Prof Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, intrinsic motivation, and happiness

For a person interested in psychology, human behaviour, and happiness, Prof Mihaly’s work on “flow” is the stuff of legend. It was a real honor interviewing him (it was a very memorable experience too). For all those who are reading about Prof Mihaly for the first time, I’d recommend his wonderful TED talk.

About Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

featuredProfessor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has contributed pioneering work to our understanding of happiness, creativity, human fulfillment and the notion of “flow” — a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work. Csikszentmihalyi teaches psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, focusing on human strengths such as optimism, motivation and responsibility. He’s the director of the Quality of Life Research Center there. He has written numerous books and papers about the search for joy and fulfillment.


My favorite bits –

“We published several articles from was the study of internet chess and how people play.  We asked people who played against each other to fill out how much flow they had in the game afterwards.  In a week we collected over 1000 games and it was a good way to study whether our hypothesis was correct.  Our hypothesis was that the greatest enjoyment would come when the two players were exactly matched in terms of their skill level because that means that the challenges and skills were equal for both players.  We found that was almost true, but it was even better if the opponent was about 7% better than you were.”

“Junk flow is when you are actually becoming addicted to a superficial experience that may be flow at the beginning, but after a while becomes something that you become addicted to instead of something that makes you grow.  You find that even in chess, which I love.  I think it’s very difficult to exhaust chess as a source of growth, and yet you find that so many chess masters when they reach the end of their career, even while they’re young in their thirties or forties, can’t go beyond their skill level anymore.”

“The Greek philosopher Plato wrote a thousand years ago that the greatest challenge for teachers and parents is to teach young people to find pleasure in the right things.  He called it pleasure, but actually what he meant was enjoyment.  The problem is that it’s much easier to find pleasure or enjoyment in things that are not growth-producing but are attractive and seductive.  After a while you get trapped by a cycle of short term bursts of excitement, and then it becomes a habit; and now you feel bad if you can’t play, but you don’t feel good when you can play.  That’s a problem that goes beyond flow.  It goes to the philosophy of life.”

“Usually I find that people who become intrinsically motivated in their job, whether they’re surgeons or cooks in a restaurant, are the people who paid enough attention to what they had to do to discover small differences in performance and small differences in the product and became fascinated with the possibility of improving what they were doing.”

“The activity becomes a form of self-expression. This who I am, this is what I can do, etc.  When that happens, the work becomes intrinsically motivating which means that even if you are paid for it, or even if you get other rewards for it, it also very importantly gives you a sense of this is who I am.  This is what I can do well, and this is what I am called to do.”

“Twenty years ago I discovered a little passage in Dante Alighieri’s book The Monarchia which was written in 1317 – 700 years ago.  He says that every being enjoys most of all expressing itself.  We had dogs for a long time, and after I read that I realized that each dog was the happiest when it did what it was bred to do.  The hunting dogs liked to hunt; the guard dogs liked to keep people away from the door.   The sheepdog loves to chase children around until they get together like a flock of sheep.  When they do that they look happy, content, and proud.”

“Happiness is not something that is guaranteed, or that comes with our birth certificates.  It’s a possibility that we have to discover how to be happy.  Happiness is to do things that are harmonious with who we are, with what we can do, with what we like, and with what we think is right. Do it. Don’t figure that somebody else will do it, or that you don’t have a right to do it. “

Thank you Prof Mihaly for that wonderful interview. The full transcript, as always, is on