Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: 1934–2021

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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


  — "What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?" (2014)
  — "What *Should* We Be Worried About?" (2013)
  — "What is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, or Beautiful Explanation?" (2012)
  — "What Will Change Everything?" (2009)
  — "What Are You Optimistic About?" (2007)
  — "What is Your Dangerous Idea?" (2006)
  — "What Do You Believe is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?" (2005)
  — "What Are the Pressing Scientific Issues for The Nation and the World?" (2003)
  — "What Now?" (2001)
  — "What is Today's most Unreported Story?" (2000)
  — "What is the Most Important Invention in the Past 2,000 Years?" (1999)
  — "What Are The Questions You're Asking Yourself?" (1998)



The late Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chick-SENT-me high") was a long-time friend and contributor to Edge whose work changed our understanding of creativity, creation, and how meaningful work transforms the way that work is experienced. He was a deep thinker whose creativity in his own research could have been a template for the sort of creativity that he explained through experimentation. 

In August 2004, Mike, as he was known to those not familiar with Hungarian, stopped by our offices on 59th Street for a wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from his study of that state when play and work overlap (famously called "flow"), to creativity, to building a better future and understanding the role income disparity plays in destabilizing nations.

It was a wonderful talk full of the sort of insight that we had come to expect from him. But something happened in the dog days of summer—and his Edge conversation was never published. Only after news of Mike's passing in October did we happen to come across the unpublished feature in our archive.   

So we are pleased to present a two-part tribute to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

First, the premiere of "Flow: Positive Human Behavior," published eighteen years late. 

Second, a retrospective look at his numerous responses to the Edge Annual Question from 1998 to 2014.  


Russell Weinberger
Publisher, Edge

A Conversation with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [August 2004] 

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. [Continue...]

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Essays in Response to the Edge Annual Question 1998-2014

"What Scientific Idea Is Ready For Retirement?" (2014)

Max Planck's Faith

Note that in the quote in this year's Edge Question, Max Planck speaks of scientific truths "triumphing." Truths don't triumph, the people who propose them do. What needs to be retired is the faith that what scientists say are objective truths, with a reality independent of scientific claims. Some are indeed true, but others depend on so many initial conditions that they straddle the boundary between reality and fiction. [Continue...]

"What *Should* We Be Worried About?" (2013)

The Triumph of the Virtual, and its Consequences

I tried to rank my fears in order of their severity, but soon I realized that I would not complete this initial task before the submission deadline, so I decided to use a random number generator to choose among the fears. It turned out not to be a bad choice. Basically, it refers to the fear that in one or two generations children will grow up to be adults who will not be able to tell reality from imagination. Of course, humanity has always had a precarious hold on reality, but it looks like we are headed for a quantum leap into an abyss of insubstantiality. [Continue...]

"What Is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, and Beautiful Explanation?" (2012)

"Power Tends to Corrupt, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely." 

I hope I will not be drummed out of the corps of social science if I confess to the fact that I can't think of an explanation in our field that is both elegant and beautiful. Perhaps deep . . . I guess we are still too young to have explanations of that sort . . . But there is one elegant and deep statement (which, alas, is not quite an "explanation") that comes close to fulfilling the criteria, and that I find very useful as well as beautifully simple. [Continue...]

"What Will Change Everything?" (2009)

The End of Analytic Science 

The idea that will change the game of knowledge is the realization that it is more important to understand events, objects, and processes in their relationship with each other than in their singular structure.

Western science has achieved wonders with its analytic focus, but it is now time to take synthesis seriously. We shall realize that science cannot be value-free after all. The Doomsday clock ticking on the cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ever closer to midnight is just one reminder that knowledge ignorant of consequences is foolishness. [Continue...]

"What Are You Optimistic About?" (2007)

We Are Asking and Answering

I am optimistic for the simple reason that given the incredible odds against the existence of brains that can ask such questions, of laptops on which to answer them, and so on—here we are, asking and answering! [Continue...]

"What Is Your Dangerous Idea?" (2006)

The Free Market

Generally, ideas are thought to be dangerous when they threaten an entrenched authority. Galileo was sued not because he claimed that the earth revolved around the sun—a "hypothesis" his chief prosecutor, Cardinal Bellarmine, apparently was quite willing to entertain in private—but because the Church could not afford a fact it claimed to know be reversed by another epistemology, in this case by the scientific method. Similar conflicts arose when Darwin's view of how humans first appeared on the planet challenged religious accounts of creation, or when Mendelian genetics applied to the growth of hardier strains of wheat challenged Leninist doctrine as interpreted by Lysenko.

One of the most dangerous ideas at large in the current culture is that the "free market" is the ultimate arbiter of political decisions, and that there is an "invisible hand" that will direct us to the most desirable future provided the free market is allowed to actualize itself. This mystical faith is based on some reasonable empirical foundations, but when embraced as a final solution to the ills of humankind, it risks destroying both the material resources, and the cultural achievements that our species has so painstakingly developed. [Continue...]

"What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?" (2005)

When I first read your question, I was sure it was a trick—after all, almost nothing I believe in I can prove. I believe the earth is round, but I cannot prove it, nor can I prove that the earth revolves around the sun or that the naked fig tree in the garden will have leaves in a few months. I can't prove quarks exist or that there was a Big Bang—all of these and millions of other beliefs are based on faith in a community of knowledge whose proofs I am willing to accept, hoping they will accept on faith the few measly claims to proof I might advance.

But then I realized—after reading some of the early postings—that every one else has assumed implicitly that the "you" in: "even if you cannot prove it" referred not to the individual respondent, but to the community of knowledge—it actually stood for "one" rather than for "you." That everyone seems to have understood this seems to me a remarkable achievement, a merging of the self with the collective that only great religions and profound ideologies occasionally achieve. [Continue...]

"What Are the Pressing Scientific Issues For the Nation and the World?" (2003) 

Mr. President, allow me to start with a personal reminiscence. When I was being interviewed for my first teaching job, almost four decades ago, the head of the search committee ­ a nuclear physicist ­ told me in dismissive tones: "Well, now that we scientists have been able to harness the power of nuclear forces, let's see if you so-called social scientists can teach us how to use it." His tone of voice and smirk clearly meant that he didn't believe for a moment that we "soft" scientists were up to even such an easy task as that of preventing humanity from the misuse of nuclear energy.

Things haven't much improved since. Today's issue of the Los Angeles Times (12/2/02), for instance, carries three stories on the front page that relate to the issue I am raising: One of them laments the fact that patients are increasingly refusing to participate in drug trials and medical experiments because they mistrust scientists; another warns about the leakage in the former Soviet arsenal of deadly weapons; and the third consists of a huge color photo of the black waves carrying spilled oil advancing on Spanish beaches. [Continue...]

"What Now?" (2001)  

Actually, despite Colin Tudge's skepticism, I found the Edge responses to the Sept.11 catastrophe on the whole much more thoughtful and potentially helpful than what one finds in the media, and especially in the pronouncements of our political leaders. Given that I agree with so much that has been said so well by, e.g., George Lakoff, Peter Von Sivers, Luyen Chou et al., I will just focus on just two points I don't think have been much discussed so far:

1. We must make sure that the new Secretary of Homeland Security (or whatever it's going to be called) understands that one of the major reasons our nation is structurally vulnerable to terrorist acts is the concentration of vital resources and services (sources of energy, water, transportation, communication, etc.). As long as we keep building ever larger skyscrapers, oil tankers, planes, and so on, we present increasingly easier targets to those who want to do us in. The reason a few barely armed opponents can hold our technological might at bay in places like Vietnam, Bosnia (and certainly Afghanistan) is that they are part of an elusive network, decentralized and able to survive without long supply lines. We can't compete with them on that score, but we should realize that in this new climate small is not only beautiful, but also more healthy.

2. As I was driving through Montana on September 13, I read the editorial of the Missoulian with a sinking feeling: it's response to the tragedy was, in essence: "Don't let the bastards change the way you live—we will show them they can't beat us by going on with our lives as usual. If you wanted to buy that new dishwasher, go ahead and buy it. If you planned that vacation to the Caribbean, go ahead and make your reservations right away ..." [Continue]

"What Is Today's Most Important Unreported Story?" (2000)

The Reasons For Right-Wing Extremism In Europe and the U.S.

Today (but I hope not tomorrow), I think the most important unreported story concerns the reasons for a return of right-wing extremism in Europe, and for the first time in the U.S. Since I am not a journalist I would not report such a story, but I would first find out if it is really true, and if true then study what its causes are. Is it that people are running out of hope and meaning? Have the Western democracies run out of believable goals? What conditions favor fascism and what can we do to prevent them from spreading? [Continue...]

"What Is The Most Important Invention in the Past 2,000 Years?" (1999)

I always liked Lynn White's story about how the stirrup revolutionized warfare and made feudal society and culture possible. Or Lefebre des Noettes' argument about how the invention of the rudder made extensive sailing and the consequent expansion of Europe and its colonization of the world possible. But it's sobering to realize that it took us over one thousand years to realize the impact of these artifacts. So I am not at all sure we have at this time a good grip on what the most important inventions of the past millennia have been. Certainly the contraceptive pill is a good candidate, and so is the scientific method. I am also intrigued by the effects of such inventions as the flag—a symbol of belonging that millions will follow to ruin or victory independently of biological connectedness; or the social security card that signifies that we are not alone and our welfare is a joint problem for the community; or the invention of civil rights which however abused and misused is pointing us towards a notion of universal human dignity that might yet eclipse in importance all the technological marvels of the millennium. [Continue...]

"What Questions Are You Asking Yourself?" (1998)

"How can we sustain young people's interest in asking questions such as these? Does the emphasis on personal success and security divert psychic energy from taking the long-term view on things? How long can we keep curiosity and creativity alive in an increasingly materialistic culture?" [Continue...] 



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