In memory of Mihaly “Mike” Csikszentmihaly
by Deanne S. Gute
Published in Better Humans January 2023
The year 2021 was supposed to be the antidote to 2020. We would roll out that dumpster fire of a year, say good riddance, and ring in a better one. We had barely finished waving goodbye to 2021, when a popular Twitter meme showed the late beloved comedian Betty White raising a middle finger to 2022. The year was barely a month old. In 2022, our mentor, friend, and FlowChannel.com co-creator Mihaly “Mike” Csikszentmihalyi, the “Father of Flow,” was no longer with us, but his wisdom remained. We needed it more than ever as 2022 sprinted by, lobbing new crises at us on the way out.
In more than 22 languages, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience reminds us in 2023 that the universe isn’t built for our comfort. Pandemic, natural disaster, economic disruption, war. Disappointment; reversal of fortune; distraction; illness; stress; anxiety; loss. All have the potential to create what Mike referred to as “stray psychological meteorites” that can crater our sense of security and meaning.
Mike was the author of 24 books and over 250 scholarly articles on flow, optimal development, good business, creativity, and well-being. His TED Talk Flow: The Secret to Happiness has over 7 million views. He was also a husband, a father, a rock climber, a painter, and a survivor of world war speaking from experience when he wrote about life challenges that feel so big, or so legion, that we feel as if we’re losing our minds. Mike committed his life to showing us that in flow, we have a process for putting ourselves back together again. Flow is optimal experience — the total engagement of attention and skill “in the zone” — through which we can gain more than the peak performance of an hour; we can learn the skills of transformational coping over a lifetime of new years. In flow, we emerge energized and improved. But what does that look like in real life? What could it look like in yours? In 2022, what Mike taught us ended up at the center of my own survival.
Wise Words for Every Year
Of all the profound and practically useful ideas Mike left us with, he believed there was one that mattered most.
“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.”
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
He earned many achievements and honors in his lifetime, helped reimagine organizations, and influenced countless people. Yet, he always seemed most in awe of ordinary people who could make a game of challenges and cheat chaos out of a victory.
Mike’s wisdom was very much on my mind as we were planning new FlowChannel.com social media content for the new year. We were pressing forward with the book project Mike considered his capstone work. We had been collaborating with him on it for several years. January and February had been our traditional travel window for meeting him in California for warm-weather creative collaboration. In 2022, we would only have the memories. And then, one of those random meteorites crash landed before the year was even two weeks old.
The Meteor Has Landed: The Flow of Covid
In a two-person/two-cat household, both humans had taken the same precautions and protections and had the same semi-hibernatory university break. Thankfully, the meteor only struck one. That was me. For me, Covid-positive started with a bad cold and bronchitis. I had experienced those before. It quickly evolved into something quite different: Fever, aching body parts, quaking chills, and then a rapid pant I could not control. One night a little over a week in, I was no longer sure it was “going to get better soon.” Through ice and snow and wind we made our way to the nearest ER 25 miles away. Oxygen support was immediate and the CT was unambiguous. On this surreal first night of an 11-day hospitalization for Covid pneumonia, a doctor with a booming voice appeared on a video screen surrounded by several nurses live in Room 308. He told me how it was going to be — the cocktail of treatments they would begin right away — and the part I would have to play in my own survival. I had to get my breathing under control. It mattered what position I was in, how I breathed, and how fast. Flow requires a clear goal. I certainly had that. I couldn’t afford anything less than the kind of intense concentration that leaves no room for irrelevant information or feelings. The screeching feedback on the oxygen and heart rate monitor was immediate.
As I lay there trying to silence the monitor, I kept thinking about the stories Mike had told us. As a researcher, consultant, and speaker, he had met submarine personnel, researchers in remote outposts of the world, and others who gamed monotony or anxiety away with their own imaginations. He wrote about some of them in Flow, such as the farmer thriving on physically demanding chores and the factory worker constantly challenging himself to beat his own benchmarks for quality and speed. Distortion of our usual sense of time, freedom from self-consciousness, awareness of what to do merging with action, enjoyment of experience for its own sake: These are the dimensions of flow universal to the experience no matter where or how you’re engaged in it.
In the blood oxygen game, I had come to the hospital with a low-level score in the 70s. This is hypoxia. I was remembering the conversations with Mike as I started visualizing a Breathing Game. You might imagine a very different game that makes more sense to you, but in mine, Winnie the Pooh met Pac Man to catch the breaths and get them moving in the right direction at the right speed. That was good enough to get me through a couple of nights, and with no visitors allowed for most of the stay, the game got my undivided attention.
For awhile, walking a couple of feet was nightmarish. It triggered intense pain and the panting and exhaustion of a marathon. Getting control back and silencing the machine was the win. One day, the pulmonologist greeted me with a good-morning and a warning. My scores were still not consistently good enough. The oxygen support might need to escalate to a C-Pap mask, and the only way to level up after that was a ventilator. The vent would be the end of the line. Then what? Was I going to even make it to February?
The Game of Life
Flow provides an excellent model for life itself. Challenges elevate and decline, elevate and decline. There are endless opportunities to adopt new goals, take in feedback, grab opportunities to exercise concentration and self-control, and elevate skills to match the challenges at hand. Sometimes, you will only experience the full sense of enjoyment afterward, when you’ve processed what you just worked through.
When a challenge seems fearfully high, anxiety can flood the zone and you can’t see your way through. Long before Covid, I had verified for myself what Mike had theorized about flow as an antidote to anxiety. Intense concentration on something concrete outside my own head helps me flush out the what-if’s. In time, in the hospital, I was able to de-escalate both the fear of dying and the oxygen support as my score began to stay reliably in the 90s. My own lungs were finally doing all the work.
After the long hospital stay, home would present a new set of challenges.
Mike the Rock Climber thought climbing was the perfect model for everyday challenges.
You have to focus on the next right move, the next grip, the next foothold, to continue your forward progress. For me, at first, the staircase in our two-story 1870s house was like ascending a sheer cliff at high elevation. At first, bending over to feed the cats down low was also a challenge too high. Each week it was necessary to set new incremental goals that would help get the lead out of my legs and build lung strength. Each week got a little better. At pulmonary rehab, the challenges elevated again. And so it goes.
Don’t forget, though, flow isn’t just about challenge, concentration, and self-control, but also enjoyment. Where is the enjoyment in adversity? In being very sick? In suffering of any kind?
Mike certainly experienced years of adversity, and the enjoyment he found in them launched his decades of achievement as co-founder of Positive Psychology and the Father of Flow. In his 80s, he could vividly recount the stories of his early life. During one recording session, we feared the metal letter opener in his hand might snap in two as he described moments of terror in WWII Europe. There was 1945, when his family just made it over the Danube before the Germans detonated the last bridge rather than surrender it to the Russians during the Siege of Budapest. There was the hotel-room bed covered in shards of chandelier glass when the family was on the run, trying to stay ahead of somebody’s bombs. Then, as a ten-year-old, there were the months Mike spent confined to a post-war refugee camp where, famously, he learned to play a game that changed his life — chess.
In the middle of chaos and fear, he experienced firsthand what he later described as flow, the sense of exhilaration and enjoyment from stretching his mind and body to their limits.
Mike also experienced flow in pursuing answers to big questions. Why had the adults let the world go up in flames? Why were some able to pull the will to survive and thrive out of the wreckage? Ultimately, both experience and empirical evidence backed Mike’s argument that if we can control our own attention, we can control the quality of our lives. As he put it in reference to his hikes in a scouting troop, he felt most “together” even though the world was falling apart. He was able to prove himself to himself. He didn’t believe that we should forget trauma or ignore fear in order to thrive; when we engage with it head on, we can transform it into something else, something we can use.
The Relief of One Thing
In the hospital, I had one thing to worry about. It was a big thing; it was a matter of life and death. But this one thing got my full concentration. Looking at it through the lens Mike left us, it makes sense that a health crisis and the hospital were, in a sense, enjoyable. None of the stresses of the average “healthy” day BC (Before Covid) existed. I wasn’t playing the losing game I had become addicted to: Beat the Clock, in which I tried to ration out enough attention for too many complex challenges in too little time, and then browbeat myself for not checking it all off the list in time to beat the buzzer. Self-consciousness is a flow-killer. The hospital forced a different allocation of attention, as Mike would put it. Time and distraction both disappeared. Like Mike, I felt more together. The experience helped point the way to lasting changes I could make in how I think about and block my time, how and how much I move, how I eat, ordinary activities like food prep that could get more time and attention and with it, more enjoyment. I’ve recalibrated plans for the bigger goals, of carrying on Mike’s mission and having positive impact.
Covid had made me physically weak for months, but psychologically stronger than I’d been in a long time. This is the irony, and the possibility, of flow. It allows us to recycle scattered attention and negativity into psychic energy we can put to good use. I needed that strength when it turned out that Covid pneumonia wasn’t actually the worst that could happen that year. Mike believed this to be the real purpose of flow.
Since the publication of Flow, we’ve learned much more about what happens not just psychologically, but neurologically — why flow makes us feel better and do better as the brain operates at maximum efficiency. You would never guess from my primitive breathing game what game designers, including authors like Jane McGonigal, have built from Mike’s flow theory blueprint. Her latest, Imaginable, argues that making a game of it prepares us “to see the future coming and be ready for anything.” Mike always said that each new generation would have to re-examine what optimal experience is and what their sources of flow could be. Mike himself teamed up with Hungary’s ALEAS Simulations to co-create the award-winning leadership game FLIGBY (Flow is Good Business).
Flow into the Future
A game may not be the right mental model to trigger the kind of imagination and focus you need to find flow — and to transcend — emotional and physical discomfort in a culture that’s always selling new ways to game the system to avoid it. In her new book Bittersweet, Susan Cain shows us poignantly and memorably why we can never be whole without both the bitter and the sweet. The stories in the book are empirical, cultural, personal, and lyrical. They can help you see how to process “the lessons of your own particular sorrows and longings,” while offering many memorable examples of transforming sorrow and longing into a “constructive force of your own choosing.”
Before one of those meteorites lands in your neighborhood and forces a whole new focus, there are things you can choose to do right now to prepare your mind. You can choose to direct your attention more consciously, to spend more of your time focused on one meaningful thing and less time hopping from one game to another. To notice interesting and beautiful things you haven’t noticed before. To open yourself up to the possibilities in challenges you weren’t seeking. Curiosity is fuel for flow. You won’t always have a flow experience that some have described as ecstasy or transcendence. However, in flow, you will always learn more about what you’re capable of — and expand your capacity to improve quality of life for yourself and others.
Mike always went back to a definition of flow and purpose for flow-seeking that he first presented in the preface to the book Flow: “The process of total involvement with life.” This idea can begin the outline for your plan to find the meaning and enjoyment in whatever the universe brings you. So far, there are no Prime services that will deliver any of us a good year. The good news is that every year, we have the chance to start all over again to make one for ourselves.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. HarperPerennial.
Cain, S. (2022). Bittersweet: How sorrow and longing make us whole. Crown.
Ciorciari, J., & Gold, J. (2020). A Review on the role of the neuroscience of flow states in the modern world. Behavioral Sciences 10(137), 1–18. doi:10.3390/bs10090137
Huskey, Keene, J. R., Wilcox, S., Gong, X. (Jason), Adams, R., & Najera, C. J. (2022). Flexible and modular brain network dynamics characterize flow experiences during media use: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Journal of Communication, 72(1), 6–32. https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqab044
McGonigal, J. (2022). Imaginable: How to see the future coming and feel ready for anything―Even things that seem impossible today. Spiegel and Grau.