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.


Rohan:  Once you began researching flow, and you’ve been doing it for such a long time, what have been some of the defining moments in that research?  What have been some of the turning points that you remember?

Mihaly:  Certainly the very beginning was quite exciting.  I was just teaching a seminar for college seniors and we decided in the seminar to study adult play because there wasn’t much in the literature on that.  Most of the work even on children’s play was strangely alienated from the actual phenomenology of play.  The assumption was that children play because if they play chess they can become good engineers, and if they play a game of catching each other or running after each other that they will be healthy and live longer.  That didn’t make any sense to me.  Kids play because they enjoy it, and it’s great fun, and they learn from it.  They don’t play to learn; they play to experience what comes with playfulness.

In that seminar, I asked each student to report one form of adult play and why people play, etc.  What was really surprising to me after these twelve or fifteen students came in with their papers which were discussed together with the class was how similar the experiences they reported were, even though they were very different.  They discussed forms of play that went from gambling to playing sports to playing musical instruments.  What people were discovering seemed to be to me strangely similar in many respects.  We tried to figure out what those overlaps were in class.  It was discovering how there was an emerging understanding of what makes people want to do something for no good reason except for experiencing the activity itself.  That was great.

After that, it was great when I received one of my first letters.  It was from a reader who read one of my first articles. He was from India, from Calcutta.  He was writing saying that what I discovered is strangely similar to the discourse that Lord Krishna has with Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita in the first chapter.   I’ve never read The Bhagavad Gita before, but after he wrote that I went to read it and it was very exciting to see these ideas coming up in such an incredibly different context.

After that, a few months later I had a letter from Shanghai from a professor there who said my stuff reminded him of what Lao Tzu used to write about.  I started reading that and I was very impressed by that too.  I said that it seems like there is an underlying knowledge that seems to have been forgotten that needs to be re-polished and re-adapted to modern understandings about how things work.  It’s the same thing really. That was very exciting.

After that I had a collaboration with a college in Italy and other parts of Europe and they discovered the same things.  Then some of my students interviewed people in Japan and Korea and so forth, and then my colleague who was one of the first to understand the importance of these studies went to Northern India and studied people who live up in the mountains close to Nepal and described how they have flow and so forth.  It was very exciting to see the replication of this simple class experiment that we did in 1969.

We have done so many different studies and each one is interesting in its own way.  In the last one that we did, 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.  

When playing against better players, the curve of enjoyment went down very slowly, but if you played against a worse player the curve went down precipitously.  That is you enjoy playing someone who is 100 points better than you but not against someone who is 100 points lower.  That was a nice little breakthrough in theory because all psychological theories explain play as a way of boosting self-esteem by winning, because that’s the point of the game is to win.  In fact, it’s not.  When you play against somebody that much better than you, you win only about 30% of the time, but when you win you feel much better.  If you win against somebody worse than you, you don’t feel better and if you lose you feel much worse.  That was an elegant set of experiments that were real life experiments.

There are so many others that are interesting.  I was called by the CEO of a major company in Asia who applied flow to his company seven years ago.  He said that since then they’ve made 6.5 million dollars in profit more than expected.


Rohan:  What did he do?

Mihaly:  He just had his whole manager group understand flow through having workshops and discussions, and then each one had to apply it to 7 of their reports and so on.  They had a whole pyramid of each person being responsible for making the work life of those below them more enjoyable either by changing expectations, or re-training the person, or moving them to a different position.

To do that they used this method that we have been using with experience sampling which means that you keep track of how you experience the day every 10-15 minutes.  Then you can find out what type of work is either boring or anxiety-provoking to your reports, and your responsibility now as manager is to change it and to change the condition of the worker’s job experience.  That ends up showing up in the bottom line.  

We also had a major Swedish company who did the same thing and they got the same results.  That’s kind of exciting to see, although I wish that they would have provided a small percentage of their profits to build up our laboratories here, but it’s still good to know that it works.  That’s what counts.


Rohan:  Video games make use of flow.  If you think of most video games, they are a wonderful experience because they keep raising the challenge level as your skills get better.  Is there a case for something called meaningful flow, or flow that contributes to your growth and development?  In some ways video games do, but I’m guessing there’s a diminishing return half the time.  What is your view on that?

Mihaly:  Unfortunately there is such a thing as what we call junk flow.  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.  Then they become trapped because they haven’t learned any other skill, or don’t see anything else in the world that is challenging to them.  They are repeating their moves but without any excitement anymore because they know that they are stuck and they can’t grow.

It’s a much shorter cycle in video games.  You can do it faster and faster and play higher and higher levels, but after a while either you can’t go anymore because you are not fast enough, or you wake up one morning and say, “Why the heck am I doing this kind of thing?  It just doesn’t give me any hope for the future.”

The meaning is important.  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.


Rohan:  You’ve coined a term called work orientation.  Can you explain a little bit about what that is, and most importantly how we can cultivate it.  My next couples of questions are about work orientation and intrinsic motivation in the sense of can these things be taught?  These are obviously good things to have, but can they be taught to others as teachers and parents?  Can we teach them to ourselves?

MihalyUsually 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.  They found ways to do it faster, better, and more elegantly with less effort.  You find that these people, once they discover that and they begin to practice what they learned about the job, become attracted to the performance of excellence or whatever other goals they have established for themselves.  Then they will become intrinsically motivated.

Intrinsic motivation means simply that something occurs between you and what you are doing, and it becomes worth doing for its own sake.  That is easiest to see in activities that are designed to be intrinsically motivating like dancing, singing, playing the guitar, painting, or writing poetry.  These forms of self-expression or self-actualization exist only because of the experience they provide.  Then they become associated with other things like paid performance or religious ritual, but basically people are attracted to these things because dancing, singing, and playing instruments are things that allow them to develop a skill that has an immediate feedback.  You can see yourself improving and expressing what you want to do.

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.  Again, that’s what Krishna told Arjuna.  “This is what you are; this is what you have to do.”

If you know that you are being exploited, that somebody’s using your skills for some other purpose for themselves, then you become alienated.  As Marx knew very well, alienated labor is a way of feeling that your self is being sucked away by somebody else for their own purposes.  Then work is no longer intrinsically motivating.

Many people become doctors and surgeons because they feel that this is what they should do and can do well and they are intrinsically motivated.  Then either because of external reasons or because they are not changing or growing in their profession, they start to do it because they get paid for it.  A doctor without intrinsic motivation becomes a bad doctor pretty soon.  They stop paying attention to their patient and are not interested in curing the patient, but are interested in the patient’s payment.  The doctor usually ends up needing to take a little bit of opium on the side, or have some way of making their life more interesting.  Unfortunately, we find that many surgeons go through that spiral even though they describe their job as a pure flow experience.


Rohan:  Can this be taught when we are young by teachers or parents, or even to ourselves?

Mihaly:  Yeah, usually you learn that by being impressed by how another adult has a good and enjoyable life partly because they like their job, and then you have to figure out how you can do that.  That’s where one-on-one mentoring can occur.  Apprenticing can be very important.  Sometimes you learn that by accident, by being in a fortunate situation where suddenly you are doing work that is so interesting that you say, “Oh, this is what work is about.”

I don’t think you can learn it from books very well.  Once you experience it, you know it.  It doesn’t have to be explained.  It’s really a question of experiential learning.


Rohan:  Are there any books or movies that you have been very inspired by, or you really liked that you’d recommend?

Mihaly:  There are so many, especially books.  There are so many that are very good, or they are good at the time.  Sometimes for long periods you read detective stories because you are too busy thinking about other things, and then finally you get a good book of poems and a good novel, and then you luxuriate in reading them.  There are too many to mention.  The riders of Rohan take part in The Lord of the Rings.  That was a good movie.  It’s one of the movies my wife and I watch more often.

In different stages of life, there were the Italian realist movies.  Of course, there were Fellini’s movies.  His early movies were very good.  We even saw Slumdog Millionaire twice.  We are old fashioned in the sense that we like movies that have a message of humane feeling and sensitivity without becoming kitschy or happy-go-lucky, unless they are comedies.  A good comedy is always fun.


Rohan:  You are obviously very productive.  You write paper after paper and book after book, and do so much good work.  I’d love to know if there are any routines, rituals, or little things that you do in a day that help you become more productive.

Mihaly: No, I am trying to become less productive all the time.  I can’t help it.  I get asked to do so many things.  I like to try new things.  Next month I have to fly to several parts of the US then I have to go to Kazakhstan, to Astana to lecture there.  Then I go to Moscow in Russia, then to Sydney in Australia, then come back for a little while but then I have to go to Amsterdam and then Vienna and then Berlin.  It used to be fun, but now it’s getting harder.  This year I will be 80 years old and traveling is not so much fun anymore with going to new hotels every time and carrying bags and things like that.

It’s fun to work with young students.  We now have a doctoral program in positive psychology which I started.  It’s the only one in the world so far.  They are doing good, interesting research that is really fun to help with that.  I encourage them and teach them, and then we write some things together occasionally.  On the one hand I enjoy every part of it but on the other I feel that less of it could be better.


Rohan:  What is an idea that inspires you that you would like to share?

Mihaly:  Mostly anything that inspired me I wrote about, so it’s out there in the books.  I have inspirations from so many places.  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.  

That’s one thing that we forget.  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.  If you miss that opportunity to express yourself, not as a showman who’s expressing himself.  If you like to think alone on a mountaintop, then that’s how you express yourself.  That’s what you should be doing.  That is a recurring theme that occasionally re-inspires me because somebody had already seen that hundreds of year ago and it’s kind of nice to see that people were able to penetrate the veils of Maya and see these things a long time ago.


Thank you so much, Prof Mihaly. Very very inspiring..

Sign off text, Real Leaders Team