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Thinking

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Theory of Flow and Happiness

What is happiness? Is it success? Dominating the competition? Making truckloads of money? According to today’s leading expert on the subject of positive psychology, none of the above are essential constituents of a happy life.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has focused his life studying the phenomena of happiness and the psychology of the state of flow. According to his research, finding joy and pleasure in the activity itself is far more rewarding than the anticipated outcome of a successful effort.

Early History


It is hardly ironic that the world’s leading authority on human happiness was exposed to so much human sorrow and misery during his youth. Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: chick-sent-me-high) was born in a small village in what was the Kingdom of Italy in 1934. Europe was about to become the battleground for the Axis expansion and Allied Retaliation. 1

Before he had reached adolescence, Csikszentmihalyi had lost two half-brothers to the Soviets and spent time in a prison camp. Here he learned to play chess and would later describe how the game allowed him to divert his mind from the terrible circumstances that surrounded him.

After the war, at the age of 16, Csikszentmihalyi traveled to Switzerland where he attended a lecture by the renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung’s interest in the positive aspects of human psychology struck a chord with the impressionable young Csikszentmihalyi, who was also seeking a better way to organize his own thought processes.

At the age of 22, Csikszentmihalyi left Hungary and immigrated to the United States to further his education at the University of Chicago. After many years of exhaustive studies supported by late night work, Csikszentmihalyi graduated with a PhD in 1965 and began his work as a professor at the same university in 1969.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi The Psychology of Optimal Experience


Perhaps his greatest work was his elucidation of the flow state. He outlined this concept in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” In this work, Csikszentmihalyi proposes that humans are happiest when in the state of flow, which represents the highest level of intrinsic motivation.

Oddly enough, flow can’t be achieved by relaxing on a tropical beach with a daiquiri in hand and toes in the sand. Flow is achieved when the body and mind are synched in a specific direction and activity that is engaging for the sake of the activity alone.

The Components of Flow: Challenge vs. Skills


Csikszentmihalyi explained that the state of flow isn’t achieved without a specific set of components and conditions. It is not enough to simply enjoy the activity or task at hand, you have to be faced with a task or problem sufficiently challenging for your skills and experience. This will allow you to find the engagement enjoyable rather than stressing or boring. 2

Since flow is generated by the complete enjoyment of the experience to the exclusion of all else, the balance between the performer’s skill and the challenge of the performance must be precise. If the task is too easy for your skill levels, your mind will soon wander off and the task will become tedious.

If the challenge of the task is beyond your skill levels, frustration and anxiety will soon ensue and the task becomes a nightmare. When the skill levels and the challenge of the task are well matched, the mind shifts gears and enters the state of flow.

The following are some of the key components of the flow state as identified by Csikszentmihalyi and others before him: 3


    • Feelings of satisfaction and reward from the activity (intrinsically rewarding)

    • Serenity and diminished feelings of self-doubt

    • Diminished sense of time as awareness in the moment is increased

    • Deep connection with the process and outcome

    • Immediate feedback loop that improves the quality of effort

    • Complete confidence that the task is within one’s capacity

    • Vague awareness of exhaustion, thirst, or hunger


Motivation and the State of Flow Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi


Flow is the ultimate form of motivation one can achieve and is a tangible reward for doing what you love. Everyone has experienced this near-epiphanic state at some point in their life. Maybe it was while exercising, during a musical performance, or while cooking, writing or designing.

Has this ever happened to you? You are engaged in an activity that you enjoy very much when all of a sudden your sense of awareness and time mysteriously disappear. In their place, your attention to details are suddenly heightened. You feel a deeper connection between your body and the task at hand. The connection runs so deep there is no telling if you are performing the action or if the action is simply being performed. You may feel exhausted by the efforts, but strength and energy preside you press on.

Csikszentmihalyi explains that when operating under intrinsic motivation, the ego vanishes and every action made simply falls intuitively into the next like notes in a melody. This vanishing act is caused by physiological alterations in brain functions that occur in the state of flow. 4

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, dampening impulsiveness, and projecting a self-image in the mind. The PFC is highly evolved and allows for great versatility in carrying out planned responses. It is a big part of what maturing into an adult is all about.

When the brain begins to notice that its patterns are becoming repetitive, it saves power and optimizes its function. By shutting down the PFC, a large portion of the conscious mind is given a break and stops interfering with the activity. This is very similar to the Zen doctrine of “no-mind.” This basically says thinking can get in the way of being.

Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation


According to Csikszentmihalyi, intrinsic motivation lies at the heart of flow and finding satisfaction in work, play, and life. Ask yourself why you do any of the things you do and you will find your set of personal motivators. One way of categorizing these motivators is by asking if they compel you from the inside (intrinsic motivation) or the outside (extrinsic motivation).

Don’t get the wrong idea, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are important to feeling satisfied and rewarded. Nevertheless, the effects of these different motivators can change behavior and alter the ways people go about achieving their goals.

What Is Extrinsic Motivation? Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi


Extrinsic motivators are rewards we receive for behaving a certain way. For example, if you stay up late studying for a test so that you can get a good grade, the grade would be the extrinsic motivator. Extrinsic motivators compel us to act in a specific way or engage in specific activities to avoid reprisals or collect rewards.

These motivators are great for laying down social order, attracting customers, and communicating our wishes and intentions to others. But, when it comes to finding the happiness and satisfaction that makes work a joy, extrinsic motivators fall short.

In one of his earlier studies, Csikszentmihalyi found that there was not that great of a difference in the happiness experienced by those that made $35,000 a year and those that raked in over $300,000 each year. A paycheck is another example of an external motivator. This led him to believe that extrinsic motivators are not as important as intrinsic motivators for being happy. 5

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi What Is Intrinsic Motivation?


Intrinsic motivators urge us to engage in behavior or activities because of the personal satisfaction that comes from the activity itself. Often this is regardless of the outcome.

Going off the same example used above, if you are studying late simply because you love the subject and want to learn more, this is the result of being intrinsically motivated.

Basically, the task or activities themselves are rewarding enough to justify engagement. Studies have shown that when extrinsic motivators are added to an activity that is already intrinsically motivating, some of the original intrinsic motivation is diminished. This is called the overjustification effect.

Added Benefits of the Flow State


Csikszentmihalyi stumbled across the concept of the flow state when trying to understand what makes people happy and when people are the happiest. As it turns out, being intrinsically motivated and in the flow state are some of the happiest times of our lives.

The best thing about this brillant state is that it can be cultivated. Making flow a greater part of your life has other advantages beyond sheer happiness.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi Enhanced Performance


The mind works much faster when it is not being slogged through the regular distractions, urgencies, and tediousness. These can result from an imbalance between challenges and the skills needed to face them effectively. When the mind reaches the state of flow, these obstacles can be cleared in a single bound three at a time. This allows tasks and activities to be approached with ingenuity, innovation and creativity that can be hard to find otherwise.

Improved Future Performance


Nurturing and cultivating the state of flow is one of the most rewarding and satisfying pursuits one could hope for. Since reaching this zone requires a degree of mastery, cultivating flow requires improving skills and seeking greater challenges required for entering the state on new levels.

How to Cultivate the Flow State


The only way to enjoy the state of flow is to begin practicing it as often as you can. By applying some of the insight provided in the reading above, flow can be cultivated for pleasure and improved performance.

Find a Challenge Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi


The most important part of flow is having a good balance between skills and challenges. Much of this revolves around the goals we set for ourselves, but most is about how dedicated and committed we are to the activity and why. Ask yourself why you are involved in the task and follow your intrinsic motivators.

Set Goals and Performance Indicators


Your tasks and activities will need to have clear goals and a process that is second nature to you. Remember, if the task is too easy or the goals too vague, you will get bored. If the challenge is too high, you won’t be able to relax into a comfortable and confident state.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi Prepare to Focus Completely


Take a quick look around and make sure you won’t be distracted while achieving the state of flow. Make sure you have set aside plenty of time to begin your activity, build up to the state of flow, and ride the wave of improved cognitive performance for as long as possible. Too many disruptions can be as frustrating as a task beyond your capacity.

In Conclusion


Through the work of Csikszentmihalyi we can better understand how to find fulfilment in work and daily lives. The state of flow is something that can be experienced by everyone and used to improve efforts, enhance performance, and live a happier life.

If you feel weary of extrinsic motivators pushing you around, consider a positive switch by getting in touch with your intrinsic motivators and begin enjoying your life.

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