Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Creator of the Creativity Concept as the State of Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi
(Pronounced: “cheek-sent-me-high-ee”).
(September 29, 1934, Fiume, Kingdom of Italy (now Rijeka, Croatia) – October 20, 2021, Claremont, California, U.S.) (Aged 87)
Nationality: American, Hungary/USA
Category: Scientists
Occupation: Psychologist, educator, best-selling author
Specification: Psychology of Creativity, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology.
Unique distinction: Creator of the concept of creativity as the “State of Flow”, one of the founders and leading figure in the field of positive psychology.
Doctoral advisor: Jacob W. Getzels
Doctoral student: Keith Sawyer
First book: Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (1975).
Spouse: Isabella Selega (m. 1961)
Children: 2 sons – Christopher and Mark
Gender: Male
1. Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.
2. To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments.
3. Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
4. Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.
5. The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
6. Individual enjoyment seems an evolutionary potential in humans, responsible in large part for technical and social advances.
7. Even without success, creative persons find joy in a job well done. Learning for its own sake is rewarding.

Achievements and contributions:

Social and professional position: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was a Hungarian-American psychologist and educator. He was the Emeritus Board of Trustees’ Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University in California and the founder and co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center.
He also chaired the psychology department at the University of Chicago
and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The main contribution to (Best known for):
Csikszentmihalyi is best known for his concept of “flow”—the mental state of “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake”, which he described in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” This concept has had a significant impact in education, management, sports, and the arts.
Csikszentmihalyi is known as one of the founders of positive psychology, a field that focuses on the positive aspects of human experience, such as happiness, well-being, and flourishing.
He has also made significant contributions to the study of creativity, personality and motivation, systems theory, cultural evolution and higher education. He has also authored several books in the fields of positive psychology and creativity.

Contributions to psychology:

1. Concept of “Flow”. Csikszentmihalyi first used the term “flow” in a 1988 collection of essays “Optimal Experience: Studies of Flow in Consciousness” that he co-edited with his wife, Isabella.
Csikszentmihalyi’s studies on flow included interviews with particularly creative professionals. His research led him to conclude that happiness is an internal state of being and as a matter of external factors. He found that
persons were their most creative, productive, and happy when in a state of flow.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, Flow is a state of complete absorption in an activity, where a person is fully focused on the task at hand and feels a sense of enjoyment and fulfilment. As he explained it, flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Csikszentmihalyi has identified eight characteristics of flow or enjoyment and job satisfaction.
1. It is the result of a challenging task.
2. The person experiencing “flow” becomes part of the task rather than standing outside it.
3. “Flow” is involved with the pursuit of definite goals
4. It depends on immediate feedback.
5. It requires a high level of concentration.
6. “Paradox of control” -flow gives the user a sense of control without striving for control.
7. А sense of self disappears.
8. The sense of time is altered.
Later, when describing the manifestation of flow in creative activity, he added another characteristic to the list:
9. The activity becomes autotelic.
“Flow” was not the same as fun, or as joy. It did not depend, as did Maslow’s idea of self-actualization, on the meeting of a basic need for security, and indeed it sometimes arose in highly negative situations.
The flow, creativity and happiness. According to Csikszentmihalyi, focus and concentration hold the key to achieving flow. Distraction interrupts the flow. When we are in flow, we do not usually feel happy – for the simple reason that in flow we feel only what is relevant to the activity. Happiness is a distraction. It is only after we get out of flow, at the end of a session or in moments of distraction within it, that we might indulge in feeling happy.
In the long run, the more flow we experience in daily life, the more likely we are to feel happy overall.
The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing.
Since this state is based on focused attention, mindfulness, meditation, yoga and martial arts, improves one’s ability to achieve a state of flow.
In short, flow could be described as a state where attention, motivation, and the situation meet, resulting in a kind of productive harmony or synergistic feedback.
Subsequently, Csikszentmihalyi extended the idea of “flow” in several more books, in which he investigated the peculiarities of its manifestation in various spheres of life activities.
Csikszentmihayi’s concept of flow has had a significant impact on creativity theory and on psychology in general.

2. Theory of Creativity.
Csikszentmihalyi has also made significant contributions to the study of creativity. In his book “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (1996), based on interviews with 91 people considered to have had an outstanding impact on their domains (the scientists included 14 Nobel Prize winners), noted:
“Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives for several reasons…First, most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the results of creativity…
The second reason creativity is so fascinating is that when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.”
He has identified several key components of the creative process, including the importance of domain-specific knowledge, the ability to take risks, and the need for a supportive social environment.

Systems Model of Creativity.
Csikszentmihalyi always argued that creativity needs to be seen in a broader context. Creativity results from a complex interaction between a person and their environment or culture and also depends upon timing.
Creativity does not happen inside people’s heads but in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context. It is a systemic rather than an individual phenomenon.
Creativity results from the interaction of a system consisting of three elements:
1. Domain (culture) which consists of a set of symbolic rules and procedures.
2. Field, which includes all the individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain. These experts recognize and validate the innovation, and decide whether a new idea or product can be accepted. These people decide what new works of art must be recognised, preserved, and remembered.
3. Individual (person), who uses symbols of a given domain, comes up with a new idea or sees a new pattern. He brings novelty into the symbolic domain. His or her thoughts or actions change a domain or establish a new domain.
Creative surroundings.
Creativity can be stimulated by a congenial physical environment. The closer one is to the major research laboratories, journals, departments, institutes, and conference centres, the greater the chances of being creative.
“an idea or product that deserves the label ‘creative’ arises from the synergy of many sources and not only from the mind of a single person… And a genuinely creative accomplishment is seldom the result of a sudden insight, a light-bulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work.”
The creative process consists of five steps: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration.

Cultural Evolution.
In his book The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium (1993) Csikszentmihalyi tried to join the idea of “flow” with that of evolutionary progress.
He noted that the products of creativity also need to have a receptive audience that can evaluate them.
A creation vanishes if it is not recognized. ‘Memes’ are the cultural equivalent of genes, things such as language, customs, laws, songs, theories and values. If strong, they survive, otherwise they are lost. Creative people seek to create memes that can have an impact on their cultures. The greater the creator, the longer lasting and deeper the impact of the memes.

Creative Personality.
Csikszentmihalyi has also identified several characteristics of highly creative people, including:
1. Creative people take their intuition seriously, looking for patterns where others see confusion, and are able to make connections between discrete areas of knowledge.
2. The creative are both humble and proud, seen to share is complexity – they ‘tend to bring the entire range of human possibilities within themselves’. they ‘own their shadow’, not repressing any dark side, yet on the other hand do not hold back in their self-expression.
3. Creative people gravitate to centres where their interests can be satisfied more easily, where they can meet like-minded people, and where their work can be appreciated.
4. Many creatives grew up in families whose parents pushed them to educational or career attainment; a family that values intellectual endeavour and frequently had very involved, loving mothers who expected a lot from them.

Csikszentmihalyi especially emphasized that сreative individuals, can to express opposing traits at the same time and that they have the following characteristics:
1. Complexity. Having a complex personality means being able to express the full range of traits that are potentially present in the human repertoire shadow side
A complex personality involves the ability to move from one extreme to the other as the occasion requires.
2. They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work.
3. Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naïve at the same time.
4. They able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the convergent and the divergent.
5 . A related combination of playfulness and discipline, a playfully light attitude and also persistence, perseverance and industriousness are both typical of creative individuals.
6. Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other. They break away from the present without losing touch with the past.
7. Such people also show shades of both extroversion and introversion.
8. These individuals are well aware of the scholars who have preceded them and their contributions. They also are aware of the role that luck has played in their own achievements.
9. Creative individuals display a sense of security and self-assurance and also openness and sensitivity.
10. Creative individuals are also able to manage the paradox between ambition and selflessness.
11. They can be simultaneously ambitious and aggressive and willing to subordinate their own personal comfort and advancement to the success of the projects they are working on.
12. These are psychologically androgynous people who possess of both masculine and feminine characteristics and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities.
13. They are both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.
14. Most creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it is well.
Dedication and intrinsic motivation. Successful creative people tend to have two things in abundance: curiosity; and drive. Truly creative people work for their own sake, and if they make a public discovery or become famous, that is a bonus. What drives them, more than ‘rewards’, is the desire to find or create order where there was none before. Perhaps the most important quality of creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. That is why these people forgo more lucrative career opportunities to remain focused on what they like to do.
Truly creative people have the capacity to change the fundamental way we see, understand, appreciate or do things, whether it is by the invention of a new machine or the writing of a set of songs.

3. Motivation.
Most of Csikszentmihalyi’s final works focused on the idea of motivation and the factors that contribute to motivation, challenge, and overall success.
Csikszentmihalyi’s work on this topic has focused on the concept of “autotelic” activities, which are activities that are inherently rewarding and enjoyable.
He has identified several characteristics of autotelic activities, including a clear set of goals, immediate feedback, and a balance between challenge and skill.
The autotelic personality performs acts because they are intrinsically rewarding, rather than to achieve external goals.
Such people can learn to enjoy situations that most others would find miserable.
Research has shown that aspects associated with the autotelic personality include curiosity, persistence, and humility.

Intrinsic motivation. One personality characteristic that Csikszentmihalyi researched in detail was that of intrinsic motivation.
He and his colleagues found that intrinsically motivated people were more likely to be goal-directed and enjoy challenges that would lead to an increase in overall happiness.
Csikszentmihalyi identified intrinsic motivation as a powerful trait to optimize and enhance positive experiences, feelings, and overall well-being as a result of challenging experiences. The results indicated a new personality construct, which he called work orientation, characterized by “achievement, endurance, cognitive structure, order, play, and low impulsivity”.

Positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi is one of the founders of positive psychology, a field that focuses on the positive aspects of human experience, such as happiness, well-being, flourishing, and the conditions that enable people to flourish and live satisfying lives.
Positive psychology emerged as a response to the dominant focus in psychology on pathology and mental illness.
In 2000, Csikszentmihalyi with Martin Seligman published an influential article in American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association, that introduced the profession to positive psychology.
One result of Csikszentmihalyi’s work with Seligman on positive psychology was to create several research centers across the country that would focus on the principles of this fledgling field.
His work has focused on the study of human strengths and virtues and highlighted the importance of positive experiences, such as flow, in promoting well-being and happiness.
Csikszentmihalyi has also identified several key factors that contribute to a meaningful life, well-being and flourishing, including the pursuit of challenging goals, the development of personal strengths, and the cultivation of positive relationships and also state of flow, creativity, and intrinsic motivation.
His research has identified several factors that contribute to well-being, including social support, autonomy, competence, and a sense of meaning and purpose.
Csikszentmihalyi was the co-founder and co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center, which is still today dedicated to researching the factors that contribute to a high quality of life.

Business and innovation. Csikszentmihalyi made a significant contribution to the discussion of business applications of “flow” in his book Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning (2003). A lot of corporations and the business community tried to apply his ideas toward the goal of maximizing employee productivity.
Csikszentmihalyi was a true pioneer in the field of psychology and is considered one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

Honours and awards:
Csikszentmihalyi has received numerous awards and honours for his contributions to psychology, including:
Fulbright Fellowship (1962-63), Guggenheim Fellowship (1974-75).
Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association (1990).
Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association (2000)
In 2009, Csikszentmihalyi was awarded the Clifton Strengths Prize.
He received the Széchenyi Prize at a ceremony in Budapest in 2011.
He was awarded the Grand Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary in 2014
He was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1986)
Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1991)
He was a member National Academy of Education (1992) and the Academy of Leisure Sciences.
Major works
He was the prolific author of many influential and widely cited books and over 120 articles or book chapters on a wide variety of topics in psychology.
Here are a select few:

1. Csikszentmihalyi, (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
2. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Csikszentmihalyi, Isabella Selega, eds. (1988). Optimal Experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1988). Society, culture, and person: A systems view of creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), The nature of creativity: Contemporary psychological perspectives (pp. 325-339). New York: Cambridge University Press.
4. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
This seminal work that introduced the concept of “flow”, appeared on bestseller lists and translated into more than 20 languages. By late 1991 it had sold more than 300,000 copies.
His other books expanded on his theories in a variety of directions

5. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1994). “The Evolving Self”, New York: Harper Perennial .
6. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.
7.Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books.
8. Gardner, Howard, Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Damon, William (2002). Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet. New York, Basic Books.
9. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2003). Good Business: Leadership, Flow¬, and the Making of Meaning
10. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2013). Flow: The psychology of happiness
11. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2014). The systems model of creativity: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Springer Science + Business Media.
A collection of writings on creativity, including his systems model of creativity.
12. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2014) Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht. – A collection of writings on positive psychology, including his work on flow and happiness.

Career and personal life

Family background.
Csikszentmihalyi was born on September 29, 1934, to Hungarian parents, in Fiume, then part of the Kingdom of Italy and now known as Rijeka in Croatia. His family name derives from the village of Csíkszentmihály (‘Saint Michael from the province of Csik’, originally a Hungarian province).
He was the third son of a career diplomat at the Hungarian Consulate in Fiume.
During World War II, though still a child, he was held for a time in an Italian prison camp and witnessed the suffering of the people around him. That’s when he first decided to study the causes and ways to achieve happiness. There he became interested in chess, seeing it as a way of escaping reality.”I discovered, -noted Mihaly, -chess was a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those things didn’t matter. For hours I’d just focus within a reality that had clear rules and goals. If you knew what to do, you could survive there.”
His father Alfred Csikszentmihalyi was appointed Hungarian Ambassador to Italy shortly after the Second World War, moving the family to Rome.
In 1949, Csikszentmihalyi’s father was fired by the new Hungarian regime. The family decided to stay in Rome as refugees, opening a restaurant there.
After finishing school, he worked as a travel agent and news photographer.
He did paintings on the side and began to realize how addictive creative work could be.
Travelling in Switzerland when he was about 16, he heard a lecture by the early psychoanalyst Carl Jung about the mass delusion that had seized the European mind and resulted in the destruction of the war. Fascinated by psychology, Csikszentmihalyi began reading Jung’s books and those of Sigmund Freud.
Learning that psychology was better entrenched in American universities, Csikszentmihalyi applied to the prestigious University of Chicago.
In 1956, he emigrated to the United States at the age of 22. Csikszentmihalyi landed in Chicago with a total of $1.25 in his pocket.
He got a job as a night auditor at a downtown Chicago hotel to support himself while studying at the University of Chicago.

Education: Csikszentmihalyi had a classical gymnasium education. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Chicago in 1959 and was accepted into the psychology Ph.D. program there. During his time at university, he was influenced by the writings of a humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow on self-actualization focused on individual engagement in self-development, fulfillment and personal growth.
He received a Ph.D. in Human Development from the University of Chicago in 1965. Thesis: “Artistic problems and their solutions; an exploration of creativity in the arts” (1965).

Career highlights:

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1965, from the University of Chicago, Csikszentmihalyi was hired at Lake Forest College in suburban Chicago as an instructor.
In 1967 he was elevated to assistant professor and in 1968 to associate professor. He served as chair of the sociology and anthropology department from 1967 to 1969. In 1968 he became a U.S. citizen.
During this time, he developed the basic model of the Flow experience.
In 1969, Mihaly was called back to the University of Chicago, where he became an associate professor, and professor of human development (in 1980) and later Chair of the Department of Psychology.
From 1970 to 1971, he was a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii.
In 1999, he accepted an offer to teach at the Drucker School of Management of the Claremont Graduate University in California, where he later started the first doctoral program in Positive Psychology.
With his arrival at the Claremont Graduate University in 1999, when he held the position of CGU’s Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management, Csikszentmihalyi founded the Quality of Life Research Center (QLRC) with colleague and co-director Jeanne Nakamura, who is the current director.
Founded in 1999, the Quality of Life Research Center studies the field of positive psychology—including such human strengths as creativity, engagement, intrinsic motivation, and responsibility. The main goal of the centre is to investigate those aspects of human experience that make life worth living.
He established the “Positive Psychology” program at Claremont Graduate University in the 2000s, serving as its director.
He served as President of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2000.

Personal life:

Csikszentmihalyi married psychologist and writer Isabella Selega in 1960, and the couple raised two sons.
His wife Isabella, with whom they lived happily together for 60 years, was a professional editor who also edited and co-edited some of her husband’s books.
Their sons – Christopher Csíkszentmihály is an artist and professor of information science at Cornell University and Mark Csikszentmihalyi – a professor of philosophical and religious traditions of China and East Asia at the University of California, Berkeley.
He was a grandfather to Emily Isabella, Henry Stephen, Kinga Jane, Aschalew Alexander, Zofia Rose Krystyna and Iris Althea Diana Isabella.

Personality: Csikszentmihalyi was known for his passion for understanding human experiences and for his dedication to promoting the positive aspects of human psychology.
He is described as a kind, thoughtful, and insightful individual who is deeply committed to his work.
he is also remembered for the ways he positively influenced the lives of his students and colleagues.
Csikszentmihalyi was always giving his time and support to anyone entering the QLRC offices, whereby he was generous with friends and strangers alike.
That made a deep impression on students, Jeanne Nakamura noted, and they appreciated “not just Mike’s creativity, intellect, and wisdom but also his humour, warmth, and generosity— he could be unstinting with his time and attention. Visitors to the QLRC were often awed by this.”
As a teacher and lecturer, Csikszentmihalyi was deeply humble with a low-key style of presentation that put students and colleagues alike at ease.
“He was the best example of the things that he studied about the life well lived.”-noted Jeanne Nakamura
Csikszentmihalyi died on 20 October 2021 of cardiac arrest, at his home in Claremont, California, at the age of 87.

Zest: Csikszentmihalyi grew up in Fiume, Florence, and Rome, speaking Hungarian, Italian, and German fluently.
He was an enthusiastic mountain climber and often used that activity as an example of a demanding task that could produce the “flow” experience. Csikszentmihalyi also has enjoyed a robust following online. Since the first appearance of his 2004 TED Talk, “Flow, the secret to happiness,” it has received more than 6.7 million views.
Flow has been translated into more than 20 languages, and its related studies have had impacts reaching far beyond the world of academia. The book influenced former President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, along with Jimmy Johnson, who used Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas to prepare for the 1993 Super Bowl as coach of the Dallas Cowboys
He wrote that the world we inhabit today also teeters between becoming either the lovely garden or the barren desert. And its future, like all of us, is now closely tied to human creativity.


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