as a ‘ballet’ in which the individual is subordinated to the group performance, and all involved share in a feeling of harmony and power.”
This involves taking certain steps, whether you are working as an individual or as part of a team. These include: tackling a stimulating task – or one you make stimulating – setting a clear goal, being fully concentrated, getting feedback, being creative, stretching yourself and, hopefully, achieving your picture of success.
* People can follow these principles in the future to enjoy a sense of flow.
Mihaly once invited an 84-year-old man to describe his flow experiences. The man recalled a time when, as 24-year-old, he was playing polo.
After identifying what the man did right at that time, Mihaly explained that he could follow similar principles to experience flow in other activities.
The man had not previously made the connection. He thought the experience was exclusive to polo. Making up for lost time, he immediately threw himself into new activities and, following the principles, enjoyed a sense of flow. Try tackling an exercise on this theme.
* Describe a time when you have experienced a sense of flow.
You may have been writing, playing a sport, tackling a challenge, fixing a problem, encouraging another person or whatever.
* Describe the specific things that you did right then to achieve a sense of flow.
Look for the principles you followed. Then, if appropriate, break these down into practical steps.
* Describe the specific things you can do to follow these principles again in the future. Also describe the benefits for you and other people.
The key is to follow the principles. You can apply these to a similar or, if appropriate, a different activity. Taking these steps will increase your chances of experiencing a sense of flow.
This technique is often used in ‘mental training’ for sports people. Recalling their best performances, they identify the principles they followed to achieve success.
This sometimes results in balancing seeming paradoxes, such as focusing on the process, rather than the prize. People who follow their key principles, however, are more likely to reach their chosen goal. As Mihaly writes in Flow:
“What I ‘discovered’ was that happiness is not something that just happens …
“We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate.
“On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like …
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
“Optimal experience is therefore something that we make happen.”
So what have been the effects of Mihaly’s work? Perhaps his greatest influence has been as a ‘thought leader’.
Martin Seligman, the author of Authentic Happiness and founder of The Positive Psychology Center said: “Mihaly is the brains behind positive psychology, and I am the voice.”
Books such as Flow have sold millions of copies, whilst many of the principles have been applied in sports, work and education.
The Key Learning Community in Indianapolis is the most famous application of his work in education. For over 20 years it has combined elements of Howard Gardner’s work on Multiple Intelligences with the flow principles described by Mihaly.
Whilst remaining an ‘ordinary school’ regarding its intake, The Key School produces extraordinary results. It has been voted by Child magazine as the best school in America. You can read more about their work at:
Contribution to the strengths approach
Mihaly has made an enormous contribution to the strengths philosophy. For example:
* He has popularised the concept of flow with his best-selling books.
These encouraged people to focus on their strengths, rather than continually discuss their weaknesses.
* He has encouraged people to learn from their flow experiences and follow similar principles to achieve flow in the future.
This includes identifying and building on their strengths.
* He has shown how people can apply the flow principles in the arts, sports, education and work.
Mihaly describes his life’s work as the effort: “to study what makes people truly happy.” The emphasis is on the word ‘truly’. He believes true happiness calls for being part of something that goes beyond ourselves and, hopefully, builds a better world. He says:
“Each of us has a picture, however vague, of what we would like to accomplish before we die.
“How close we get to attaining this goal becomes the measure for the quality of our lives. If it remains beyond reach, we grow resentful or resigned; if it is at least in part achieved, we experience a sense of happiness and satisfaction.”
Mihaly says that flow is more likely to happen when people get the right balance between the skills they have and the challenge they face. (See illustration at the end of this article.)
Pursuing this path can enable them to flow, focus, finish and, as a by-product, achieve fulfilment. You can see Mihalyi giving an excellent overview of experiencing the flow channel at the following TED link.