The Man Who Found the Flow

“What is happiness?” asked psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He found it in a state of mind beyond results and rewards and called it “the flow.”

Andrew Cooper
7 May 2021

“To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”        —Walter Pater

In 1963, a young doctoral student in psychology at the University of Chicago noticed a most intriguing phenomenon. In the course of his research on the creative process, he had spent hundreds of hours observing artists at work and interviewing them about the nature of their experience. What he was most struck by was their intense and total involvement as they struggled to bring their vision to life on canvas. Immersed in their work and oblivious to outside obligations, the passage of time, and even their own hunger and fatigue, the artists seemed to be seized in a kind of trance. Curiously, once a painting was finished, this highly focused state quickly dissipated and the artists simply set aside the very thing they had labored so hard to create.

The researcher was an immigrant of Hungarian descent named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”). After witnessing this process again and again, he realized that it was the activity itself-the work of painting-that so enthralled his subjects and not, as he had expected, the anticipation of its outcome. Whether or not a finished painting produced significant extrinsic rewards-money, praise, fame, even a sense of achievement-the act of creating was intrinsically rewarding. It was worth doing-indeed, it was done-simply for the sake of doing it.

What, he wondered, do people feel when they are most happy? What is their state of mind? Why do certain activities bring enjoyment and others do not?

This ran, and still runs, counter to the prevailing wisdom of the field. Most psychological theories of motivation assert that we act either to assuage an unpleasant condition-hunger, say, or anxiety-or to achieve some desired end. Even activities that are enjoyable in themselves are assumed to serve some socially adaptive or biologically practical function: children play to discharge aggressive feelings; sex is nature’s way of getting us to pass on our genes. Such views contain much truth, of course, but they are incomplete.

The observation that some things are autotelic-worth doing for their own sake-is hardly earth-shattering. But the simplicity of this observation can obscure the richness of its implications for the understanding of who we humans are and how we may evolve. For Csikszentmihalyi, it pointed to the deep and elusive question of the nature of happiness. What, he wondered, do people feel when they are most happy? What is their state of mind? Why do certain activities bring enjoyment and others do not? What can we do to enhance our capacities to find enjoyment throughout the events of daily life? For almost thirty years, right up to the present day, he has devoted himself to the patient, rigorous and thorough study of such questions.

In the course of his investigations, he has identified a dimension of human experience that is common to people the world over, regardless of culture, gender, race, age or nationality. Elderly Korean women, Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, Navajo shepherds, assembly line workers in Chicago, artists, athletes, surgeons-all describe the experience in essentially the same words. Its characteristics include joy, deep concentration, emotional buoyancy, a heightened sense of mastery, a lack of self-consciousness, and self-transcendence. Employing an image used frequently by his subjects, Csikszentmihalyi gave to this optimal human experience the name “flow.”

According to Csikszentmihalyi, moments of flow occur when our physical or mental capacities are stretched to their limits in pursuit of a worthwhile goal. In fact, just about any activity can be made autotelic. As Csikszentmihalyi told me, “Talking to a friend, reading to a child, playing with a pet, or mowing the lawn can each produce flow, provided you find the challenge in what you are doing and then focus on doing it as best you can.” Flow, then, is not something that happens to us; it is something we make happen. It is not dependent on external events: it is the result of our ability to focus, and thus give order, to consciousness.

Based on their research into flow, Csikszentmihalyi and his associates at the psychology department of the University of Chicago have over the years produced dozens of articles for scholarly journals. In the late 1980’s, he decided to gather together two decades worth of findings on the subject and present it in a book accessible to the lay reader. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was released in 1990 and was an instant success, a critically acclaimed national bestseller whose popularity caught its author entirely by surprise.

Csikszentmihalyi has become that rarity in the human sciences: a distinguished academic whose work has significant impact on the cultural mainstream. Newsweek reported that Flow was a favorite book of President Clinton (who, it seems, may be unclear on the distinction made in the book between pleasure and happiness). A recent article in the London Times discussed the favour Flow has found among British Prime Minister Tony Blair and members of his cabinet. Winning coach Jimmy Johnson credited Flow with helping him and his Dallas Cowboys prepare for the 1993 Superbowl.

In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi describes eight “elements of enjoyment”-the factors that characterize or contribute to the flow experience. First, flow is likely to occur when one confronts a challenging task that requires skill. Here, there must be a balance between the demands of the activity and one’s ability to meet those demands. If the activity is too easy, boredom will result; if it is too hard, it will cause anxiety.

In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi describes eight ‘elements of enjoyment’ – the factors that characterize or contribute to the flow experience.

The second element is the merging of action and awareness, in which one is so absorbed in the task at hand that the activity becomes spontaneous and one ceases to be aware of oneself as standing separate from it. Third and fourth, optimal experience is more likely to occur when one’s task has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.

Fifth is a high degree of concentration, which limits the dissipation of energy caused by extraneous concerns. The sixth element is called the paradox of control: one feels a sense of control without actively trying to be in control. More precisely, it might be said that one ceases to worry about losing control. Seventh, preoccupation with the self disappears.

The final element is an altered sense of time. Hours may seem like minutes, or conversely, one may experience a sense of what sports psychologists call “elongated time,” in which things seem to move in slow motion. Not all these elements need be present for flow to occur, but in the course of thousands of interviews, Csikszentmihalyi and his associates found that virtually every account included at least one of them, and often most.

Of the eight elements, one in particular emerged as the most telling aspect of optimal experience: the merging of action and awareness. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence sounded a similar theme, when he wrote that “happiness is absorption.” As the thirteen-century Zen master Dogen pointed out, in those moments when the world is experienced with the whole of one’s body and mind, the senses are joined, the self is opened, and life discloses an intrinsic richness and joy in being. For Csikszentmihalyi, this complex harmony of a unified consciousness is the mode of being toward which our own deepest inclination always points us.

The New York Times called him “a man obsessed by happiness,” but for Csikszentmihalyi happiness is a far more subtle and profound state than what most people mean when they use the word. In describing the happiness associated with flow, Csikszentmihalyi cites Aristotle’s term eudaimonia, a state of being “well-favored” within oneself and in one’s relation to the divine. Eudaimonia connects happiness with such characteristics as virtue, prosperity and blessedness. Flow and eudaimonia are not identical notions, but the link between the two is made clear in Flow’s opening sentence: “Twenty-three hundred years ago Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal-health, beauty, money, or power-is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy.”

For Csikszentmihalyi, as for Aristotle, it is our human folly to mistake the means to happiness for the thing itself. As he is the first to point out, the “discovery” of flow and its workings is not a discovery at all, “for people have been aware of it since the dawn of time.”

The enthusiasm with which his work has been received is no doubt gratifying, but for this soft-spoken and private family man, public recognition has required some adjustment. For as his ideas grew in popularity, the man who discovered flow found he was experiencing less of it. Popular acceptance brought with it new and unwanted distractions from his work, the main activity in which he experienced the very thing that was the source of all the fuss. The humor of the situation is not lost on him, and when he spoke to me about it during a recent interview, he did so with a weary chuckle.

The qualities that characterize his writings are also evident in conversation: clarity, eloquence, wit and erudition that is, blessedly, unencumbered by academic smugness. In lightly accented English, he speaks with a confidence that manages to be both unassuming and undefensive. His broad face, framed by a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, appears urbane yet slightly rugged. Deep-set eyes look out from beneath dark, bushy brows and a high, strong forehead. Although Csikszentmihalyi’s writings make only sparing use of biographical details, the creases on his well-worn face speak of a life much-traveled.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in 1934 in the Adriatic harbor town of Fiume, a town that has seen much instability in this century. The young Mihaly’s father served as the Hungarian consul in the city, which was then Italian (and is today Croatian). After the Second World War, the elder Csikszentmihalyi was appointed Hungarian ambassador to Italy and the family moved to Rome. In 1948, following the communist take-over of Hungary, he was fired from the ambassadorship.

Rather than return to Hungary, the family opened a restaurant in Rome. Now an adolescent, Mihaly attended school and spent evenings helping his father at the restaurant. Following high school, he worked as a photojournalist, a travel agent, and, foreshadowing his later work, tried his hand as a painter.

But all the while, his main focus was on trying to understand the strangeness of human nature as he had witnessed it during and after the war. “I saw so many people just disintegrate from the loss of status, income, and other extrinsic sources of meaning or support,” he says, “and yet I also met some, just a few, who had a kind of inner strength that allowed them to take their misfortunes in stride.”

Eventually he stumbled on the writings of Carl Jung, which convinced him that the field of psychology might be the best place to look for answers to the questions that beset him. Unfortunately, it was not the practice of European colleges in the fifties to teach psychology as a separate discipline. Rather, it was offered in isolated courses taught within departments of medicine or philosophy. So Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi decided he would pursue his studies in the United States.

Around this time, he encountered a new stimulus to his questioning. Following Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Csikszentmihalyi met a number of former prisoners recently released from the gulags. Among them were a small number “who spoke with a sort of nostalgia about living in conditions that, by most any standard, were of the most horrible type.” These people were able not only to keep their sanity but to achieve a kind of serenity. “The very oppressiveness of their situation,” he says, “forced them to question what was really valuable and meaningful in their lives, and somehow, in that process, they came to find a measure of inner peace.”

Years later, Csikszentmihalyi came to see that his findings on flow went a long way toward explaining what it was that allowed some people to enrich their lives in the midst of the most wretched circumstances. Such people, he found, have a highly developed “autotelic self.” They could transform their experience, and thus find enjoyment in it, by focusing their attention on the tasks of the present moment.

Csikszentmihalyi was accepted at the University of Chicago, but shortly before he was to leave for the U.S., the family encountered another setback. One of the restaurant’s employees had swindled them and they were without funds to help Mihaly pay for his education. And so in 1956, at the age of 22, Mihaly arrived in Chicago with little English and next to no money-a dollar-twenty-five to be exact.

The next two years were tough. Days were devoted to study; nights were spent working as an auditor at a downtown hotel. But more difficult was the disappointment he felt about the content of his studies. There was no Jung or Freud or Ferenczi; instead, there were rats and mazes and the blunt tools of behaviorism. Nevertheless, Csikszentmihalyi persevered, and by his junior year things were looking up. A scholarship relieved much of the financial pressure, and he hooked up with several professors in the department whose interests matched his own. With their encouragement, he decided to pursue a doctorate.

One professor in the psychology department was especially interested in the study of creativity, and it was under his tutelage that Csikszentmihalyi undertook his dissertation on the subject. The intense involvement of his research subjects in their work resonated with his own experiences while rock climbing, playing chess or painting.

But another resonant chord was struck as well. The instability he had experienced and the suffering he had witnessed predisposed Csikszentmihalyi to regard happiness as a virtue to be cultivated and treasured, for clearly “the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind.” While there was at the time no shortage of work being done on creativity, only one person, Abraham Maslow, was seriously studying states of deep enjoyment. As Csikszentmihalyi freely acknowledges, he benefited greatly from Maslow’s study of peak experience. “But,” he says, “Maslow regarded peak experience as a kind of epiphany that happens spontaneously. I wanted to find out how optimal states of being occur and what people can do to bring them about.”

At first, Csikszentmihalyi’s research attracted the interest of only a small group of graduate students, who assisted him in administering interviews and questionnaires. Needing a more rigorous and systematic means of gathering data, the team developed the Experience Sampling Method, in which research subjects wear an electronic paging device that is activated at random intervals throughout the day. At the sound of the pager, a subject writes down what he or she is doing, feeling and thinking at that moment.

Following the introduction of the ESM, interest in Csikszentmihalyi’s work began to increase dramatically. More and more students signed up to join his research team. Flow increasingly gained attention in professional circles, and colleagues at other institutions began to study the experience in their own research projects. “People,” he says, “love gizmos.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s work is perhaps best understood as an attempt to find through science a basis for a life well lived. Toward this end, he seeks to affirm and to integrate the wisdom of the past with “our most trustworthy mirror of reality”-that is, with scientific knowledge. He is trying, one might say, to work out a response to the problem of modernity posed by T. S. Eliot in “The Rock”: to find the knowledge that is lost in information, and to find the wisdom that is lost in knowledge. Science has been especially successful at generating knowledge about the workings of matter; its successes have been far more modest when it comes to understanding the realm of human experience, where, more often than not, it has been a source of that information that obscures knowledge and of that knowledge that conceals wisdom. Seen in this context, Csikszentmihalyi’s work is all the more impressive for its intent, its originality, and its quality.

Because they have emerged from and been subjected to empirical scrutiny, Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas speak with the power and authority that belong to science alone. But simply passing muster with the standards of science is in and of itself no great accomplishment. His work is significant because it tells us valuable things about important questions. Using the tools of science, Csikszentmihalyi abstracted an essential and defining human experience-flow-from the countless activities that elicited it. In addition, he discerned the conditions, internal and external, that are most likely to give rise to the experience and the factors that obstruct it. Further, he interprets his findings in such a way as to address convincingly the place of flow in matters of meaning, value and purpose in human affairs.

Flow is being used by sociologists, for example, to better understand alienation and by anthropologists to shed light on the effects of ritual and religious experience.

Today, the study of the applications and implications of flow has spread worldwide, and major research programs exist in Germany, Canada, Italy, Japan and Australia. Study of the subject is not confined to the field of psychology. Flow is being used by sociologists, for example, to better understand alienation and by anthropologists to shed light on the effects of ritual and religious experience.

Csikszentmihalyi is, of course, devoted to his work and pleased with its success. But he also notes a certain absurdity in the whole enterprise. “It’s kind of ironic,” he says, “that so many people need the trappings of scientific methodology before they’ll pay attention to what they already know in their gut. When people hear about flow, they say, ‘Oh yeah, I know that!’ But unless you can quantify and measure something, it’s not seen to have much significance.” After a pause, he adds wryly, “Anyway, I have a lot of fun crunching the numbers.”

As with any worthy scientific endeavor, as work on flow proceeded, new questions and avenues for research arose. In time, Csikszentmihalyi found that a comprehensive understanding of optimal experience required that empirical research be supplemented by knowledge from fields other than psychology: philosophy, religion, literature, and other branches of science. The apparent ease with which he reaches across disciplines and weaves together diverse strands of knowledge into an integrated whole enhances the effectiveness of his ideas and the appeal of his writing.

Among the dour puritans of academia, moving beyond the boundaries of one’s particular discipline is most often deeply frowned upon. But for Csikszentmihalyi, doing so seems to be a natural outgrowth of a personal inclination to seek understanding of the world from a variety of perspectives. “It saddens me,” he says, “to see people who are great at one thing but have no interest in anything else.” About himself, he adds, “I am myself uncomfortable being pigeonholed in one professional category-such as psychologist-as though that designation exhausted my being.” In applying science to questions that are traditionally taken up within the humanities, while drawing upon the humanities to elucidate the findings of science, Csikszentmihalyi found himself assuming the role of an academic outsider, a role for which his earlier life had prepared him well.

Among the questions to arise from the research on flow, two were particularly significant. The first was moral. Optimal experience is morally neutral. In applying his skills to the challenges of his work, a burglar is likely to experience flow, as is a con artist or an assassin. Adolph Eichmann, writes Csikszentmihalyi, “probably experienced flow as he shuffled the intricate schedules of trains, making certain that the scarce rolling stock was available where needed, and that the bodies were transported at the least expense. He never seemed to ask whether what he was asked to do was right or wrong. As long as he followed orders, his consciousness was in harmony.”

The second problem follows readily from the first. It is a problem of meaning. One might attain excellence in a particular field, and thus experience a high degree of flow, yet be hopelessly inept or boorish in every other way. Ernest Hemingway once called Ty Cobb “the greatest of all ballplayers-and an absolute shit.” For optimal experience to extend throughout one’s life, one must, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “have faith in a system of meanings that gives purpose to one’s being.”
It was in response to these two problems that Csikszentmihalyi turned to the idea of evolutionary complexity. Complexity, he believes, can serve as the foundation for a viable faith at a time when the traditional cosmologies no longer can. Although he began to explore this proposition in Flow, it was not until the publication of The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium that he described it fully.

“The thesis of this book,” he writes, “is that becoming an active, conscious part of the evolutionary process is the best way to give meaning to our lives at the present point in time, and to enjoy each moment along the way. Understanding how evolution works, and what role we may play in it, provides a direction and purpose that otherwise is lacking in this secular, desacralized culture.”

Csikszentmihalyi subscribes to the view that evolution proceeds in the direction of increasing complexity, that is, toward continuous differentiation and integration. The realization of complexity, therefore, is the benchmark for measuring evolutionary success. “Differentiation” refers to the degree to which a system is composed of parts that differ in structure or function from one another. “Integration” refers to the extent to which the different parts communicate and enhance one another’s goals. A system that is more differentiated and integrated than another is said to be more complex. For example, a person is differentiated to the extent that they have many different interests, abilities and goals; they are integrated to the extent that harmony exists between various goals, thought, feelings and action.

The incorporation of skills and experiences into the wholeness of one’s being brings order to consciousness and harmony to actions; that is, it enhances integration. In this way, the enjoyment that flow brings is the manifestation of our evolutionary predilection for complexity.

Both these tendencies are evident in optimal experience. Finding new challenges, developing new skills, opening oneself to novel experiences-these are all differentiating functions. The incorporation of skills and experiences into the wholeness of one’s being brings order to consciousness and harmony to actions; that is, it enhances integration. In this way, the enjoyment that flow brings is the manifestation of our evolutionary predilection for complexity.

The movement toward complexity is not inevitable, however. “The course of evolution,” Csikszentmihalyi writes, “appears to be exceedingly erratic, full of false starts and temporary reversals.” The development of complex structures, whether biological, psychological or social, takes place against the backdrop of entropy-the tendency of systems to decay and dissolve into randomness.

It is precisely because complexity is so tenuous that its cultivation and sustainment can serve as a meaningful basis for ethical action. For Csikszentmihalyi, this means that the ethics of flow require that it not be pursued solely as an isolated, individual event but as something that enhances complexity throughout one’s relations with the larger world. The idea that through flow one can become an active participant in the great unfolding drama of evolution recalls Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia, of being well-favored not just within oneself but also in one’s relation with the divine.

With The Evolving Self, Csikszentmihalyi joins the tradition of “grand theorists”-those thinkers who attempt to work out a comprehensive understanding of human nature and human goals that is grounded in the very structure of life. As grand theories go, Csikszentmihalyi’s manages to be bold without being arrogant. It is both broad and flexible. Still, for all its merits, it is not able to outrun the problems that inevitably accrue to grand theories.

Chief among these problems is that in attempting to subsume so much under a single scheme, grand theories give short shrift to much of the rich detail of human knowledge. Important distinctions get blurred or lost altogether as symbols, ideas, and practices are removed from the organic context in which they are rooted and recut to fit the designs of a new one. While viewing yoga, say, or Zen Buddhism through the conceptual lens of flow and complexity can be valuable, it is still a far cry from understanding them from within their native framework. This calls to mind a Haitian saying: when the anthropologists arrive, the gods depart.

To my surprise, when I mention this perspective to Csikszentmihalyi, he is not at all uncomfortable with it. We have, he says, various ways of relating to the world that predate systematic reason, and they are part of our heritage. “Just because science is dominant,” he says, “to dismiss all forms of knowledge that went before would be hubris. It would be like kicking out the ladder upon which we have climbed.” If science is to help us live fuller and better lives, the knowledge accumulated through scientific endeavor must, in his view, be integrated with the wisdom of the past.

America’s most eminent evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, rejects the view that evolution possesses a sensible directionality toward complexity, dismissing such theories as “spin-doctored” views designed to bolster our sense of human importance. Csikszentmihalyi, of course, disagrees, but he is not adamant; the argument, he says, is not resolvable at this point, and may never be. Complexity seems to him to be a good interpretation of what we know, but accepting it is a choice. And even should one accept it, one should hold the idea with a kind of playful provisionality. In this regard, complexity is a kind of faith.

So if we set aside arguments about competing theories of evolution, the power of the idea remains, for we are story-telling creatures and evolution is our creation story. In placing flow within the context of evolution, Csikszentmihalyi is following a tradition going back to prehistory of linking certain aspects of human experience to the larger designs of the cosmos. Thus the story of who we are and the story of what the universe is are bound together.

In “The Rock” Eliot asks, “Where is the Life we have lost in living?” This is a question that human faith and wisdom must address. Discovery of that secret life requires what Aristotle called “the virtuous activity of the soul.” For this, flow is the ground and the fruition.