Flow: Positive Human Behavior

Flow: Positive Human Behavior

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [8.1.04]

The work that I'm best known for is flow theory and the studies of flow experience. People have applied the studies all over the world, and it has influenced many schools, factories, offices, and even political systems.

If I were to try to go back to the origins of the theory, I would say that it probably started germinating in 1944-45, when I was ten years old. At that time the war was creating a lot of anxiety everywhere, and as a ten-year-old I saw the whole world I took for granted crumbling. I realized, however, that when I played chess, I completely forgot what was going on, and for hours I had a great time. I felt completely involved, my mind was working, I had to be alert, and I had to process information about what was happening. I didn't have any chance to be distracted or any chance to worry about anything. I also noticed then that if I played against somebody really good, it wasn't much fun. If I played against somebody who played badly, it wasn't fun either because I started getting distracted and thinking about other things. But if my opponent was somebody in my own range of abilities, then the game was fun.

MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI (1934–2021) was a Hungarian-born polymath who recognized and named the psychological concept of "flow," a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity. He was Claremont Graduate University’s Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management as well as founder and co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center (QLRC), a nonprofit research institute that studies positive psychology, which looks at human strengths such as optimism, creativity, intrinsic motivation, and responsibility. Csikszentmihalyi was also former head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

His research and theories on the psychology of optimal experience have revolutionized psychology and have been adopted in practice by national leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as well as top members of the global executive elite who run the world's major corporations. Csikszentmihalyi is the author of several popular books about his theories, including the bestselling Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceThe Evolving SelfCreativity; Finding Flow; and Good BusinessThe Wall Street Journal has listed Flow among the six books "every well-stocked business library should have." Though published in the early 1990s, Flow has continued to draw attention from both researchers and the general public and has been translated into more than twenty languages. 

He was a member of the American Academy of Education, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Leisure Studies. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Edge Bio Page


MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI: Ever since I can remember, I've been fascinated by the question of why people act in ways that they regret later, sometimes almost immediately. That percolation started with seeing the society in which I lived, where people felt very comfortable and very much in control, collapse within a few years. At the end of World War II, I saw many of my relatives, friends of friends, and my own brother being killed, while houses, businesses, careers, and lives were disrupted completely by the war. I was struck by how completely unprepared the adults I knew were for this event.

For instance, in 1944 we were at my grandfather's place in Budapest. He was a high-level employee in the foreign office, and he knew practically everything that anybody else knew about the war and about the conditions of the country. He was sure that the Russians would be defeated very soon, and that things would return to normal. At that time, I went down to play with the janitor's son, who was my age, and he really knew a lot more about what turned out to happen than the highly placed adults that I knew. They were in complete denial; they didn't know what was going to happen.

That experience got me interested in understanding how people end up living lives that are either based on faulty assumptions or denial, as opposed to lives in which people are in touch with reality and are in control. Here, you can tell that what you're doing makes sense to you and is not based on self-deception. When I was younger, I tried to do work in religion, philosophy, the arts, and literature. I wrote for newspapers and worked in institutions that were based on a very traditional wisdom. But none of that really seemed to deal with what was going on. It all assumed certain things about people that I had reason to suspect were wrong; that is, they were based on certain matters of taste and philosophy. They weren't really in touch with what I experience life to be.

That drove me into psychology, and the question that I started out with is still behind the work I do. For instance, in the past few years we have been doing a set of studies with colleagues—Howard Gardner at Harvard and William Damon at Stanford—focused on the question of work. Why do some professions stimulate people to do work that is both excellent in terms of the traditions of a profession, and also good in the sense that it's helpful to society and ethically responsible?

Here again some of the same questions that I started out with so long ago come to the fore. Many professionals in law, medicine, science, and even higher education live in a world of make-believe in many ways, where they think that what they do is right. But when you see the consequences and you see how other people outside of a particular sphere or interest group perceive the work, they don't feel that it's good at all. This raises the question of what kinds of social safeguards you can bring to bear on people's work that would make the work both enjoyable and at the same time useful to society.

Part of what we encounter in these various professions is a problem that presents perhaps the most fundamental question for the future, as far as I can see. That problem is the fact that in many disparate professions, the whole notion of success or performance is being collapsed into very short-term financial results.

In other words, whether you are a newspaper person, a researcher in genetics, a professor, or a lawyer, you are being judged by standards of immediate financial benefit to your institution and to the colleagues with whom you work, as well as your own. We are guilty of adopting the same perspective as these institutions. For instance, we don't really care very much how our money is invested, so long as we get returns that are reasonable by the standards of the market. If our returns drop a few percentile points, everyone is willing to move to another manager, because the only standard we have is the size of the return. We can't worry about whether the return is based on ethical or humane practices. The question of how to supplement financial return with other criteria for performance and success is a major issue that we are going to face in the future. Otherwise, we are going to be reduced to a culture of greed, which is in the long run self-destructive as well as destructive to other countries.

I agree with sociologists like Max Weber, for instance, who also claimed that there has always been a culture of greed, and that people are always trying to maximize benefits. But there have been social obstacles to realizing this goal. There are periods when greed becomes blatant, and then there are periods when other considerations—whether it's religion, patriotism, a notion of honor, or a notion of community—begin to mitigate this single-minded attempt to reduce everything to financial currency. Human nature hasn't changed that much in the past hundred thousand years, but what can be changed is both the culture in which a human acts along with the types of social requirements that can stand in the way of considering material success the only criterion of whether a person is worth his weight.

Years ago, this problem was not really on my radar screen, except occasionally when I sensed as a citizen that the increasing spread between incomes was creating instability. This has been the downfall of countries like Russia, France, and China. It always starts with a polarization of income and ends in a revolution, which although it is a natural reaction doesn't resolve anything. I was aware of this, but it didn't really concern me professionally. But since we started doing research on good work about seven years ago, we keep running into this issue. Newspaper editors have said that twenty-five years ago we used to be considered successful if we had a 4% return on investment. Four percent was okay, because the people who invested in the newspaper were not expecting it to be a cash cow. They felt that they had an impact on the community and they advanced their ideas through the paper, so money was only part of it. But now most newspapers are owned by enormous multinational corporations where nobody really cares what's in the paper so long as it turns out a return. Today, 21% is considered the bottom end of what you can afford to make. To accomplish that, the editors' managers have to police themselves. It creates situations in which, for example, writers can only make two long distance calls per four inches of text. Some papers have these kinds of restrictions. At others, writers do not even make long-distance calls; they rely on wire services.

This story could be multiplied a thousandfold. It reaches into fields like medical research or genetic research, where the same issues are at work. This forces people to cut corners, meaning they make decisions that they know they may regret in the long run. But since all that matters is their quarterly returns or their yearly salary, so be it.

What's missing here is at least an alternative. In the past, people could feel rewarded by being good, upstanding citizens in their communities. They received rewards by having a large family and felt that somehow even if they were not succeeding in this world, they would be happy in the next. Many of these were essentially self-deceptions too, but they took the brunt away from the single, pervasive goal of making money. Today, we need to develop something else that would get people to feel that what they are doing is meaningful. Hopefully that would not be something deceptive like believing that the good Lord is going to reward you for being poor.

Possessions can drain energy in so many ways. The more people own, the more they run into the problem of not knowing what else they can do. They have no goal beyond their comfort and their extravagant spending. In the late 1960s a Swedish economist named Staffan Burenstam Linder wrote a book called The Harried Leisure Class. He had a beautiful set of formulae that predicted how expensive you have to be in your leisure time if you want to make it worth what you could make by working in the same period of time. In other words, if on average you make a thousand dollars an hour, you would feel cheated in your free time if you didn't spend a thousand dollars, because it means that you are under-utilizing your return. At first this sounds counterintuitive, but it shows how people are driven to higher and higher expenses to balance their income during the same period. It's a trap that a lot of people fall into.

Since the early 90s, I've been more and more concerned about the possibility of making people realize that whatever they do is in a way shaping the future. Obviously, the choices people make may be minute and completely invisible at first, but certainly if you begin to think that you are part of this chain of responsibility or power that will determine the future, it could make a difference. Somebody has to begin to ask, what kind of future do we want? What is it that we are really getting to? For some people this is very immediate. People working in human genetics will have to face such questions very soon. What kind of designer babies are they going to make? There are also those of us who deal with memes, and the kinds of memes we develop will also impact what other people think in the future. How we change genes and memes are obviously implicated in the shape of the future, but even the cab driver or the person working in the factory outlet can influence whether this is going to be a more or less civil society. If we cleared up the goals and determined what makes a person's life happy, people would have the feeling that their lives are not wasted. In doing this we don't want to control people's lives. You have to do it positively, developing positive goals by which people abide.


The work that I'm best known for is flow theory and the studies of flow experience. People have applied the studies all over the world, and it has influenced many schools, factories, offices, and even political systems.

If I were to try to go back to the origins of the theory, I would say that it probably started germinating in 1944-45, when I was ten years old. At that time the war was creating a lot of anxiety everywhere, and as a ten-year-old I saw the whole world I took for granted crumbling. I realized, however, that when I played chess, I completely forgot what was going on, and for hours I had a great time. I felt completely involved, my mind was working, I had to be alert, and I had to process information about what was happening. I didn't have any chance to be distracted or any chance to worry about anything. I also noticed then that if I played against somebody really good, it wasn't much fun. If I played against somebody who played badly, it wasn't fun either because I started getting distracted and thinking about other things. But if my opponent was somebody in my own range of abilities, then the game was fun.

We moved to Italy at the end of the war, and I got involved with the Boy Scouts and other youth organizations. As a result, I started mountain climbing and rock climbing in the Dolomites in northern Italy. Climbing produced the same kind of result of total concentration, a feeling that you were doing everything you could, that your whole being was involved, and that you forgot everything else. And at the time there was a lot that you wanted to forget, because things were going pretty badly after the war. There were no jobs in 1948 because the Communists took over in Hungary, and we lost whatever little was left there at the time.

Those experiences became benchmarks for what life could be if one were able to focus and get involved to that degree. I experienced that again in other activities like painting. I painted a lot when I was in my teens and exhibited a few times in Rome. I became the editor of the Italian Boy Scout magazine and then wrote for other magazines. At school I wasn't doing very well and it wasn't much fun, but I did all kinds of other things that were producing a sense of having a worthwhile life and enabled me to focus.

When I came to the US to study psychology, I found that nobody was concerned about these issues. Essentially all psychology was focused on pathology. When you looked at normal behavior it was always reduced to some pathology, or it was considered something that you learn like rats in a maze. There was no notion that people could actually enjoy life. It was not part of the canon, in a sense.

When I started teaching, I was instructing sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College. During a senior seminar, I decided to study play—not children's play, but adult play. Each student was supposed to take one form of adult play and then report back to the class what he or she learned. As we discussed these reports on everything from race car driving to basketball to hockey to poker, some things began to coalesce and resonate with what I had experienced myself. I wrote up an article with one of the students that was published in American Anthropologist. It was mostly a cross-cultural history of games, but I put in some ideas about flow. That was probably in 1968 or 1969.

When I went to the University of Chicago, I finally had a group of graduate students who could really do serious work. We decided to study a variety of different activities like dancing and rock climbing, and then moved into occupations like surgery. I knew surgeons who said that surgery is like driving a race car or skiing. They used metaphors for surgery that were all taken from sports or art. And lo and behold, what I found was that, in fact, surgeons described doing surgery very similarly to the way musicians described making music, or artists described painting, or poets described writing poetry.

Out of all this came the notion that it's not really play that makes you feel good, but the playfulness which can be in play. Whether you find it in a job or a religious experience, there is a kind of experience underlying all of these different activities which is so positive that you want to do it over and over again, even though there is no benefit except the experience itself.

That became the flow experience, and I tried to develop a theory of it and model the conditions under which it happens. The idea has been quite influential. In fact, it is the basis of a recent project that I started with Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania called positive psychology. This is an attempt to introduce within the field a notion that there are human strengths we need to understand—not just sicknesses. While we were in Montana about four years ago, Martin and I decided to write the alternative to the DSM IV, which is the catalog of mental illnesses. If you are a therapist, you can look up the symptoms of a particular patient in the DSM IV and determine whether the guy sitting across from you is bipolar or a chronic depressive, for example. Chris Peterson and Martin wrote the book Character Strengths and Virtues, which is essentially the first step towards developing a catalog of positive aspects of human behavior. In a way, it isn't what I expected fifty years ago, but in many ways I've always been working in that direction.


In my current research we are doing a study of twelve undergraduate universities that were nominated as the best in the country in their genres, whether it be historically black colleges or major research universities. We have been interviewing staff and faculty at these schools who were, in turn, nominated internally. That is, we wrote to 10% of the faculty of each university and asked them, who made your school so good that it's nominated to be one of the best? We received hundreds of nominations for certain people, like the person who runs the cafeteria that's so good that people just love it, or the professor who is world-famous for doing literary criticism. Then we interviewed ten people who were nominated as being instrumental in making the school so good, asking them questions like what they would like to accomplish with undergraduate education, what new challenges they see on the horizon, and what obstacles are in the way. We are now interviewing students to see how their perceptions match those of the gatekeepers at the institutions. We are halfway through that study and the results will be interesting.

I never resolved my identity very much. I'm partially a social psychologist and partially a developmental psychologist. For five years I was chair of a sociology and anthropology department, so I'm rather interdisciplinary in my approach. To do this study, we have done about 120 very long interviews. I do the interviews along with my staff of graduate students. The interviews are transcribed, put in the computer, and the transcripts are then analyzed by software. You can tell it that you want to hear every time the person talks about creativity, or jobs, or money, and then you can begin to parse the interview into sections. You then code those sections using a numeric system. For instance, we might ask how often a student mentions the relative importance of getting good jobs versus experiencing the liberal arts tradition. We now have all these numbers.

We have two ways of analyzing this. One is quantitative, where we show graphs indicating how important certain elements of education are in different schools or to different types of teachers. You can analyze the answers statistically and come up with some conclusions. There is also a lot of qualitative data that allow you to use and interpret quotes from the people you are interviewing.

We are doing very quantitative studies. For instance, one of my students is now writing up a series of articles based on a study of chess games on the Internet. He got 100 chess players who play regularly on the Internet to agree to fill out a series of questions online about the game they just played. Chess players have very good ways of assessing skill using a four-digit number that changes with every game. It's like a tennis rating. Within a week, he received almost 2,000 games along with descriptions of how the player felt during the game. We are now relating their experience of the game to the discrepancy between the skill of the opponent and the skill of the player. This is based both on the rating and on an analysis of the game where, move by move, you can assess who is ahead. That is an elegant way to study the effect of a discrepancy in challenge and skill, which is one of the basic elements of the flow theory that I've been working with for a long time.

In another project that we just finished, which I started but which is being written up by some of my students, we interviewed three of the leading geneticists in the country. Then we interviewed three of their major students, who are also geneticists. And then we interviewed four of the students of each of these nine second-level geneticists. This gives us three generations of geneticists and three different lineages. We're trying to see how the ideas, knowledge, and values are being transmitted from one generation to another. In a sense it's an attempt to do for memes what we now do so easily for genes. The question here is, what basic ways of looking at the world are being transmitted from one generation to the other? That's going to be a good book.

What we are working with is not as clean cut as what you usually find in a laboratory. For instance, this chess experiment on the Internet is almost as controlled as it would be in a lab, except that here it's real, because these people would play anyway. The only difference is that they fill out a survey at the end. We don't force them into these situations because in labs, unfortunately, human behavior is very often completely distorted by the setting. What you learn in the lab is elegant, but it doesn't transfer to reality. I always try to keep as close as possible to what people are actually doing in normal life.