This newsletter is something of a tribute to the great Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – a huge figure in my field – who died on October 20.
Csikszentmihalyi was central to the development of the field of positive psychology – the scientific study of how we can all live happier and more fulfilling lives. One article could never do all his work justice, so I want to concentrate on a concept that he is most associated with - flow.
The Csikszentmihalyi family came from central Europe – but World War II and the political upheavals that followed saw them exiled from their Hungarian homeland. The bereavements and sense of dislocation Mihaly’s family suffered during these years were painful, but far from unusual. Csikszentmihalyi said that the wartime traumas he witnessed in people all around him inspired his interest in happiness research.
While big external factors beyond our control – like wars – have an impact on our wellbeing, Csikszentmihalyi investigated the personal things we can all do to improve and maintain our happiness levels. And he identified a particular state when many of us are at our most happy – the state of flow.
Csikszentmihalyi had a formative childhood experience of exactly this state. While being held in a prison camp, he was able to escape the grimness of his situation by losing himself in games of chess.
Csikszentmihalyi moved to the US to study psychology, interviewing creative and talented folk from all walks of life – scientists, composers, athletes, and visual artists. He wanted to investigate the times when these people lost themselves in their activities – when they too felt so occupied and fulfilled that they forgot about physical discomforts like hunger, as well as their mental troubles and anxieties.
Csikszentmihalyi found that when people were in this “flow state” - because they were lost in writing music, or running a company, or even herding sheep - they described feeling immense pleasure and serenity. His interviewees also reported that the passage of time seemed to change – hours could go by during the flow state and it would feel like minutes.
Csikszentmihalyi realized that we’d all be happier if we tried to incorporate more flow in our lives. One of Csikszentmihalyi’s studies from the 1970s involved giving beepers to a group of teens. When the beeper went off, the young people had to record what they were doing and how they were feeling.
The subjects often admitted that they were bored and unhappy even when doing otherwise pleasurable tasks, like watching TV or eating something tasty. But Csikszentmihalyi noticed that the teens tended to report being at their happiest when engaged with challenging tasks that required skill and effort.
Taking on that kind of challenge takes work, but being in flow quietens our inner critic and distracts us from all the other issues were might normally ruminate on. It allows us to truly live in the moment.
To enter flow then, we need to seek out activities which are difficult enough to require our full attention, but are not beyond our skills. Csikszentmihalyi warned that simple tasks requiring no mastery would breed boredom and apathy – while taking on a tough job far beyond your capabilities would cause you worry and anxiety.
Not all of us are lucky enough to have careers where we can find this sort of stimulation on a daily basis, so if your life lacks flow it’s worth looking for hobbies or pastimes that stretch your skills.
Pick something where:
- You can get immediate feedback on how you are doing. “Hey, this painting is looking pretty good already.”
- You can realistically overcome the worry and anxiety phase of being an unskilled novice trying a difficult activity. Perhaps you can attend a class, learn from a friend or watch online tutorials.
- The reward is intrinsic – that’s to say you will get joy from simply doing the activity, not from the thought of winning prizes or impressing people.
Csikszentmihalyi warned against letting more and more of our waking hours slip away in the “very negative” apathy state - where you literally feel “you’re not doing anything”. He always worried that watching TV was a huge contributor to our numbing experience of apathy – but with an interesting caveat. He said “7 to 8%” of TV viewing actually occurred in flow, “but that’s when you pick a program you really want to watch”.
I find this a really interesting insight – taken from a long career of important insights. It frames increasing our personal happiness as a series of actions and choices we are free to make. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work was born of his childhood experiences of miserable events that individuals could do little to influence – but his research offers us clear and totally actionable things we can all do right this minute.
So next time you are in front of a screen, ask yourself: "Do I really want to watch this program?" And if the answer is “no”, then what flow-inducing thing could you be doing instead?
Stay well, and find your flow.
I hope you're enjoying The Science of Wellbeing, my weekly newsletter looking at the latest research on happiness. If you find the tips and insights I share useful, please share these articles to help spread the word.