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Psych 101: He's Going With Flow

Los Angeles Times  Sunday May 24, 1998
Home Edition  Life & Style  Part E  Page 1  View Desk
22 inches;  753 words | Type of Material: Profile 

   The man whose research and theories are said by some to be
revolutionizing American psychology started his professional life as a
painter in Hungary. A diplomat's son, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
interspersed his painting exhibitions with work as a correspondent for
the French daily Le Monde. He learned English by singing American folk
songs and reading Pogo comics.

   In 1956--the year Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian revolution--he
came to this country. He was 22.

   Working his way through the University of Illinois, he took remedial
courses in rhetoric and writing, analyzing the literary styles of
magazines such as the New Yorker. Then he submitted some of his own
fiction to the magazine, which published it.

   But it was always psychology that beckoned him.

   "I was confused about why people oppress each other," he says. "During
World War II, we saw many inhuman things which didn't make sense. I was
resolved to find out a better way of living."

   Surprised at psychology's focus on the study of rats as predictors of
human behavior--"I didn't think rats held the key to world
peace"--Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Chick-sent-me-high-ee) studied the
work of Carl Jung. From Jung, he adopted the idea that "the individual
and the collective are connected. By restoring individual harmony, we can
make the world a better place."

   Transferring to the University of Chicago, Csikszentmihalyi wrote his
doctoral thesis on "how visual artists create art," taking photos every
three minutes as painters transformed a blank canvas into a painting. In
studying this, "I was struck by how deeply they were involved in work,
forgetting everything else. That state seemed so intriguing that I
started also looking for it in chess players, in rock climbers, in
dancers and in musicians.

   "I expected to find substantial differences in all their activities,
but people reported very similar accounts of how they felt.

   "Then, I started looking at professions like surgery and found the
same elements there--a challenge which provides clear, high goals and
immediate feedback."

   Such individuals know that "if they focus on doing everything well,
they will be in control." They forget themselves, the time, their
problems, he says.

   Thus began his study of "flow," the results compiled in "Finding
Flow:the Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life," (Basic Books,

   American Psychological Assn. President Martin Seligman says
Csikszentmihalyi's research represents "a sea change" in his field,
moving its primary focus away from alleviating dysfunction and toward
optimizing life.

   Flow occurs when a person's highest skills are challenged by high
demands, says Csikszentmihalyi.

   "Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is
completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting
thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears.

   "When a person's entire being is stretched in the full functioning of
body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake;
living becomes its own justification."

   The experience is not limited to a few. Csikszentmihalyi tells of a
New York deli man who went into flow while thinly slicing lox. "He
described his art like building spaceships," Csikszentmihalyi says.

   At its most intense, flow results in "peak experiences" or, for an
athlete, playing "in the zone." Csikszentmihalyi's goal, however, is to
also identify how to make "lower-end experiences more accessible" to the
public. "You can't make flow happen," he warns. "All you can do is learn
to remove obstacles in its way." Thus, for example, the effort to
recapture a perfect run down a ski slope will rarely succeed because
"you're splitting your attention from what's happening now," he says.


   To induce flow, he says, an individual should focus not on the
hoped-for reward--the psychic high following the great ski run--but on
the activity itself. "What's important is to get a clear mental picture
of how it could be done better and to do it," he says.

   He says many Americans seek flow where they are least likely to find
it--in passive leisure activities. "Most people look so much forward to
being home, relaxing. Then they get home and don't know what to do. They
aren't challenged, so they sit in front of the TV, depressed."

   Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University, calls
Csikszentmihalyi's work "exceptional.

   "He begins with the important questions and comes up with methods to
study them."

   Csikszentmihalyi's work is "groundbreaking," Seligman says. "He has
been the first figure in psychology who had courage to ask about the best
things in life. As a result, he opened up in the most rigorous way what
had been the realm of fringe psychology boosters and Madison Avenue--the
study of human happiness.

   "Right now, we are building the best things in life almost as a
byproduct of society. But the side effect of developing a science of
human strength is that we will have tools enabling people to pursue the
best available life."

   The best life is more than the absence of psychopathology. "We have
people who want to lead better lives at work, be better husbands.
Psychology should help these people who lead decent lives live exemplary
lives," Seligman says.

   'We'll have to start asking ourselves, if what Mike says about flow is
true, how come we still choose to do these things that don't give us

PHOTO: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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