Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Biography of the Father of Flow Theory

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a professor of Psychology of Hungarian origin. A figure that stands out for having been the creator of the concept of flow and one of the most cited psychologists today in different fields of psychology.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a professor of Psychology of Hungarian origin. A figure that stands out for having been the creator of the concept of flow and one of the most cited psychologists today in different fields of psychology. They highlight their work in areas such as happiness, creativity, subjective well-being and fun. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has handled these concepts in a novel and surprising way that gave way to one of the most innovative psychological theories of the 20th century.

His life and his entire professional career have been focused in that direction. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was a young man who emigrated to the United States to train in Psychology, and who has mastered one of the most complex concepts in the human mind: the mental state of intrinsic motivation and maximum concentration. His work has served as the inspiration for many investigations and laboratory replicas.

His theory of flow describes a universal experience, which occurs in different classes, genders, ages and cultures; You can experiment in various types of activities. If you ever heard someone describe a time when your performance was excellent and you used the term “in the zone,” what you are describing is a flow experience. It happens when your skill level and the challenge in question are equal. In this article, we compile some of the most interesting facts about the life of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and her contributions to psychology.

His childhood

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in 1934 in the town of Fiume, the current Rijeka. An independent state on the shores of the Adriatic Sea that was the subject of territorial disputes between Italians, Serbs, Croats and Slovenes after the First World War. His childhood was especially difficult. His two brothers died in rather tragic conditions when Mihalyi was still very young. His father was a diplomat at the Hungarian Consulate in Fiume.

When the Communists took Hungary in 1949, his father refused to work for the new regime and his family was expelled and stripped of his citizenship. One of his brothers was killed at the Budapest site and the other was sent to the forced labor camps in Siberia by the Soviets.

“Repression is not the path to virtue. When people limit themselves to fear, their lives of necessity diminish. Only through the discipline freely chosen can life be enjoyed and still be kept within the limits of reason.”

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi-

Later, they emigrate to Rome, where Mihaly must abandon her studies to help the family economy. It is then, during a trip to Switzerland, that he sees Carl Jung for the first time at a conference on psychology. This marked a trip without return for the vocation of the young Mihaly.

At 22, he would travel to the United States to study psychology at the University of Chicago, while working to pay for his studies. He obtained his doctorate in psychology in 1965 from the same University. For some time, he taught at Lake Forest College, until he became a professor at the University of Chicago in 1969, serving as president of the Department of Psychology. Currently, he works at Claremont Graduate University.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: career and contribution to psychology

During the Second World War, he spent time in an Italian prison camp where he discovered chess. He observed that this game was a very effective way of diverting his attention from what was happening around him, something that helped him cope with his stay and get out of there better standing than others.

“When I was a child in war, I had seen something drastically wrong in the way adults, the adults I trusted, organized their thoughts. I was trying to find a better system to order my life. Jung seemed to be. trying to deal with some of the most positive aspects of the human experience.”

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi-

His theory of flow is explained in detail in his work Flow: the psychology of optimal experience (1990). According to this theory, when people enter the flow state they are really happy. For Mihaly, it is a state in which she is completely involved in an activity on her own. In this state, the ego vanishes and time flies. All actions, movements and thoughts are detached from the previous one. People use their skills to the fullest in this state and are fully involved in them.

The ideas and theories of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have influenced people of all professions and fields. That is, they have not only been of vital importance for psychology, but also for other areas such as business, politics, education, the arts and, of course, positive psychology.

Mihaly was so influential that there are many who have seen in Hungarian a source of inspiration or path to happiness, even such renowned personalities as Bill Clinton or Tony Blair have claimed to have read Mihaly. And it is that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written numerous books and more than 120 academic articles.

“Flow is the process of achieving happiness through the control of the inner life. The optimal state of inner experience is order in consciousness. This happens when we focus our attention (psychic energy) on realistic goals and when our skills match the challenges we face.”

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi-

The flow theory

Through his investigations, he began to understand that people became more creative, more productive and, often, happier when they were in this state of flux. Interviewed athletes, musicians, artists, etc. in order to know when they experienced the most optimal performance levels.

He developed the term flow state because many of the people he interviewed described their optimal performance states as examples in which their work simply flowed out of them without much effort. His goal was to discover how creativity leads to greater productivity. For the flow state to occur, Csikszentmihalyi describes eight points that must match:

  • Complete concentration in the task.
  • Clarity of objectives, reward and immediate feedback.
  • Transformation of time (acceleration / deceleration of time).
  • The experience is intrinsically rewarding.
  • There is a balance between challenge and skills.
  • Actions and consciousness merge, losing self-conscious rumination.
  • There is a sense of control over the task.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s studies led him to conclude that happiness is an internal state of being, not an external state. His popular book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, is based on the premise that levels of happiness can be changed through the introduction of more flow. Happiness is not a rigid state that can not be changed. On the contrary, happiness requires a committed effort to manifest. After the point of reference, there is a percentage of happiness in which each individual has the responsibility to take control.