Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Talks Psychology of Creativity

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi visited Colorado College on Monday to deliver a talk entitled “Flow and the Quality of Life.”

Csikszentmihalyi is a leading authority on the psychology of creativity and is widely recognized with the creation of the concept of flow—a state of mind in which one is completely absorbed by the activity or work that they are doing. He cited a quote to exemplify the state of mind of someone in flow: “You are so involved in what you do that you lose a sense of time…you don’t think about the past or the future…it’s like a present that is stretching out.”

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Photos by Aaron Cronin

“This absolute unawareness of what is going on around you, is when people are most happy and satisfied,” said Csikszentmihalyi.

Csikszentmihalyi lived through the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when he saw many atrocities committed against humanity. “[During] childhood, I was exposed to some of the worst aspects of what human beings do to each other and how people were affected by the war,” said Csikszentmihalyi. Two of Csikszentmihalyi’s own brothers were casualties of the war. Both fought in the revolution and one of them was killed, while the other was taken prisoner and “sent to work in the mines, with water up to his waist, rarely seeing the sun,” commented Csikszentmihalyi.

The horrendous atrocities of the war led Csikszentmihalyi to dedicate his life to discovering what it is that makes people truly happy. It is at this point that Csikszentmihalyi realized that “you can live your life being pushed by those around you, or [you could] get as much control [of your life] as possible.” To demonstrate how flow works to provide people with a happy life, Csikszentmihalyi created a model of challenge-skill level balance.

Csikszentmihalyi‘s flow model has a total of nine mental states. The most desirable of mental states, or the one in which a person is happiest and most satisfied, is that of flow. This is attained when there is a combination of high levels of skill and challenge. Continuing clockwise, the next mental state is that of control, which is the result of high skill level with medium level of challenge. Following control is relaxation, which comes from high skill level and low challenge. Medium skill level and a low level of challenge will lead to boredom. Apathy is the next mental state when both the skill level and challenge level are low. Next is worry, which comes when the challenge level is medium but the skill level is low. The mental state worsens when the skill level remains low but the challenge level becomes high; this leads to a mental state of anxiety. The remaining mental state is that of arousal, which is derived from a medium skill level coupled with a high level of challenge. This mental state of being is also viewed as a positive state of mind to be in, and also, it is only one step from flow.

Csikszentmihalyi is hopeful in believing that his model will help people live their lives in a happy mental state.

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