Getting Into The Flow: A Q&A with Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian-born psychologist, and the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University in California. He is also the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and headed the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College. Among his research interests are the concept of happiness and human creativity, which he has studied intensively for many years and has been the subject of his numerous books. A prolific author, Csikszentmihalyi has written over 120 articles and individual book chapters on the subject.

In what is considered his most important work, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Csikszentmihalyi emphasizes that we are at our most content when we find an activity we learn to do well and immerse ourselves in a state of “flow.” He subsequently discussed this concept in a well-received TED Talk available on YouTube. Brain World recently had the opportunity to sit down with Csikszentmihalyi and speak to him about his life’s work and the importance of reaching flow.

Brain World: So how did you become interested in psychology?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: It’s very hard to know that — you try to construct a story that makes sense; I have a pretty good one. I was born in a fairly nice, warm, affluent family in 1934 and then as I was growing up, things on the global front started unraveling. By the time I was 8 or 9 years old, the whole social context in which we were embedded fell apart and became kind of toxic in one way or another, and I was very surprised. All these grown-ups who seemed so smart and were always in control of things didn’t know what was happening from one week to the next. They put themselves in situations where they were either killed or being killed and so forth. We spent most evenings in this basement shelter — to avoid the bombings. That and everything being in short supply — meat became almost impossible to get. It was a situation that didn’t make sense. People could develop airplanes, and yet they went systematically about killing each other. Like most people at the end of World War II, I was confused and did not have much faith in the grown-ups and what they were doing.

In 1948, the Communist Party took over Hungary, and my father lost his ambassadorship in Rome. I left school when I was 13 and started working, and saved up enough money to take a vacation. I like mountains a lot and wanted to take a vacation to Switzerland to ski — but I couldn’t scrounge up enough money to ski. It was very early spring and the snow started melting on the slopes. I didn’t know what to do so I was walking around Geneva and heard there would be a presentation about flying saucers that was free. Everybody was seeing flying saucers after the war in Europe. I went to hear the lecture and it was very, very strange — because the guy didn’t talk about little green men or anything like that. He was explaining the psychic unity of Europe broke down during the war — you didn’t know who was the good guy and the bad guy — and because of that people have been digging into their collective unconscious without knowing it, and coming up with symbols that made them feel that they were whole again — that there was some unity and meaning in the universe, and we were part of it. I realized that there was a way that we all felt about the war and were looking for some kind of unity without realizing it.

BW: What do you think is the root of happiness in your understanding?

MC: I think in one sense, happiness is being able to do what you can do to express who you are. Do something that you feel is above average at least, in some part of your life. It could be physical, could be aesthetic, intellectual. You could be a very good salesman. There are very few people around you who can do this thing as well.

One of the people I interviewed was an old man in Manhattan and his job was making the best lox and bagels in that part of the city. He sounded like some of the poets or the Nobel Prize-winning physicists talking about his work. He says: “I get to work at 7 o’clock in the morning — get a delivery of four or five huge salmons, and have to fillet them for selling them with the bagels. I take the first one — drop it on the counter, and watch how the skin moves — that tells me where the bone structure of the fish is — like a three-dimensional x-ray so I can see inside — how the flesh trembles when it falls. So then I know what’s inside and take one of these five knives that I keep sharpening and start slicing — make sure to waste as little of the meat as possible, make the cuts as thin as can be, and do it as fast as I can. Those are the three things I want to achieve. And at the end of the day, I usually feel wow — I don’t think anyone could do so thin, without wasting, as fast as I can.”

And he had a regular life — he relaxed at home, he had some friends and a mission in life — to slice lox as thin as possible, and he could do it. You see most people that are happy are people who can do something well, that expresses their strength, their capacity, and hopefully they are kind of recognized.

BW: Is that what you would describe as an “autotelic” personality?

MC: Yeah, autotelic is something that was coined a few years ago — auto means “self” and telos is “goal” in Greek. So autotelic is an activity that you do because you just want to do it. Your complete attention is focused on what you are doing, and it feels effortless even though it is very difficult — maybe not physically but mentally or socially demanding. You are doing it like it is child’s play because you have learned whatever it takes to do it and you have enough interest to practice it for the sake of learning to do it well. Then, the doing it becomes a sense of full existence — every part of you is dedicated to doing it. We don’t know everything, but certainly all of these experiences seem to have in common that they are challenging, difficult, but they feel easy because you have done it enough — and you have learned — paid attention to what you are doing, so now you can do it effortlessly.

I’m a big sports person, and a skier, for instance, takes on a slope that seems extremely difficult and most people would fall, but the expert would learn not to do this, and loves to do it, and glides through the snow effortlessly. It doesn’t seem difficult at all, and when he’s doing it, he feels like wow — my whole body’s involved. Of course, you don’t think about that when you’re doing it — you just pay attention to what you’re doing and what’s happening around you — adapt to it automatically using your past experience to guide you to the right move. That’s probably the clearest example. But you get it from writing music or writing poetry, or writing an article for a magazine or website. You feel that this is good — and that’s how to tell — you may get paid for it, but even if you weren’t, you would maybe do it.

I started studying surgeons, for instance, because one surgeon at the University of Chicago medical school vacationed in Acapulco. So I ask what he does out there, and he says, “I only spend the first two days at the beach, and then I volunteer at the local hospital to do operations for free — and that was really energizing because they have such bad equipment and training, and I could really do operations that I could never do at the hospital here.”

BW: In your TED Talk, you talk about getting into the flow. So how do we get into the flow?

MC: Well, to get to the flow, by doing something that requires so much attention that you can’t get distracted, and if you get distracted you notice immediately — you’re not performing so well. And usually, it does happen when you’re doing something that’s not asked of you. Sometimes you do — even when it’s something you have to do.

But most people first experience this, well, all children experience this when they play, and they forget it once they get into school, and so forth. They have to stop doing childish things. They do only things they have to do and that’s not how you experience flow. You get flow by chasing butterflies, splashing in your bathtub, doing things that are voluntary — not imposed on you — but you are using your body or your mind to do something that you want to do. And if you do that, you may feel that this is really great, and you try again to do the same activity — and if you can get it again doing that activity, if it exhausts or challenges.

Flow occurs when you stretch your skills to the limit doing something, which is difficult — for your skills. I mean, at first when you learn music — doing an octave on the piano — you’re proud. I hit close to the sequence and that’s good — but if you do it for a while, it’s boring. You want to up the challenge, so you play “Three Blind Mice,” something extremely simple. By now you have learned more or less what the different keys can do.

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