Creativity, Not Money, is the Key to Happiness: Discover Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Theory of “Flow”

The title of the TED talk above, “Flow, the secret to hap­pi­ness,” might make you roll your eyes. It does indeed sound like self-help snake oil. But as soon as you hear the speak­er, psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi, describe the ratio­nale for his hap­pi­ness study, you might pay more seri­ous atten­tion. After liv­ing through the Sec­ond World War in Europe (he grew up in what is now Croa­t­ia), Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi says he “real­ized how few of the grownups I knew were able to with­stand the tragedies that were vis­it­ed upon them; how few of them could even resem­ble a nor­mal, con­tent­ed, sat­is­fied, hap­py life once their job, their home, their secu­ri­ty was destroyed by the war.”

He became inter­est­ed, he says, “in under­stand­ing what con­tributed to a life that was worth liv­ing.” Csik­szent­mi­ha­ly­i’s con­cerns are far from triv­ial, and his back­ground and wealth of research lend his ideas a good deal of weight and cred­i­bil­i­ty.

After chanc­ing upon a Jun­gian lec­ture in Switzer­land by a speak­er who turned out to actu­al­ly be Carl Jung, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi embarked on a course of study in the field now wide­ly known as “pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy.” He now co-directs the Qual­i­ty of Life Research Cen­ter at Clare­mont Grad­u­ate Uni­ver­si­ty and stud­ies “human strengths such as cre­ativ­i­ty, engage­ment, intrin­sic moti­va­tion, and respon­si­bil­i­ty.” Yes, he may present his ideas in pop­u­lar self-help books and arti­cles, but this does not make his data or con­clu­sions any less sound than in his aca­d­e­m­ic work. “Flow” is the short­hand word he uses to refer to the the­sis of his book of the same name: “A per­son can him­self [or her­self] be hap­py, or mis­er­able, regard­less of what is actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing ‘out­side,’ just by chang­ing the con­tents of con­scious­ness.”

What does this mean? Youtu­ber Fight Medi­oc­rity’s short book video book review above—which also teach­es us how to pro­nounce Csik­szent­mi­ha­ly­i’s name—explains the con­cept in brief, not­ing the book’s ref­er­ences to Sto­ic philoso­phers Epicte­tus and Mar­cus Aure­lius and psy­chol­o­gist and Holo­caust sur­vivor Vik­tor Fran­kl to point out that the idea isn’t new but has been around for cen­turies: The idea being, as Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi says in his TED talk, that we nat­u­ral­ly expe­ri­ence the great­est hap­pi­ness when ful­ly absorbed in work we find mean­ing­ful and ful­fill­ing. What Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi calls “flow” is a med­i­ta­tive state we might com­pare to the ancient Bud­dhist state of ekag­ga­ta—or “one-point­ed concentration”—a state med­i­ta­tion teacher Shaila Cather­ine describes as “cer­tain­ty, deep sta­bil­i­ty, and clar­i­ty…. The mind is com­plete­ly uni­fied and ‘one with the expe­ri­ence.’”

Indeed, like the Bud­dhist con­cep­tion, which con­trasts ekag­ga­ta with a rest­less greed that can nev­er be sat­is­fied, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi con­trasts “flow” with wealth, and cites research sug­gest­ing that above a cer­tain lev­el of basic mate­r­i­al well-being (which far too many peo­ple do not yet have), “increas­es in mate­r­i­al resources do not increase hap­pi­ness.” Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi part­ly reached his con­clu­sions by study­ing the emo­tion­al states of artists, musi­cians, sci­en­tists, and oth­er cre­ative indi­vid­u­als, who all report­ed expe­ri­enc­ing pure states of con­tent­ment and joy when so ful­ly con­cen­trat­ed on their work that they for­got themselves—or, more accu­rate­ly, the con­stel­la­tion of dai­ly anx­i­eties, regrets, wor­ries, fan­tasies, and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions that we tend to call the self. As Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi strong­ly sug­gests in his books and talks, the more we can lose our­selves intense­ly in cre­ative activ­i­ties that bring us ful­fill­ment, the clos­er we come to being in har­mo­ny with our­selves and our world.

See anoth­er talk on “flow” and hap­pi­ness above, from a 2014 “Hap­pi­ness & its Caus­es” con­fer­ence in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es

Albert Ein­stein Tells His Son The Key to Learn­ing & Hap­pi­ness is Los­ing Your­self in Cre­ativ­i­ty (or “Find­ing Flow”)

The Keys to Hap­pi­ness: The Emerg­ing Sci­ence and the Upcom­ing MOOC by Raj Raghu­nathan

All You Need is Love: The Keys to Hap­pi­ness Revealed by a 75-Year Har­vard Study

A Guide to Hap­pi­ness: Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Six Great Philoso­phers Can Change Your Life

Slavoj Žižek: What Full­fils You Cre­ative­ly Isn’t What Makes You Hap­py

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • A Nnoyed. says:

    You know what?

    I know that hap­pi­ness does not look like an embed­ded video that is actu­al­ly an advert for some­thing total­ly irrel­e­vant to the arti­cle. Espe­cial­ly when the text implies one of them IS rel­e­vant, but even hav­ing them embed­ded in the text is enough to imply that.

    BTW, I know this because there are 2 adverts like this and I am now much unhap­pi­er than I was when I first clicked on this link.

    I will tell you that for free. You’re wel­come.

  • Paul Tatara says:

    He sort of zooms right past that “when your basic needs are met” part.

  • Toad says:

    Yes, since his thoughts do not address the needs of those who are lit­er­al­ly starv­ing, they must be invalid.

  • The Lone Comic says:

    A lot of peo­ple miss how impor­tant his dis­cov­er­ies are. Prob­a­bly due to the dif­fi­cul­ty in imple­ment­ing them cul­ture wide. You know how we like to col­lec­tive­ly cling to myths like writer’s block.

    I’m glad to say his shoul­ders are the giant’s many, many stand upon into tomor­row. I rec­og­nize they don’t solve all the world’s prob­lems like some posters would have expec­ta­tion for, how­ev­er, he has illus­trat­ed an impor­tant dimen­sion in the men­tal process human­i­ty uti­lizes for prob­lems solv­ing — cre­ativ­i­ty.

    Hav­ing known his work for years, there are now more detailed descrip­tions of the process mod­el of the flow state more peo­ple can uti­lize. Cul­ture owes this man much.

    The Lone Com­ic TM
    Defend­er of Cre­ativ­i­ty and Enter­tain­ment SM

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