Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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On this "Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi" page:

- a brief bio of  Csikszentmihalyi

- recollection of Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel and link to creativity

- Csikszentmihalyi and his theory of creative "flow"

- characteristics of the autotelic (creative) personality

- Csikszentmihalyi's findings on joy


A Hungarian psychology professor, Csikszentmihalyi emigrated to the United States in his early twenties. After being a department head at the University of Chicago and Lake Forest College, he is today at Claremont Graduate University.

He is best known for his work on creativity and happiness, and for having identified and named the creative state of "flow", described in more detail below.  Researcher, writer, he has authored a great many books and articles and is hailed as a leading authority on joy.


Before discussing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I would like to begin with one of the world’s best-loved and best-known works of art: The Creation, by Michelangelo. God bringing the father of humanity, Adam, to life, from mere dust.

When commissioned by the Pope in the early 16th century, Michelangelo painted an enormous fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, measuring over 520 square meters - that's about equivalent to the surface area of two tennis courts.

He spent five years lying on his back, the uncomfortable position on the scaffolding reportedly putting him in daily agony. He went without food, drink, or going to bed, according to accounts of the time, until he actually lost consciousness, virtually swooning into sleep. Yet strangely, when he came to he would appear completely refreshed to his observers, and return immediately to his task.

Which brings us to the next logical thought: what was wrong with this man?

In the 1960s a young Hungarian psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-hi Cheek-Sent-Me-Hi) wanted to answer the question of why artists behave this way. He concluded that it was due to a state called “flow”.

He established that this state consists of:

- having a task with a set goal;

- action and personal awareness merging;

- loss of consciousness of self while maintaining a sense of control;

- the experience of not seeing time pass;

- and having a sense of reward in achieving the task.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi then went on to broaden his research to study other types of creative people, from scientists to novelists, and determined that they too were "autotelics", or people with a propensity for experiencing flow.

Wondering if you are autotelic yourself? Being autotelic means:

- you have a sense of curiosity;

- you have persistance;

- you have a low degree of self-centeredness;

- you like doing challenging things just for the fun of it; and,

- you have all of these characteristics.

But we are all special and creative without necessarily being autotelecs! If you have played chess or cooked a great chocolate cake and not seen the time pass, you have experienced flow. We’ve all got us in us. Interestingly, even a bank robber planning a heist could conceivably experience flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi then gave beepers to volunteers; they would never know when they would be beeped, but when they were, they were to note what their activity at that moment was, and to grade on a scale of one to ten how happy they were. And this is what he learned.

People experience the highest degree of joy not when they are counting money or proposing marriage. They experience it when they are experiencing flow, in playing the violin; doing figure skating; sailing a sailboat; and yes, when they are drawing a drawing. When you are doing a skill you are personally passionate about, that takes learning and perfecting.

This is why we should care about flow – as Martin Selegman, the father of Positive Psychology puts it, life is not about earning the money you need to buy the things that make you happy; rather, it is about finding what makes you happy and simply doing more of it.

This joy, this spark of creativity illuminates our selves and our lives, making us feel whole and giving our lives meaning. A divine spark, that again and again raises us, as individuals and as the race of mankind, from mere dust to seeking the greatest we have to offer our selves and the world.

Go from "Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Flow" to "How to Be Creative"

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