September 1, 2000

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – In the Flow

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

Bill Clinton called his book a favorite. Newt Gingrich made his work required reading. Jimmy Johnson used his ideas to motivate the Dallas Cowboys to win the Super Bowl.

So what is psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi doing teaching in a business school? “My wife was tired of the winters in Chicago,” he says. “We had a year at the Center for Advanced Studies in Palo Alto, where we experienced winters in California. After that, she wasn’t going to be happy unless we moved.”

Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick sent me high”) had taught in the University of Chicago’s department of behavioral sciences for almost 30 years, six as chairman. “I thought I would retire and write and not do anything strenuous,” he says. “But then I started having offers from USC and UCLA and CGU.” Much to the delight of CGU, he accepted the offer to join the Drucker School of Management as Davidson Professor of Management, beginning in August 1999. Why Claremont?

“I like the people; I like the environment,” he explains. “I thought maybe it could be difficult to get used to Los Angeles. But this community was much more livable and understandable.”

The arbored streets and airy classrooms of Claremont are a stark contrast to the bomb-scarred Italy where Csikszentmihalyi spent his early childhood during World War II. Yet it was the chaos he endured during the war that sparked his interest in the psychology of play and eventually led to his groundbreaking work on flow, the psychology of optimal experience.

“When things were really bad at the end of the war, I noticed that when I played chess, or read a good book, or played games with friends, during those times I was able to temporarily be out of the misery of the war and experience something much more enjoyable and vital,” he recalls. “Last year there was the movie, Life Is Beautiful, with the father trying to make his son forget the concentration camp. In a sense, [my experience in the war] was in part what made me realize that it’s possible to step out temporarily, at least, from a wretched reality and experience something different.”

Csikszentmihalyi came to the United States at the age of 22 to study psychology, academic departments in the discipline not existing at the time in Europe. He completed his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1965 and took a teaching position at nearby Lake Forest College. While teaching a senior seminar there, he developed the initial insight into what eventually would be called flow, a state of being in which a person is carried along by the joy of an all-encompassing activity.

In doing his dissertation research on creativity in artists, Csikszentmihalyi had seen flow in action.

“I’d observed how artists could immerse themselves in their work for days on end and forget or ignore their environment and physical needs,” he says. At first, he thought such transformation was only possible for artists or musicians.

At Lake Forest, though, his students interviewed people engaged in a variety of activities adults consider play. As he diagrammed the common elements of these experiences on a chalkboard, one recurring theme emerged: enjoyable activities involve the interplay of challenge and skills. “I slowly realized that it’s not confined to creative work,” he says. “Children and adults experience it in a variety of different ways, in everything from gambling to work.”

Returning to the University of Chicago in 1970, this time as a professor, Csikszentmihalyi had the opportunity to pursue his study more deeply. Using a grant from the US Public Health Service to research work satisfaction, he hired graduate students to interview people involved in all kinds of “autotelic” activities—those in which people are motivated by a drive within themselves, not just external forces such as family or wages.

During staff meetings, the term “flow” became shorthand for “autotelic” (“intrinsically motivated”), which Csikszentmihalyi considers fortunate. “I am sure that if we had continued to use the precise but cumbersome ‘autotelic experience,’ few people outside the academic community would have paid attention.”

But pay attention they did, especially as the volume of research on flow grew exponentially. In the mid-1970s, Csikszentmihalyi and a graduate student, Suzanne Prescott, developed the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) to track flow in everyday life. Participants in the study were given pagers—new technology at the time—that were activated at random times during the day. After each signal, they filled out a self-report form rating their experience. “If a person reported flow-like experiences once every 10 responses, it made sense to assume that 10 percent of his or her life was spent in a state resembling flow,” he wrote.

Over time, other researchers—notably Fausto Massimini at the University of Milan—also began to study flow.

“Massimini found in flow theory the conceptual mechanism that explained how a multitude of small individual choices could result in large-scale social changes and eventually in cultural change,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote in a new preface to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, his first major book. “People tend to repeat activities that are enjoyable, and these activities eventually become part of a culture’s repertory . . . the lifestyles that define civilizations can be better understood in terms of the repetition of activities that produce flow, rather than in terms of the convoluted explanations of historical materialism or psychoanalysis.”

Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
The publication of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1990 brought Csikszentmihalyi’s work front and center with leaders in government, business, and the arts.

The publication of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1990 brought Csikszentmihalyi’s work front and center with leaders in government, business, and the arts. Now translated into 15 languages, its concepts have been used by organizations as diverse as Cirque du Soleil and Montessori schools, the British Cabinet and the Getty Museum. Nissan applied flow to car design to make driving more pleasurable. Newsweek magazine wrote that Flow was one of President Clinton’s favorite books. Recently, the Austrian Cabinet invited Csikszentmihalyi to address them on how flow could influence education in the twenty-first century.

Reading Csikszentmihalyi’s 1999 publication list and lecture schedule is daunting in itself—19 lectures on creativity and flow, eight journal articles, three books in press. During the past year he has also made the transition from teaching psychology students to teaching business students.

“This has allowed me to have a different type of experience with different students, different concerns,” he says, noting that he has to rethink everything he’s doing in light of the new audience. “You’re preparing psychology students to be academics,” he explains. “But when you teach in a business school, that’s largely irrelevant. What the MBA students need is tools to reach their goals.”

The executive management students, though, have already attained career success. “Many of them come back to school because they are interested in broadening their horizons and learning about themselves in the larger scheme of things,” he says. Judging from the applause as class concluded on a recent Saturday afternoon, the students in the course team-taught by Csikszentmihalyi and Richard Ellsworth on “Leadership and the Making of Meaning” were stretched beyond expectation. Many expressed the view that the class had been life-changing as they had opportunity to explore issues deeply felt but rarely expressed by successful managers.

Though he teaches in a school that bears the Drucker name, Csikszentmihalyi, before coming to Claremont, knew little more about Peter Drucker than that he had turned down his request to be part of a study on creativity. At the time Drucker wrote Csikszentmihalyi a letter—included in the book Creativity saying he didn’t believe in creativity, he believed in productivity: work very hard, create the right conditions, and you are likely to come up with innovative or creative ideas.

“I wasn’t sure what he meant until I read his book,” Csikszentmihalyi says, “and then I realized we actually were pretty close in our ideas. His notion of innovation and entrepreneurship is based on the same assumptions I’m making—paying attention to managerial processes that make creativity more likely.”

Does the master of flow experience it himself in his work? Sitting in his small but sunny office on a mild late spring morning, he smiles. “Not always,” he admits in the indefinable accent of a man who speaks seven languages and reads eight. “Writing can be flow-producing after the first half hour, forty-five minutes—after you’ve despaired that you can write anything good and [quit] trying to find some excuse to do something else.”

These days, Csikszentmihalyi’s attention is focused on the Quality of Life Institute. Housed in the Drucker School, it is one of three such centers across the country researching aspects of what is now called positive psychology—a movement to see psychology not just as the study of mental illness, but of what makes people happy and fulfilled.

“The one at the University of Illinois-Urbana is looking at the quality of momentary experiences: what makes the person feel happy or good about life at the moment,” he says. “Ours here in Claremont is looking at the good person and the good life, which means quality of life looked at over the life span. The third center, in Philadelphia, is looking at the good community—how society, culture, and the environment promote a good life.” Initial funding is in place for four years, but Csikszentmihalyi expects it may continue longer. “Hopefully it’s going to run until we discover what makes the quality of life worthwhile,” he says. “A thousand years?”

Perhaps mellowed by a thousand such inquiries, Csikszentmihalyi is patient when asked about his name—which seems nearly impossible for phonetically challenged Americans to pronounce. “‘Csik,’ the first four letters, refer to our province which is in Transylvania, now in Romania. It’s under the mountains that divide Hungary from Romania,” he says. In the fourteenth century, his family—believed to descend from the youngest son of Attila the Hun—was given land there to farm in exchange for defending the pass, which they did with the help of 500 mercenaries from Germany.

“In 1699, at Christmas, there was such a snowstorm in the mountains that they figured nobody was going to come, so they invited all the soldiers for a big party,” he recounts. “The Tartars actually did come through the pass, and they took seven members of the family back to Crimea. They sent letters—still well-preserved—asking for ransom. These Tartars knew what they wanted: 500 golden ducats, 12 liveries with silver buttons for the court, a pocket watch made in Paris. It took years for the rest of the family to gather up the stuff.”

The phone rings. Csikszentmihalyi lays plans for yet another trip for yet another interview, this one on creativity with a dancer in her eighties. After a lifetime of research, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is still obviously in the flow. His newest book, Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work (with Barbara Schneider), just came out in May.