Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a contemporary psychologist who has conducted extensive research into happiness and creativity. He also developed the concept of psychological flow.

Professional Life

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born on September 29, 1934, in Fiume, Italy, in what is now Croatia. He grew up in Fiume, Florence, and Rome. He emigrated to the United States when he was 22, earning his bachelor’s in 1959 and his PhD in 1965 from the University of Chicago. 

During his time at the University of Chicago, Csikszentmihalyi began exploring creativity and the evolution of self. His examinations led to the development of his theory on flow. After graduation, he taught at Lake Forest College, and in 1969, Csikszentmihalyi accepted a professorship with the University of Chicago where he remained until 2000. At that time, he left Illinois and began working with Claremont Graduate University (CGU). He founded the Quality of Life Research Center at the school and continues to work with CGU.

Csikszentmihalyi's son, Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, is an Art Center College of Design professor. His other son, Mark Csikszentmihalyi is a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Contribution to Psychology

According to Csikszentmihalyi, people are at their optimal level of happiness when they are in an engaged state of “flow.” This mental state is one of complete immersion mentally, physically, and emotionally. With the introduction of his 1990 book,  Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi began sharing his theories of optimal happiness with the world. 

During a state of flow, people are so engrossed in their activities that they are undistracted by other things. For example, a pianist who gets so caught up in practicing that she forgets to eat is in a state of flow. People who are flowing are less concerned with performance or outside rewards; instead, they are engaged in the activity out of sheer pleasure.

In order to arrive at a state of flow, the act must provide a balanced level of challenge and satisfaction to the performer. It does not have to be easy, but the activity must engage a person’s skill level in a way that is challenging without being discouraging. People can achieve flow doing things as simple as sewing, cooking, singing, running, or building something. The focused attention that creates flow can also be reached with therapeutic techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, meditation, or Focalizing.

Csikszentmihalyi's more recent work focuses on motivation. He emphasizes that people who are intrinsically motivated struggle less with procrastination and are more likely to be highly motivated. Intrinsically motivated people don't require outside validation, punishment, or encouragement to complete an activity. Instead, these people have what Csikszentmihalyi terms a high-work orientation. They have low impulsivity and tend to enjoy their work and projects for their own sake rather than out of a desire for outside acclaim or reward.

Csikszentmihalyi’s written works on the subject have been published throughout the world in many different languages. He continues to apply his theories to new domains, including business, education, and politics.

Books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  • Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (1975)
  • Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)
  • The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium (1993)
  • Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1996)
  • Finding Flow: the Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997)