Honoring one of the father’s of Positive Psychology: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow” (Sept. 29, 1934—Oct. 20, 2021)
A Note from Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher, BeInkandescent Health & Wellness magazine — I have mentioned in previous articles on this magazine and its sister publication Inkandescent Women that my life fell apart post-divorce. I sold two houses and gave away everything I owned except the precious pieces that fit into my red Jeep Compass. My son Dylan and I then jumped into the car and headed for southern California, where I was accepted into the positive psychology program at Claremont Graduate University. That was in the summer of 2019. I was 55.
The program, it turned out, was better suited to the many brilliant 20somethings in my classes who had, among other subjects, mastered advanced statistics (the key to turn the first lock of succeeding in the program). Determined not to fail, I stuck it out for the entire semester — and I learned more than I could have imagined. I called my experience and the term paper I wrote for phenomenal Professor Jeanne Nakamura: A Degree in Hope: The art and science of mastering graduate school in your 50s.
My goal was to become a positive psychologist. Nearly two years later, short of that goal, I have a new opportunity. In this, the November-December 2021 issue, I am honored to feature the work being done by some of the world’s leading positive psychologists.
We lead with the sad news.
In October, the community suffered the loss of one of the fathers of the field — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of international bestseller Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Below, you’ll find a eulogy from Dean Michelle Bligh, leader of the Division of Behavioral & Organizational Sciences School of Social Science, Policy & Evaluation at Claremont Graduate University.
You’ll also find Csikszentmihalyi’s description of Flow, his international bestseller that defines what people mean when they say that they are in the zone where they find meaning, creativity, peak performance, and true happiness.
Csikszentmihalyi explains: “People are happy when they feel a sense of control over their thoughts and feelings. When this happens, we experience a “flow” state: We enjoy ourselves, we feel a sense of purpose and meaning, and other things don’t seem to matter as much. Csikszentmihalyi also refers to these states as “optimal experiences,” glimpses into a life we wish we could live all the time. For example, an artist immersed in creating a beautiful painting is experiencing Flow (an “optimal experience”). It can also happen when you gain important insight during tough times.
“Optimal experiences occur most frequently when you’re voluntarily working hard to achieve something important. For example, a swimmer competing in the most difficult race of her career may experience muscle cramps and fatigue. Still, she may look back on the experience as worthwhile because she directed her actions and accomplished something admirable.”
Click here to read more about the power of Flow and the life of an amazing founding father of positive psychology. Please scroll down for Michelle’s note to her students, faculty, and the international positive psychology community. Here’s to being in your perfect state of Flow.
With deep sadness, I share with you the news that recently retired CGU faculty member Mihaly “Mike” Csikszentmihalyi passed away on Wednesday morning, Oct. 21, 2021. at the age of 87. His final moments were at home with his family.
Mike was an intellectual, innovator, and influential member in the field of positive psychology. His research and writings continue to influence students, academics. And leaders around the world. He was the best example of the positive impact an individual can have on local and global communities. He will be sorely missed, and we will continue to carry the flame of his legacy in our work here at DBOS and within CGU.
Below is a brief overview of his life and legacy. Please reach out to me if I can support you or any of our community during this time of sorrow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in Fiume, Italy on September 29, 1934, the son of Hungarian diplomat Alfred Csikszentmihalyi (né Hausenblasz) and Edith Jankovich de Jeszenicze. As a refugee in post-war Rome, he attended the Classical Gymnasium “Torquato Tasso,” was an avid rock climber, and waited tables in a restaurant near the Trevi Fountain. After hearing a talk by Carl Jung, he set out to pursue the study of psychology and, in 1956, moved to the United States. He was first earning a GED while working as a hotel night clerk. He studied at the University of Illinois and then the University of Chicago, writing a doctoral thesis on artistic creativity with Jacob W. Getzels. He spent six years teaching at Lake Forest College and then returned to Chicago as a faculty member in 1971, where he remained for three decades. In 2000, Mike moved to Claremont Graduate University and founded the Quality of Life Research Center. He taught at CGU until his retirement in 2019.
Csikszentmihalyi is best known for his work on the concept of “Flow,” as used to describe a state of optimal experience where one’s skills match the challenges of a situation. His own experiences of enjoyable concentration in rock climbing, chess, and painting were largely ignored in psychology and psychotherapy at the time as these fields were anchored in the analysis of negative pathologies. He introduced a framework for the study of positive states in his 1975 book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. He reinforced this work through the groundbreaking use of pagers and questionnaires to sample people’s everyday experiences as they happened, outside of the lab and in their daily lives.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience became a bestseller in 1990, introducing the general public to his conclusions based on experiential data using warm, humanistic prose. His contributions ranged from works on objects (The Meaning of Things, 1981), to human development (Being Adolescent, 1984), to a general theory of creativity (Creativity, 1996). Because his methods were rooted in a cross-section of daily experience. His work was more attentive to positive states like enjoyment and creativity than many of his predecessors. His work has become a pillar of the subfield that is now known as positive psychology. His scholarly contributions were recognized in his appointment as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and his receipt of the 2009 Clifton Strengths Prize and the 2011 Széchenyi Prize.
Mihaly believed in science more than markets and suspected that people could be less greedy and more mentally healthy than was sometimes supposed. This faith in humanity underpinned his relations as well, which he approached with warmth and a self-deprecating sense of humor (though with his friends, he had a penchant for making puns or absurd comments with a deliberately impassive manner). His empathetic nature and humble presentation could take people by surprise, which contributed to his popularity and long-lasting friendships with students, colleagues, and readers.
Mike was beloved by his family and friends. In Chicago, Mihaly met Isabella Selena, a refugee and a graduate student in Russian history, and they were married in 1961 at Saint Hyacinth’s. Isabella edited many of his books and was at her husband’s side when he passed away 60 years later. Their two children, Mark and Christopher, also became academics. Mihaly was a loving father-in-law to their respective partners Annie Hope and Gemma Rodrigues, and a caring (if occasionally terrifying) grandfather to Emily Isabella, Henry Stephen, Kinga Jane, Aschalew Alexander, Zofia Rose Krystyna, and Iris Althea Diana Isabella.
Please join me in sending your thoughts and condolences to his family, for which I am grateful for sharing the above information during their time of sorrow. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Center for Biological Diversity and Habitat for Humanity.
My deepest condolences, Michelle