Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has devoted his life to studying what makes people truly happy. He is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, but is best known as the architect of the notion of flow and for his years of research and writing on the topic.

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Action

It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.

Desiring Without Action

Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it. "He who desires but acts not," wrote Blake with his accustomed vigor, "Breeds pestilence.

Enjoying Activity for its Own Sake

Any specialization or expertise that one finds enjoyable and where one can improve one’s knowledge over time. 

The important thing, however, is the attitude toward these disciplines. If one prays in order to be holy, or exercises to develop strong pectoral muscles, or learns to be knowledgeable, then a great deal of the benefit is lost. 

The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.

Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun. 

Attention

The ultimate test for the ability to control the quality of experience is what a person does in solitude, with no external demands to give structure to attention.

Attention is Like Energy

Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy. 

Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how use it. And it is an energy under control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.

It is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity.

The concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.

The Ability to Focus Attention at Will

The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.

It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.

Consuming Culture

Consuming culture is never as rewarding as producing it.

The Ironic Paradox of Our Time

One of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is this great availability of leisure that somehow fails to be translated into enjoyment.

Compared to people living only a few generations ago, we have enormously greater opportunities to have a good time, yet there is no indication that we actually enjoy life more than our ancestors did.

Opportunities alone, however, are not enough. We also need the skills to make use of them. And we need to know how to control consciousness—a skill that most people have not learned to cultivate.

Surrounded by an astounding panoply of recreational gadgets and leisure choices, most of us go on being bored and vaguely frustrated

Creativity is so fascinating is that when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.

Creativity

Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives. When we are involved in creativity, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.

Painters Want to Paint

Painters must want to paint above all else. If the artist in front of the canvas begins to wonder how much he will sell it for, or what the critics will think of it, he won't be able to pursue original avenues. Creative achievements depend on single-minded immersion.

Waking Up with a Specific Goal to Look Forward To

Wake up in the morning with a specific goal to look forward to. Creative individuals don’t have to be dragged out of bed; they are eager to start the day. This is not because they are cheerful, enthusiastic types. Nor do they necessarily have something exciting to do. But they believe that there is something meaningful to accomplish each day, and they can’t wait to get started on it. 

Most of us don’t feel our actions are that meaningful. Yet everyone can discover at least one thing every day that is worth waking up for. It could be meeting a certain person, shopping for a special item, potting a plant, cleaning the office desk, writing a letter, trying on a new dress. 

It is easier if each night before falling asleep, you review the next day and choose a particular task that, compared to the rest of the day, should be relatively interesting and exciting. Then next morning, open your eyes and visualize the chosen event—play it out briefly in your mind, like an inner videotape, until you can hardly wait to get dressed and get going. 

It does not matter if at first the goals are trivial and not that interesting. The important thing is to take the easy first steps until you master the habit, and then slowly work up to more complex goals. Eventually most of the day should consist of tasks you look forward to, until you feel that getting up in the morning is a privilege, not a chore.

Creating a Unified Flow Experience

Creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one’s actions into a unified flow experience.

Eventually most of the day should consist of tasks you look forward to, until you feel that getting up in the morning is a privilege, not a chore.

Flow

In Csikszentmihalyi's studies people described their 'flow states' as those instances when their work simply flowed out of them without much effort. These were their optimal states of performance.

Defining Flow States

A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

Creating More Flow Experiences

It was found that the more often people report reading books, the more flow experiences they claim to have, while the opposite trend was found for watching television.

The Tremendous Leisure Industry

The tremendous leisure industry that has arisen in the last few generations has been designed to help fill free time with enjoyable experiences. Nevertheless, instead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we go to admire paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action.

The Flow Experience

The flow experience, like everything else, is not “good” in an absolute sense. It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self.

Optimal Experience is Something We Make Happen

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.

The Key to Flow

The key to flow is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the rewards it brings.

Anyone who has experienced flow knows that the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration.

Life

A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.

Creating New Goals and Flow

Most of us become so rigidly fixed in the ruts carved out by genetic programming and social conditioning that we ignore the options of choosing any other course of action. Living exclusively by genetic and social instructions is fine as long as everything goes well. But the moment bioloical or social goals are frustrated- which in the long run is inevitable - a person must formulate new goals, and create a new flow activity for himself, or else he will always waste his energies in inner turmoil.

Belonging to Something Greater Than Oneself

One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself.

Choosing What We Do and How We Approach It

It is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.

Aim for Surprise Everyday

Try to be surprised by something every day. It could be something you see, hear, or read about. Stop to look at the unusual car parked at the curb, taste the new item on the cafeteria menu, actually listen to your colleague at the office. How is this different from other similar cars, dishes or conversations? What is its essence? Don't assume that you already know what these things are all about, or that even if you knew them, they wouldn't matter anyway. Experience this once thing for what it is, not what you think it is. Be open to what the world is telling you. Life is nothing more than a stream of experiences - the more widely and deeply you swim in it, the richer your life will be.

We are always getting to live, as Ralph Waldo Emerson used to say, but never living. Or as poor Frances learned in the children's story, it is always bread and jam tomorrow, never brad and jam today.

Happiness

It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.

Studying What Makes People Truly Happy

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has devoted his life to studying what makes people truly happy. He is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, but is best known as the architect of the notion of flow and for his years of research and writing on the topic.

Csikszentmihalyi found that people were happiest when they were their most creative, productive, and in a state of flow. This flow occurs when your skill level and the challenge at hand are equal.

The Best Moments

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them.

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. 

For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.

Developing Curiosity and Interest

If one has failed to develop curiosity and interest in the early years, it is a good idea to acquire them now, before it is too late to improve the quality of life. To do so is fairly easy in principle, but more difficult in practice. Yet it is sure worth trying. 

The first step is to develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention, with skill rather than inertia. Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art. 

The next step is to transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks that we don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems too much trouble. There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don’t become actually interesting until we devote attention to them.

Making Your Self Happy, or Miserable

A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening “outside,” just by changing the contents of consciousness. 

We all know individuals who can transform hopeless situations into challenges to be overcome, just through the force of their personalities. 

This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.

The task is to learn how to enjoy everyday life without diminishing other people's chances to enjoy theirs.

Mind

Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.

Control Over Consciousness

Control over consciousness is not simply a cognitive skill. At least as much as intelligence, it requires the commitment of emotions and will. 

It is not enough to know how to do it; one must do it, consistently, in the same way as athletes or musicians who must keep practicing what they know in theory.

Controlling Information

Everything we experience—joy or pain, interest or boredom—is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our lives will be like.

Designing or Discovering Something New

When people are asked to choose from a list the best description of how they feel when doing whatever they enjoy doing most—reading, climbing mountains, playing chess, whatever—the answer most frequently chosen is “designing or discovering something new.

Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.

Obstacles

The self expands through acts of self forgetfulness.

Transforming Adversity into Enjoyable Challenges

Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.

The Ability to Overcome Obstacles is Within Our Hands

Even if we don't want to admit it, the ability to overcome most obstacles is within our hands. We can't blame family, society, or history if our work is meaningless, dull, or stressful. 

Admittedly, there are not too many options when we realize that our job is useless, or actually harmful. Perhaps the only choice is to quit as quickly as possible, even at the cost of severe financial hardship. 

In terms of the bottom line of one's life, it is always a better deal to do something one feels good about than something that may make us materially comfortable but emotionally miserable. Such decisions are notoriously difficult, and require great honesty with oneself.

Buddhists advise us to "act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference." This serious playfulness makes it possible to be both engaged and carefree at the same time.

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