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Flow and Other Secrets to a Happy Life

Interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.

William Blake

Many winters ago in Hungary, a man sat at his desk with a small rock he had bought from the morning market. He inspected the rock under his microscope, reading its history from its rugged edges, unearthing its secrets from the rock’s colorful veins. It might have looked like an ordinary stone to any other eyes. But for the former prisoner of war who had spent 8 years surrounded by the damp darkness of an underground mine, the rock contained a whole new world. Hours flew by as the man, enveloped in the sense of enjoyment from his deep focus, studied his rock, loosing all perception of time and self. When he lifted his head, the morning sun had set.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – one of the world’s most influential positive psychologists – tells this story with pride and wonder. The man, after all, was his older brother, and the magic that had him immersed in his rock is flow. Since Csikszentmihalyi coined the term, plenty of research has been done to understand the role of our inner worlds (rather than external circumstances) in the quality of our lives. What is it about Nobel laureates, amateur musicians and rock collectors alike that allows them to come to the doorstep of joy and self-mastery simply by being fully absorbed in various activities? The consensus of these studies is heartening – flow is available to everyone, everywhere. To reach it, however, requires effort and focus. And the discipline to tread between the boredom and anxiety of our ordinary days, towards an extraordinary space where our skills can meet just enough challenge to create the “optimal experience.” It’s in this space of growth and fulfillment, says Csikszentmihalyi, in this state of wholehearted engagement with life, where we can catch a glimpse of flow.

Marianna Pogosyan
Source: Marianna Pogosyan

So, if there is one advice from a psychologist who has spent his career studying happiness (echoing Socrates’ perils of an unexamined life) it is this: discover what brings you joy and spend your life mastering it.

Here is Dr. Csikszentmihalyi in his own words.

After decades of research on the human experience, what has been your biggest insight?

There haven't been any revelations that changed things completely. Instead, I learned day-by-day, through my interviews and studies, that many of the old writings on how to lead a happy life had resonance with the work that I was doing. That was beautiful to know that while the human way of thinking has evolved, it has basically stayed the same. We now have scientific vocabulary of numbers and regression models, but we are finding similar things that people from places like China and India once described in their old scriptures.

Why is flow considered one of the secrets to a happy life?

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Probably because it is! Once you experience flow, you want to experience it again. You don't know why, but you know that when you are in that state of mind, you feel better than when you aren’t. Often people take shortcuts (for example, through drugs or religious rituals) that allow them to focus and loose themselves. In a sense, they are similar to flow and can also make people feel better. But after a while, you realize that you are not the one that makes the good feelings happen. I’m not saying it's the only one, but flow is one of the major ways that humans have discovered how to have a happy life.

How can we find flow in everyday life?

By being thoughtful about the high points of your life. Ask yourself: Why did I feel that? Was it because of the person I was with? Because of the thoughts I was having? Because of what I was doing? Once you discover what it is that makes you feel like that, try to make more space in your life to recreate those feelings. Relationships are essentially the same – you have to decide whether the person is going to enrich your life or deplete it. Once you get an idea that yes, this is a relationship that’s worth dedicating my life to, try to act on it and show how important it is to you. We can have relationships that last a lifetime and get richer with time.

How can changing the content of our consciousness make us happy (or miserable) regardless of our external circumstances?

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You can either let life pass while you look for some holy grail or a great culmination. Or you could enjoy life as it goes by, and find pieces of rocks (like my brother, who could take hours discovering them) or flowers or even insects that make you feel like you and them are a part of this world together. There is great satisfaction in feeling like you are sharing this time and space with others. That is one way of changing the content of your consciousness. Another way is through prayer and meditation. Or through music, when you are no longer aware of anything except the sounds that you are making and the feeling of improving these sounds by playing them over and over.

How can we know where our strengths and potentials lie and what will make us happy?

There is an old Chinese philosophy verse about a butcher who was so good that all he had to do was touch an ox with his knife and the ox would fall into pieces. And he would dance while he was doing it. For him this was like a work of art, an expression of something he could do well. I think we all have different potentials. In order to know what they are, we have to pay attention to how we feel afterwards. For many people it’s obvious what they should do with their lives. Others need more reflection. What do I like in this world – the sea or the mountains, the city or the village? Who do I like? Do they make me a better, happier person? This reflection is an ongoing process and it’s something that everyone can do by simply paying attention to how things make them feel. For example, we had a hunting dog when we lived in Chicago. That dog was just a lump of flesh with no life in her. Except for the first time when I took her to the park and she saw squirrels. Then, she changed completely and became a living expression of what hunting meant. She became careful, precise and elegant. She was very happy, even though she could never catch any squirrels. I learned a lot from our dogs. Namely, we should all try to find our squirrels [something that makes us come alive]!

Everyone has their own recipe for happiness. Are there universal ingredients for having a good life?

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The universal ingredient is to find out what you are best at doing – better than the other things that you can do – and relentlessly pursue opportunities to do it. When I interviewed Nobel prize winners, I discovered that what they liked about their jobs was the fact that they could do something well. They were proud of it, and that kept them trying to become even better. It’s no different with the factory workers I studied. Some people are able to take their jobs and their lives and turn them into something better and more interesting. You don't need a higher degree for that. What you have to do is be curious, be interested and open to the world. Find something that gives you joy and become good at it.

Many thanks to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for his time and insights. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is also the founder and co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center (QLRC). He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).