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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow Theory & Works

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

Who is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? How do you pronounce his name? What is flow theory? These questions (and more) will be answered in this article on the pioneering positive psychologist. A short quiz follows the lesson.

Have You Experienced Flow?

Have you ever had one of those moments where you get so caught up in what you're doing that time seems to fly by? Or when you're working on something, and it just happens so naturally and easily? Sometimes you can be astoundingly productive, spending hours working and it feels like minutes. Whatever you are working on - painting, woodworking, or even your taxes (for some weirdos) - it just comes to you so naturally and easily. We've all had this feeling, but it took a sensational Slavic fellow to research the phenomenon and explain it to the rest of us.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi

Born in Croatia back in the 1930's, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi immigrated to the United States to attend college in the 1950's. After receiving his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Chicago, Csikszentmihalyi has spent much of the last 40 years working as an academic and researcher. He, along with Dr. Martin Seligman, is known as one of the founders of positive psychology, which focuses on improving life and maximizing happiness and productivity. Also, for those of you wondering, his name is pronounced Mee-hy Cheek-sent-me-high-ee. Apparently, his friends just call him Mike.

What is Flow?

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's best-known theory is that of flow. Flow is the state of concentration and engagement that can be achieved when completing a task that challenges one's skills. The theory was formulated when Csikszentmihalyi interviewed dozens of experts, from composers and artists to tradesmen and chefs. He found that many of them, despite working in different fields or coming from different cultures, explained a similar concept. Many mentioned a sense of complete absorption in their task, ignoring things such as hunger, thirst, or sleep. They also remarked that time became irrelevant, feeling like only a few minutes had passed when they'd been engaged in an activity for hours. Finally, the interviewees also took great pleasure in the activity they were engaged in, often describing feelings of spontaneous waves of joy and satisfaction.

In order to be engaged in a state of flow, several conditions must be met. First, the activity must be challenging but one must also possess great skill. For example, if most of us were trying to create Michelangelo's David, it wouldn't elicit flow, but rather anxiety, as the task greatly exceeds our level of skill. Likewise, to a great artist like Michelangelo, it wouldn't be particularly interesting to create a turkey by outlining his hand. Second, the task has to be active and engaging. It's possible to lose track of time and feel joy when watching a movie or taking a shower, but the brain is coasting on autopilot rather than being fully engaged. Third, the activity has to have clear parameters for success. These clear parameters help to enter and maintain a flow state as they indicate progress and quality. Finally, the motivation for the activity must be intrinsic, or coming from within. This doesn't mean that a person can't achieve flow when working for pay or external reward, but they must also gain personal satisfaction and be internally motivated to complete the task.

Flow Matrix
Flow Matrix

Csikszentmihalyi has suggested that flow has numerous benefits to happiness. Because being in a state of flow is a naturally joyous thing, the flower (that won't work…flowee? Flowite?) gains great satisfaction. The benefits extend beyond the immediate flow happiness, however. While in flow, a person is often creating or producing high-quality works, which may lead to greater extrinsic rewards. Due to the challenging nature of the task that initiates flow, they are also likely to develop their skills or achieve task mastery, two experiences strongly correlated with positive personal development. The Montessori Method of education, for instance, is built around the concept of flow, despite being devised prior to Csikszentmihalyi's work. It has also been noted that creativity and flow work hand-in-hand, with the creative process helping to initiate flow and a person being more creative while in the midst of a flow experience. The creative process brings about a great sense of satisfaction and reinforces self-esteem.

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