Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Father of ‘Flow,’ Dies at 89
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-born psychologist who showed how everyone from artists to assembly-line workers can be transported to a …
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-born psychologist who showed how everyone from artists to assembly-line workers can be transported to a state of focused contentment by getting caught in the “flow,” a term he coined and later popularized, died on Oct. 20 at his home in Claremont, Calif. He was 89.
His son, Chris Csikszentmihalyi, said the cause was cardiac arrest.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, who went by Mike and whose full name is pronounced mee-HIGH CHEEK-sent-me-HIGH-ee, was a polymath whose passions for painting, chess playing and rock climbing informed his work on subjects as diverse as the teenage brain and the psychology of interior design.
But it was his research into creativity and focus, which began while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, that constituted his life’s work, and that made him a public figure after the breakout success of his 1990 book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”
The book made “flow” a part of popular and political culture. Jimmy Johnson, the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, cited Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work as a critical piece in his preparation for the team’s victory in the 1993 Super Bowl. He even held up a copy of the book during a postgame interview.
Newt Gingrich sang its praises; so did Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who once boasted that half his cabinet was reading it. A 2004 TED Talk by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has been viewed nearly seven million times.
“Flow” brought to a general readership ideas that he and other psychologists had been developing for decades. Though Dr. Csikszentmihalyi was not the only person to recognize that people can fall into states of intense focus, he was the first to explain how they did so, in empirical terms.
Flow, he argued, was a state of mind, a level of concentration in which outside stimuli, even time itself, seem to fall away. But flow, he added, cannot be forced.
“People seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are a bit greater than usual, and they are able to give more than usual,” Dr. Csikszentmihalyi said in an interview with The New York Times in 1986. “If there is too little demand on them, people are bored. If there is too much for them to handle, they get anxious. Flow occurs in that delicate zone between boredom and anxiety.”
And while his early research was on painters and other artists, he said that flow could be achieved by anyone, from professional athletes to students to factory workers.
Flow became an important element of positive psychology, a movement started in the early 2000s by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi and Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. It focused not on the pathologies of the human mind but its everyday experiences.
“Czikszentmihalyi was such a leader in our field it’s hard to do his contributions justice,” Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale, wrote in an email. “I think in a world where it’s become harder and harder to focus, his work on flow has become even more important.”
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi did not just explain “flow”; he offered a pointed critique of why so many people fail to achieve it. He cited countless studies showing that most people prefer meaningful work over mindless downtime, but argued that Americans in particular had been conditioned to hate their jobs and love passive relaxation.
He blamed television, above all, for the decline in hobbies, avocations and lifelong education — activities that blend aspects of work and play and, he said, offer the best opportunity for flow and, through it, happiness.
Some critics said his finger pointing smacked of snobbery, to which he had a response: “If holding that everyone should have a chance to get the highest quality of experience is an elitist notion, so be it,” he wrote in a guest essay for The New York Times in 1993. “It is better than resigning oneself to a life of mindless entertainment.”
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi often cited his own adolescence during and after World War II as a formative experience that prepared him for a life studying the power of concentration.
Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi was born on Sept. 29, 1934, in Fiume, Italy, a port city that is now part of Croatia and known as Rijeka. His father, Alfred Csikszentmihalyi, was a Hungarian diplomat stationed in Fiume, and his mother, Edith Jankovich de Jeszenicze, was a homemaker who later worked for the United Nations.
Along with his son, he is survived by his wife, Isabella (Selega) Csikszentmihalyi; another son, Mark; and six grandchildren.
During the first few years of World War II, Mihaly’s father helped Hungarian Jews escape the country by providing them with exit visas. After the war, Mihaly and his parents were interned by the Allies, along with hundreds of other political prisoners. To stave off boredom he played chess, happily finding that while engaged in it the rest of the world seemed to fall away and time seemed to fly by.
His father eventually returned to diplomatic service, but in 1947, as Communists were taking over the Hungarian government, the family fled to Italy, where they opened a restaurant in Rome, near the Trevi Fountain.
Mihaly was on a vacation in Switzerland when he attended a lecture by the psychologist Carl Jung. Entranced, he decided to study psychology, but it was rarely taught as its own subject in European universities.
With the equivalent of $50 in his pocket, he moved to Chicago, where he worked in a hotel while getting his G.E.D. He briefly attended the University of Illinois Chicago, then transferred to the University of Chicago, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1960 and his doctorate in psychology in 1965.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi taught at Lake Forest College, outside Chicago, until 1971, when he returned to the University of Chicago. He retired in 1999, after which he moved to California and joined the faculty at Claremont Graduate University.
He first became interested in what he later called flow while working on his dissertation, a study of creativity among painters. When he asked, in a questionnaire, what they were thinking about while painting, he noticed that they rarely spoke about their goal, creating art. Instead they talked about the process — the challenges of the canvas, the consistency of the paint.
Intrigued, he later surveyed other groups and found similar responses.
“I was astonished to find that all those different people — rock climbers, basketball and hockey players, dancers, composers, chess masters — used very similar terms to describe their activities and the reasons they got so much out of them,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1986.
He came up with the term “flow” in the early 1970s to describe that state of mind, around the same time he developed a new technique to study it. Rather than having people fill out questionnaires about something they did hours before, he had them wear beepers. Eight or more times a day, he would message them, asking them to describe their state of mind.
“It was an important move away from paper and pencil questionnaires and toward the real world,” Dr. Seligman said in an interview.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi wrote a series of follow-up books to “Flow,” including one focused on the business world. And while he never claimed to know the secret to happiness, he never passed up a chance to offer advice for those looking for it.
“We can’t afford to become trapped within ourselves, our jobs, and religions, and lose sight of the entire tapestry of life,” he said in a 1995 interview with Omni magazine. “When the self loses itself in a transcendent purpose — whether to write great poetry, craft beautiful furniture, understand the motions of galaxies, or help children be happier — the self becomes largely invulnerable to the fears and setbacks of ordinary existence.”