On Dec. 6, 2014, Claremont Graduate University
psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was presented with the Grand Cross Order of
Merit of the Republic of Hungary, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “CHEEK-sent-muh-HIGH-ee”) pioneered the
field of positive psychology, which is the study of happiness and human traits such as creativity, responsibility and social engagement. He is the founder and co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center (QLRC) and launched some of the field’s first graduate programs in positive psychology. This week, TSL sat down with Csikszentmihalyi to talk about the
award and the research that led to it.
TSL: How would you describe the Grand Cross Order of Merit
to those who are unfamiliar with it?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (MC): That decoration goes to people who have supposedly improved
or helped the nation in some way. One was given at the end of last century to
Queen Elizabeth of England, and others mostly to statesmen or scientists who
have done something that the government decided was helpful to the population.
TSL: Did you ever imagine as a child that you might be
honored in this way?
MC: No, especially since the previous government, in 1948,
took away [my family’s] citizenship and condemned my father to death. He was
ambassador to Italy in Rome. When the communists took over in Hungary, he
didn’t go back like they asked him to do, so they sentenced him to death in
absentia. They took away our citizenship and everything we owned. So it took 60
years or so to be recognized. It was a mistake [that it took that long], so it
was kind of a sweet, belated recognition.
TSL: You grew up in Eastern Europe during World War II. Did that experience shape your academic interests or the man you are today?
MC: Luckily, I didn’t spend too much time in Eastern Europe during the war, because my father, being a diplomat, he was stationed in Italy. So I was in Italy at the end of the war. I was ten years old. I was surprised how quickly and how drastically that whole society collapsed. I was visiting Budapest in 1944, so it was toward the end of the war, and my grandparents had a villa. We took the last train from Budapest. After that the bridges over the Danube were blown up. The Russians surrounded the city completely for about five months. People didn’t have enough to eat or to heat their houses. We escaped, but I kept wondering, “How can this happen? How can people – grownups! – be so oblivious or clueless as to what’s going to happen?” That got me interested in first philosophy and religion, history, but none of those seemed very useful in explaining what was happening, so eventually I turned to psychology. At that time in Europe you couldn’t major in psychology. There was nothing like that. You could take psychology courses if you went into medicine, but otherwise, there was no psychology per se. One winter I was working. I quit school when I was 13 ½, 14 years old, and I didn’t go to school again until I was 24 and I got my B.A. here in Chicago. I didn’t go to high school at all.
TSL: You are most famous for introducing the concept of
“flow,” that euphoria we can experience when a task’s difficulty is perfectly
matched to our skill level, and we become completely absorbed. What led you to
MC: My original research, which I still do, is creativity.
Flow was an offshoot of creativity. What struck me in studying creative artists
and musicians was how unconcerned they were with the product, how quickly they
moved on after they finished something. It was unexplainable by the reigning
theories of creativity at the time, which said that people were motivated to do
something in order to get something. But for these people, that didn’t seem to
be the case. It wasn’t the result that motivated them. That was part of it, but
for most of them, they didn’t expect to sell or exhibit, they just did it,
apparently, because doing it was rewarding in itself. So I asked, “What is this
process?” I started looking at, not how you do something, but how you feel when
you’re doing it.
That immediately branched off into all kinds of
directions, like sports, art, music, etc. After a while, it seemed obvious that
some of these feelings were the same as those [of business professionals]. What first surprised me was the way
surgeons described their feelings when an operation was going well. They
could only think of metaphors or analogies that involved sports or art. They
would say, “It’s like skiing,” or “It’s like sailing,” or “There’s a little
bit of wrestling involved.” In other words, the underlying experience was the
same whether you were a surgeon, an artist, a musician, a sportsperson … So
finally I said, “Since they all seem to describe the same thing, let’s give it
a name.” Looking over these interviews, the most frequent analogy was
to something which flowed effortlessly, like being carried away by a river. I
decided to call it a “flow” experience.
TSL: How has positive psychology evolved since its origins
in the 1990s?
MC: It started with Marty Seligman, of the University of
Pennsylvania, who was then the president-elect of the American Psychological
Association. It was 17 years ago that we first met and decided that we should
do something, that psychology was getting trapped into a kind of pathological
view of humanity. He had read my work, and I had read some of his. We decided
to start something, although we didn’t know what to call it. We finally named
it “positive psychology,” which is not a perfect name by a long shot, but we
couldn’t think of another name.
At that time, I had the idea that, “Okay, for the rest of
my life I will have to fight against the majority of psychologists.” I thought
there would be one or two people who might be convinced that we were right, and
that somehow we would survive. I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly [positive
psychology] was embraced. And then I realized that it’s an even bigger danger
to get suddenly dozens of people saying, “Oh, that’s great! We’ll all be happy
if we do this.” It was like being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of hope and
expectations. That worried me more than having to struggle, because when you
struggle you can stay honest all the way, but if you become part of a wave of
popular interest and expectation, it’s easy to get carried away and say, “Yeah,
okay, that’s good, that’s good. That’s what we mean. Go ahead.” And it’s not
what you mean actually.
TSL: What advice, if any, do you have for our readers that
might make them happier?
MC: To be honest with themselves, to figure out what they
really like to do, what they are good at and try to work their lives around
those things that they enjoy doing and that are meaningful to them, and not to
worry about going by the rules that society expects them to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.