Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who described the ‘flow’ of human creativity, dies at 87

Washington Post – Matt Schudel – 30 October 2021

“Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and best-selling author who coined the term “flow” to describe the sense of creativity that emerges from an intense absorption in a challenging activity, whether in the arts, sports, business or a hobby, died Oct. 20 at his home in Claremont, Calif. He was 87

The immediate cause of death was cardiac arrest, said a son, Mark Csikszentmihalyi.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi — his full name is pronounced “me-HIGH CHEEK-sent-me-HIGH” — was of Hungarian descent and came to the United States at 22. He spent much of his career at the University of Chicago, studying adolescent behavior while also searching for the source of creativity and inner satisfaction.

In 1990, he published “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” which became a best seller and has been translated into more than 20 languages. It was cited as a favorite book by business leaders, President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who credited it with helping his team win the Super Bowl. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s 2004 TED Talk about the concept of flow has been watched 6.7 million times.

Shaped by his experiences as a child during World War II — “I was 10 years old when I noticed that adults often were unable to face reality” — Dr. Csikszentmihalyi sought to understand the motivations behind human activity, including enjoyment and fulfillment. When he began his career, academic psychology focused largely on misery and abnormal behavior, with experiments often conducted on laboratory rats.

“I didn’t think rats held the key to world peace,” he once quipped.

Instead, he became interested in how people attained a state of absorption, especially leading to bursts of creative energy. He looked at athletes and artists in his early research, seeking to explain what led to transcendent periods of achievement.

“I was astonished to find that all those different people — rock climbers, basketball and hockey players, dancers, composers, chess masters — used very similar terms to describe their activities and the reasons they got so much out of them,” Dr. Csikszentmihalyi told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.

“They were describing it in terms of focusing of attention, the disappearance of self, the disappearance of the sense of time, the clarity of goals, the clarity of feedback. I call it the flow experience, because the people frequently used ‘flow’ in describing how they felt.”

He outlined these ideas in the books “Beyond Boredom and Anxiety” (1975) and “The Creative Vision” (1976), the latter of which was written with Jacob W. Getzels. His academic pursuits helped make Dr. Csikszentmihalyi a founder of a new branch of study called positive psychology, exploring optimal experiences, creativity and joy.

“He’s going to be thought of as one of the most important social scientists in the last half of this century,” Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner said of Dr. Csikszentmihalyi in 1986. “He helps us see something we knew intuitively but could not put into words. He has a way of not only getting at issues people really care about, but he is able to approach those issues in a [scientifically] viable way.”

In 1985, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi published “Being Adolescent: Conflict and Growth in the Teenage Years,” which was his best-known book before “Flow.” For his work with teens, he developed a novel research method by giving them beepers, which went off randomly throughout the day. The teens then completed a short questionnaire, explaining what they were doing at that moment and how they felt.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi used the same technique with adults. He found that people were often bored or only halfheartedly engaged in their daily activities, but there were times when they became intensely focused, performing difficult but rewarding tasks that seemed to transport them beyond the plane of everyday life.

Whether making music, ice skating, writing a book, performing surgery or preparing food, these people became “completely involved in an activity for its own sake,” Dr. Csikszentmihalyi told Wired magazine in 1996. “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.”

He named eight components in the psychological state of flow, including having a challenging task to perform, a clear goal, deep concentration, a feeling of effortless control and a sense that time has vanished. The experience of flow, as Dr. Csikszentmihalyi saw it, is far more complex than the passive “go with the flow” mantra of the 1960s.

It often requires years of practice to reach the peak levels of competence and agility. Depending on the activity, it does not necessarily produce a feeling of pleasure — until afterward.

“It’s not that a person feels particularly happy” while caught up in flow, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi told the Seattle Times in 1991, “because there is no time really for feeling. But it’s an experience that in retrospect you say, ‘That felt really great,’ and you try to repeat it, you try to get back into that state.”

Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihayli was born Sept. 29, 1934, in the Adriatic port of Fiume, Italy, where his father was a Hungarian diplomat. (The city is now Rijeka, Croatia.)

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi spent much of his childhood in Italy and grew up speaking Hungarian, Italian and German.

“In September 1944 we were in Budapest,” he told the Tribune in 1993. “The Russians were coming. They were already shelling the city.”

His father told the family to leave Budapest and meet him in Venice.

“Mother’s relatives urged us to stay,” Dr. Csikszentmihalyi recalled. “I remember one of them saying, ‘The mosquitoes are terrible this time of the year in Venice.’

“Ours was the last train out of Budapest. The Russians blew up the bridge over the Danube just after we passed.”

At the end of World War II, he was held in a refugee camp in Italy, while authorities tried to determine what to do with his family. (Meanwhile, one of his brothers had been killed in the war, and another was sent to a labor camp in Siberia.)

To pass the time in the camp, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi played chess with adults, becoming so engrossed in the game that he forgot about his troubles. He later found the same sense of inner accomplishment — a feeling he would recognize as flow — from rock climbing and painting.

After the war, his father became Hungary’s ambassador to Italy, but when the Hungarian government was taken over by Communists in 1948, he quit his post and stayed in Rome. The family opened a popular Hungarian restaurant where young Mihaly worked as a waiter.

In 1951, while visiting Switzerland, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi decided to attend a lecture about UFOs. Instead, the speaker examined the idea of mass delusion and the lies people tell themselves to avoid confronting the truth of their existence. The lecturer turned out to be psychiatrist Carl Jung, a protege of Sigmund Freud. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi began to read Jung’s books and decided to study psychology in the United States, arriving in Chicago in 1956.

While working nights at a hotel, he learned English from folk songs and comic strips. (He became fluent in at least seven languages.) In 1959, he graduated from the University of Chicago, from which he received a doctorate in psychology in 1965. He taught at Lake Forest College outside Chicago before joining the University of Chicago faculty in 1969.

The publication of “Flow” brought Dr. Csikszentmihalyi worldwide acclaim. He lectured before business groups, government agencies and academic conferences and wrote several other books on creativity, leadership and adolescent development. Since 1999, he had been at the Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, where he helped found the Quality of Life Research Center. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former Isabella Selega, of Claremont; two sons, Mark of San Francisco and Chris of Ithaca, N.Y.; and six grandchildren.

Before adopting the word “flow” to describe the phenomenon of self-directed creativity, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi called it “autotelic experience,” to denote something done not for an outside reward but for its own intrinsic worth.

“I am sure that if we had continued to use the precise but cumbersome ‘autotelic experience,’ ” he said in 2000, “few people outside the academic community would have paid attention.”

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