Iconic psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi tells Tomasz Stawiszyński about his recipe for a particular kind of happiness – a satisfaction with what you do here and now.
The flow starts on Saturday, 30th November 2019 at noon (local time) in Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. That’s when I get a message from Zuza Lewandowska, my colleague from “Przekrój” who is responsible for foreign relations. The message is short. “Mihály Csíkszentmihályi will meet you after all. Be at his place in Clermont tomorrow at 2pm. Good luck.”
Csíkszentmihályi, one of the most important contemporary psychologists, had been having health problems for the last few months. Just when it seemed that everything was arranged and that we would soon have our conversation, the interview was unfortunately called off.
I had other appointments in California and I’d already bought the tickets, so I went to Los Angeles anyway, travelling together with my wife, Cveta Dimitrova. We were hoping quietly that Mihály would get better after all. And he did.
We arrive on time. Clermont is a small town about 40 kilometres from Los Angeles. The house sits among green gardens where lemon and orange trees grow. Izabela, Mihály’s wife, opens the door. It turns out she’s from Poland. After the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in April 1945, she and her parents emigrated to America. She speaks excellent Polish, with an incredibly clear accent, but still uses the pre-war syntax. However, she flatly refuses a long conversation in Polish, for she claims that the language makes her uncomfortable.
Then Mihály joins us. Both he and Izabela are so friendly and open that after a quarter of an hour it seems we’re all old friends. They show us photo albums and tell us about their sons – Christopher the artist, and Mark the sinology professor at the University of Berkeley.
Before we sit down with Mihály to talk about his concept of flow – a state of mind when the division between subject and object completely disappears, giving way to joy and intense engagement with whatever you are doing at that moment, which can be anything from skiing to writing a symphony – I ask for Mark’s email address. An interview with an expert on Taoism has been a dream of mine for a long time.
And, after our talk, Mihály says that he won’t let us leave empty-handed. So we drive off with a huge bag of freshly-picked citrus fruits. But that’s not the end of the flow. Back in Berkley, I email Mark, asking him for a meeting. The answer comes straight away: “The interview’s one thing, but you must visit us in our home in San Francisco first.” Thus we meet almost all the Csíkszentmihályis.
Mark, his wife and two of his five children give us a tour around the Mission District. Then we go to Gracias Madre, a terrific vegan Mexican restaurant. The evening passes by imperceptibly – as is the case with flow. We go back to Berkeley enchanted by the generosity of our hosts. The next day I meet Mark at his office at the university… But that’s a whole other story.
When I was editing the interview you’re about to read, I was struck by the realization that my meeting with Csíkszentmihályi made me understand flow better than any previous readings. A lack of barriers or artifice, openness, kindness, closeness, having conversations, being together, thinking, exchanging, creating. That’s flow in its essence. The concept’s author is its best incarnation.
Tomasz Stawiszyński: What is the key to happiness?
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: Well, I wish I knew. My research looks at a certain kind of happiness, which comes from feeling that you are doing something that you like to do, that is worthwhile and beneficial for other people. This is genuine well-being, although other people get their well-being from stealing or killing. I’m not saying that the kind of happiness that I’ve been studying is the only possible one. It’s just that we should try to cultivate for the future if we want to survive as a species and if we want to be happier.
Is that the definition of flow? Is flow a neutral moral state that can be achieved by, for example, composers, as well as arsonists or thieves?
Yes, flow is neutral. It could be used for good or bad things. In both cases, there appears to be the same kind of involvement and excitement, but certainly the consequences will be quite different. My task is to enhance the probability that flow is used for good so that people will do things not just because they are paid or rewarded, but because it leads to the kind of life that they want. That should start with schools. Schools are necessary, but pupils and students often don’t like them. So the question is: how can you change schools to make them more enjoyable and more flow-like? The same thing with work. What can we change in order to make people feel good about what they’re doing? How can we fix workplace conditions so that flow becomes the norm? Two of my students are in the military now: one chose the air force, the other went to the navy, and they’re both trying to use psychology for the well-being of soldiers. There are some aspects of military service that shouldn’t be pleasant at all, but still, what the armed forces do should benefit its members and society as a whole. Other students of mine are applying what they’ve learned to asylums. The contribution of our work is always the same: it’s all about changing things that need to be done to make them at least a little bit more pleasant.
However, you’ve said a lot of times that happiness is very much an inner state, quite independent of external conditions.
There are two sides to that question. First, to what extent the ability to experience flow is conditioned by genetics or social environment. Second, how flow can improve our environment and our life. Both of those questions are important. The genetic contribution seems indispensable for certain types of flow. If you want to be a good musician, you have to have good hearing. If you want to climb rocks, you need certain physical traits. However, there are many people who experience flow in situations where you would never think it could happen – people in asylums, people who suffer from very severe illnesses. Some of them can enjoy their life despite that.
What is their secret?
There is no one secret; there is no one quick solution. Sometimes people who become disabled break down. They think that losing the use of their hands or the ability to run means nothing good ever will happen to them. In such cases, the people who know about flow try to say: “OK, you can’t use your hands or your legs, but what else could you do?” And therefore someone takes up painting with his mouth because painting was the thing that he always really wanted to do but couldn’t. You see, there isn’t one simple solution. You have to get to know the person, his problems and opportunities. People who apply flow in therapy do exactly that: they analyse the potential of the person. Most of us have something that we can and like to do. If you discover what it is and begin to develop it, then your life will seem meaningful again. Though, of course, there are people who are too far removed from a healthy life or from having a healthy brain, and who can never be helped that way.
Flow is also a state that is present in creative processes. While most of 20th-century psychology was concentrated on psychopathology, your research has always been about positive human potential, so to speak. But strangely enough, there is a connection between pathology and creative talent. Many famous artists, composers and so on were dealing with more or less serious mental disabilities. What’s your view on this connection? And is it the case that so-called positive psychology fails to notice something important here?
I haven’t studied that issue, however, you can’t be creative unless you have some connection to regular thinking or regular discourse. A person who is not capable of feeling any similarity with others in their thinking, someone who is really ‘crazy’, would not be able to do creative work. There are many socially unfit people who at the same time have some special talent and therefore get recognition. But if you don’t have at least that one talent, it’s very hard to find your place in society. Traditionally, the boundary between madness and creativity was thought of as blurred, although it was to do with the fact that the creative people aren’t always able to explain what they actually think or aren’t able to connect with the right people in society, and therefore everyone says: “Oh they’re crazy.” But then some time passes or society starts to listen more carefully and then those creative people get to be thought of as geniuses.
So you think that the label of ‘madman’ is simply a result of a lack of proper understanding, rather than a reflection of someone’s mental condition?
Yes, that’s right. On the other hand, some people get flow very easily while doing trivial or even stupid things. These people may be happy, but they are not contributing much to anybody else’s well-being. Of course, you would like all surgeons and all engineers to be happy in their work. But then, unfortunately, some people get flow from torturing others. That’s why you have to judge flow not just from the standpoint of the individual’s well-being, but in the broader social context. You don’t want to encourage people to get flow from hurting others.
Why does one person get flow from cruelty and the other from creative work?
I think it depends on the skills that you develop as a child. If your parents don’t pay much attention to you except when you do harm – for example, taking the wings off a butterfly – you begin to associate destructive behaviour with recognition. I think a lot of people who end up being criminals were really frustrated as children, for they never learned to enjoy anything productive or meaningful.
Have you then become more pessimistic in thinking about flow? After all, violent and dangerous people get it as well?
I would be pessimistic, if we didn’t pay attention to violence and if nobody tried to do anything about it – but we do. There are nice openings here and there. For example, architects became interested in flow, because it becomes ever more obvious that there is a relationship between what our cities or homes are like and our well-being or social relationships. The potential for change is enormous. Notice too that flow often exists in friendship, when you’re talking to another person. And there’s also the field of long-term romantic relationships. You get flow when you enjoy being with the other person or exchange things – physically and psychologically. I think that’s our next challenge: how can we increase flow in family life, between spouses, between children and parents, but also between friends.
Is it something that we can learn? Is there a technique to it?
Of course you can learn it. I already mentioned therapists who use flow in rehabilitating disabled war veterans or in psychiatric hospitals. Pretty soon flow will become an important part of mental health therapy. Doctors are beginning to understand it. There are, for example, studies on flow in dental research. Also, sports psychologists have taken up flow because it can improve performance. Although adding enjoyment to sport is easy – it is much more difficult in the case of dentistry, but still possible.
How did you become involved in studying the creative and positive aspects of the human psyche?
I spent World War II in Italy, my father was the Hungarian ambassador in Rome. After the war, he lost his job and Hungary sentenced him to death in absentia, so we couldn’t go back. We were living in poverty and we didn’t have anything to do. When I was about 10 years old, I started hiking and I joined a boy scout group. Then I became a scout leader and a fairly good rock climber. Also, I liked to paint. Those experiences taught me that you can always do something to improve your situation. So in my later research I tried to apply what I had learned from everyday life.
Was your research helpful to you personally? Do you have often have this flow state?
I don’t know if I would have discovered that on my own, without collaborators and colleagues, but I don’t actually make a distinction between work and play. My wife and I have two sons; both of them are having great lives, really constructive, and they both enjoy what they’re doing. Some of it I think they learned from us.
Your work is sometimes compared to Chinese concepts like the Tao. Incidentally, your son Mark Csíkszentmihályi is an expert on Taoism and a sinology professor at Berkeley. I once read that while Taoism sees the human mind as essentially harmonious, you see it as chaotic and messy.
The human brain evolved to be able to pay attention to all kinds of things simultaneously. That’s why we are who we are. The downside to that is that there is no clear scenario we can follow in a given situation. Animals always know what they have to do. If they’re hungry, they look for food. We, however, have to control our natural impulses in order to achieve things that we feel are good. Any action requires repression, as the Freudian scholars argue. If there’s too much repression, then you become a zombie and again you don’t know what to do. The difficult thing is to find some balance between being free and at the same time being able to focus, to control yourself and to pay attention to what your society requires. That’s not easy.
Can this attitude help overcome today’s crisis of democracy?
I haven’t got any great words of wisdom as far as that subject is concerned, but I think that people need assurance. They want to be able to say: this is good, this is bad. Unfortunately, they assume that the right choice is the one that’s best for them at a given moment. Chinese philosophy emphasizes self-reflection and careful analysis of internal and external conditions. It says you should always weigh up everything and then make a choice that’s best in this particular situation. We don’t do that.
Either because we did not learn it early in life or we don’t have enough options to choose from. If you have a choice between fascists and communists, you’re not in a very good place. You may say that the centrists are better, but if there are no centrists, what do you do? Sometimes you just go for the extreme left or the extreme right, because that’s what’s available. It would be nice to have a party for those who are not members of any party, but who believe in making the world a better place.
Are we in a critical moment in the history of Western civilization?
The more danger we create, the more critical it gets. The world should become better and better, but if you have the ability to destroy it, you should first try to limit the risks, and then deal with everything else.
Does this ability stem from technological progress?
Not only that. Social life needs improvements in almost all areas. We have to change our schools, work, the pension system, the health system.
The main challenge right now seems to be the climate crisis, or, to be precise, the fact that we don’t do anything to prevent it. Politicians seem uninterested in committing to any action and they ignore the very real danger that scientists are talking about.
I don’t think the politicians get enough good, strong information. Many people working for the government underestimate the problem. On the other hand, there’s no clear plan for action. Everybody says we should limit air pollution, but how do we do that? I don’t think anyone knows right now. I certainly don’t. Do you?
No, I don’t know either. All I know that it requires political action and that individual gestures, however noble, aren’t enough.
But the political action requires knowledge to be effective. And I’m sorry to say this knowledge is unavailable.
Do you think that there is hope for humanity?
There are many hopes, but I don’t know if any of them will work out. It would be great if we had a simple recipe that we could distribute through television and social media. Most people want something concrete.
And you don’t have any advice for them?
I’m not in the business of giving advice. Although there is one pretty obvious thing: we must realize that we depend on other people, we depend on the air, we depend on animals, we depend on the Earth. Therefore we have to find a way of living with them all. We have to live with Russians and Chinese and Americans and bears and wolves. There must be ways of doing that. As long as you don’t close your eyes, you look for a path that leads towards a better understanding between people. First it’s you and your family, and then your further family, your nation, and finally humanity. And then the environment. All these things are related. If you want to be healthy, you need clean air and sunshine, and an economy that’s working. You need people around you who don’t try to kill you and whom you don’t want to kill. It’s very simple [laughs].
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi claims there are seven necessary conditions for entering flow:
1. Complete focus on what you do – total concentration.
2. The feeling of ecstasy – you must transcend everyday routine.
3. Internal clarity – you have to feel you’re doing well and let that feeling carry you.
4. Knowing that the task is doable – you need the necessary abilities.
5. Peace of mind – transcending the ego, not worrying.
6. Transcending time – total focus on now. Hours feel like minutes.
7. Internal motivation – the flow is the reward in itself.
Introduction and addendum translated by Jan Dzierzgowski