Kawamura, K.M. (2014), "Kristine Marin Kawamura, PhD interviews Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD", Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, Vol. 21 No. 4. https://doi.org/10.1108/CCM-08-2014-0094
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Kristine Marin Kawamura, PhD interviews Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD
Article Type: Scholar's Corner From: Cross Cultural Management, Volume 21, Issue 4
A personal note to readers: I had both the honor and the amazing experience of having Dr Csikszentmihalyi as my professor in two courses called “Creativity” and “Leadership and the Making of Meaning” during my PhD studies at Claremont Graduate University. My life has not been the same since these experiences. I still can recount the three aspects of creativity with a capital C (the kind that changes some aspect of culture): the field, the domain, and the person. I can visualize the developing of the complex self that spirals between ever-rising levels of differentiation and integration, and I can relive many deep conversations where students examined their experiences – or lack thereof – in working with and for leaders who had realized that one of their most important roles was to help employees create meaning and flow in their work. In studying Dr Csikszentmihalyi's books for this interview, I am once again deeply inspired by the many words, phrases, and paragraphs that act as mere doorways to reflection and action. There is no way I can capture his gift to craft and inspire meaning and flow in his well-researched work in a single interview. I can only invite you to read and study his work and dive into your own journey to infuse your own work and research with happiness, creativity, flow, and meaning.
Professor Csikszentmihalyi is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences at Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA) and the founder and co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center (QLRC). QLRC is a nonprofit research institute that studies “positive psychology”; that is, human strengths such as optimism, creativity, intrinsic motivation, and responsibility. Former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, Dr Csikszentmihalyi has devoted his life's work to the study of what makes people truly happy, satisfied, and fulfilled, and how people can perform optimally in every area of life. His current interests include the development of positive psychology – a new field in psychology – and the ongoing study of the following: creativity, especially in art; socialization; the evolution of social and cultural systems; and intrinsically rewarding behavior in work and play settings – all connected by a conceptual approach based on systems theory.
Dr Csikszentmihalyi is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Education and National Academy of Leisure Sciences. He has been a Senior Fulbright Fellow and currently sits on several boards, including the Board of Advisors for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Dr Csikszentmihalyi was the 2009 recipient of the Clifton Strength Prize, named after Don Clifton, for his outstanding work in advancing the science and practice of Strengths-Based Psychology. In 2011, he received the Széchenyi Prize, named after István Széchenyi, a prize given by the Hungarian government in recognition of those who have made an outstanding contribution to academic life in that country.
His book Flow was shown on the 1993 Super Bowl broadcast as the book that inspired Jimmy Johnson, then coach of the Dallas Cowboys. In the pages of Newsweek, former President Bill Clinton named him one of his current favorite authors. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich put his work on the reading list for a political planning committee. His work has been implemented in numerous corporations and cultural institutions – from Volvo in Sweden and the Chicago Park District to the political leadership of Austria – and has inspired optimal performance in people around the globe.
Dr Csikszentmihalyi has published many books and has contributed numerous articles to academic and management journals and newspapers. Selected books include: Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, Jossey-Bass, 1975; Intrinsic Rewards and Emergent Motivation in The Hidden Costs of Reward: New Perspectives on the Psychology of Human Motivation, Hillsdale, 1978 (edited with M.R. Lepper and D.E. Greene); Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness, Cambridge, 1988 (with I.S. Csikszentmihalyi); Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper and Row, 1990; The Evolving Self, Harper Perennial, 1994; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Harper Perennial, 1996; Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books, 1998; Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, Basic Books, 2001 (with H. Gardner and W. Damon); Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning, Viking, 2003; and A Life Worth Living: Contributions to Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in Fiume, which was then in Italy and now in Croatia, and grew up in Fiume and Rome. He emigrated to the United States when he was 22, earning his bachelor's in 1959 and his PhD in 1965 from the University of Chicago. During his time at the University of Chicago, Csikszentmihalyi began exploring creativity and the evolution of the self. His examinations led to the development of his theory on flow. After graduation, he taught at Lake Forest College, and in 1969, Csikszentmihalyi accepted a professorship with the University of Chicago, where he remained until 2000. At that time, he left Illinois and began working with Claremont Graduate University (CGU).
Interview date: 17 July 2014
Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer in the development and study of positive psychology, highlights the motivation for his life's work: illuminating what makes people truly happy, satisfied, and fulfilled, able to perform optimally in every area of life. He describes happiness in terms of expressing and using one's individual strengths and describes the relationship of happiness to flow. A goal for positive psychology, he asserts, is to avoid harming others or inhibiting anyone else's attempt at happiness. Positive psychology may also be applied to bringing creative, positive solutions to the environmental crisis. In describing optimal experience and flow, Dr Csikszentmihalyi lays out the conditions for experiencing flow as well as the process of moving between the tendencies toward differentiation and integration to develop a complex self. He illustrates the characteristics of and the journey taken by people who live high-quality lives, describes the role of attention in living a meaningful life, and identifies the ways in which purpose, resolution, and harmony unify life and give it meaning. Reflecting deeply on some of the significant moral choices leaders must address today, Dr Csikszentmihalyi also examines how leaders may help encourage flow and promote meaning in organizations. His thoughts both challenge and inspire all scholars, leaders, and people in general to live creative, happy, and meaningful lives, using their strengths to solve great problems and to maximize human potential in people, organizations, and societies.
Dr Kawamura: You have contributed pioneering work to our understanding of happiness, creativity, human fulfillment, and the notion of “flow” – a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play, and work. You’ve created a whole system within which these topics make sense. How have your life experiences – your heritage, your upbringing in Europe, your schooling and your work – served to influence and motivate your work?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: It's always dangerous to try to make sense of your past because the temptation is to fall in love with a particular story line, and then you say, that's how it happened, hmm, maybe that's how it was! In any case, I know that I had a very sheltered and upper middle class life as a child. By the time I was nine years old, Second World War was ending and then everything fell apart. I had two older half-brothers. My father's first wife passed away, but he remarried and [he and his new wife] had two sons. They were my idols because they were ten and twenty years older than me. They were nice to me and I learned a lot from them. In 1944 when I was ten years old, one of them died. He was at the university and was drafted. All the university students were given guns to defend Budapest from the Russian armies. His brigade was made up of twelve hundred engineering students and only seven survived. He was killed there. The older brother was stopped on the street as he was returning home from work by the Soviets and sent to labor camps in Siberia where he had to work in the mines under horrible conditions. These things, plus the fact that we lost everything we had – grandparents died, uncles, aunts, and so forth died – at the end of the war made me aware of the vulnerability of life. How easily suddenly something turns from comfortable and nice to something that's deadly and […].
Dark […] you are describing a very dark time.
So my mother was a very bookish and scholarly lady. I guess I got my intellectual curiosity from her because I tried to figure out, how come grownups had no idea how to live a good life? Why can something that seems so nice and comfortable lead to something that is such a tragic thing – and it's all made by human beings? What makes people do that?
And so I turned to whatever I could find: philosophy, religion, literature, and so on and on. There were good things in what I read, but they didn’t seem to really address the issues that I had experienced.
Then, by complete chance, I was in Switzerland. At fourteen, I had quit school and started working full time in Italy and had saved up enough money to go skiing. The snow was already melting and slushy, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I read in the papers that someone was giving a talk at the university for free – on flying saucers. And that sounded like an interesting topic, so I went to hear it. The guy talked about the whole UFO phenomenon. It was really big then in Europe. Everyone was seeing flying saucers. Then the speaker said that these sightings were probably not real, but mass illusions – projections of the European need for unity and a return of some kind of coherent value system. Flying saucers were archetypes our minds inherited from our ancestors, a version of universal symbols like the mandala of the Hindu religion, and so on and so forth.
This didn’t make much sense to me, but at least it seemed to address the issues I had been interested in. So I started reading the books of this guy (his name was Carl Jung, and he had been Freud's most accomplished disciple). I thought that what he wrote looked interesting and I would have liked to know more about this “psychology” he was talking about. But there was no psychology taught in schools at that time in Europe. You could take courses if you were a physician or a philosopher but there was no major in psychology. So I decided to come to the USA.
I had only two years of junior high school because I had dropped out when I was thirteen and started working: making prints and charts, translating, and leading pilgrims to Lourdes or other places for a travel agency. I was doing all kinds of things because my father by then had lost his job when the Communists took over the government with the help of the occupying Soviet Army. At the time, in 1948, my father was the Hungarian ambassador in Rome. Rather than working for the new regime, he resigned. Unfortunately that meant that we didn’t have income. So I had to work, but I also wanted to understand things. When I got a chance to get a visa to the United States, I came here, to Chicago, hoping to resume my studies.
Upon my arrival I started working immediately because all I had when I got off the plane was $1.25. I worked all night. I was a night cashier for a big hotel downtown. Not just cashier, but I had to update the accounts of the guests by entering the telephone, restaurant, and other charges so the guest would be able to check out promptly when he left. I was doing that at night and going to school during the day. I got through college and grad school by working at night.
It was very disillusioning at first because, at that time psychology in the USA was essentially 90 percent Behaviorism and 10 percent Freudian. None of those paradigms were interesting to me. But luckily, I found a professor at the University of Chicago who had a broader range of interests, so I studied with him. I studied creativity. I did my dissertation on artistic creativity. And in doing that, I became aware of the importance of the experience itself in creative work. At that time, psychology essentially said you were an artist in order to make art, and the art work was the reward, the goal, the artistic activity. But what I found was that these people weren’t interested in the art work when they finished it, they were interested in the process of making the work.
That didn’t fit any of the existing psychological models, so I tried to see whether the importance of the activity itself, the experience, existed in other fields besides art. It became obvious that surgeons loved to do surgery, and people who played the stock market liked to play the stock market. They are not so much motivated by the money – that's the feedback they get; when they make money, it shows they are smart and good – but what they like is the guessing, betting against the market's future movement and so on. By this time, I had my job teaching in a college, and I started working on what eventually became Flow. Creativity was first and then flow. I tried to put these two concepts together about ten years ago into a new direction in psychology.
Dr Kawamura: You mean positive psychology?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Yes. And then in order to avoid positive psychology being viewed as just a passing fad, I thought we needed a PhD program to teach it. That's what I’m doing here now (at Claremont Graduate University).
Dr Kawamura: Has positive psychology been well received? Has it been a struggle to bring it into the mainstream of psychology?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: The struggle has been to keep it within the bounds of scholarship. Once we started, I thought it would be a tough, slow journey, but instead, it received enormous response from people. Unfortunately, a lot of [the attention] was very superficial and very naive.
Dr Kawamura: You mean that some people responded to it like a “new age” kind of phenomenon?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: That's right.
Dr Kawamura: So some people viewed it really lightly? Did they want to use it to make more money or to be more happy?
Yes. Yes. And even our students who come here, who are really pretty well selected and smart, even they think that the ultimate goal is to make people feel good and happy. They don’t think about positive psychology in terms of “for what purpose.”
Being happy by oppressing others or by squandering resources is very different from being happy by helping others or making something that will have a long shelf life and make people's lives better in the future. I would say that 80 percent of the people are attracted to positive psychology because they want to feel happier immediately or to help other people be happy; but they don’t worry, or think about, whether some folks who are happier are better off than in the past.
Dr Kawamura: Or exploiting others?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Yes.
Dr Kawamura: How do you define happiness? It's more than just a good momentary feeling, isn’t it?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: At this point, one distinction that's beginning to be popular and respected in positive psychology is between happiness based on pleasure, and happiness based on what has been called eudaimonia, Aristotle had this notion that we all had a demon inside ourselves – a demon that is a good demon. It's our inner strength, or self, that we have inherited or developed. Eudaimonia is to live in harmony with that inner demon. It was discussed a lot in the past, and then it was forgotten for a long time.
In many ways, what we are thinking of in terms of happiness is the ability to use and express the strengths that make you an individual – not just at the moment but also in terms of your whole life cycle – so at the end of your life you say, “Yeah, I’m glad I made the decisions and lived the way I did.” And you wouldn’t harm anybody in the process, or inhibit anybody's attempt at happiness in the meantime. That would be the kind of goal of positive psychology at this point. We are trying to understand how this can best be achieved.
We are organizing a meeting next year with positive psychology's environmental activists and environmental psychologists that will focus on the question, How can you live a good life that will preserve and advance the well-being of the environment? This is becoming a major issue that positive psychology has to address. We are endangering the future by not taking enough care of what we are doing today to the environment. These things are part of what positive psychology needs to deal with now and into the future.
Dr Kawamura: Let's step back a bit. You are perhaps best known for the concept of flow. What is flow? How is it related to what you call optimal experience?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Optimal experience is the feeling you have when you feel in control of your actions, when you feel like you are the “master of your own fate.” It's that exhilaration or deep sense of enjoyment when you are doing something that you will long remember or cherish. I think everyone knows what this feeling is. It's the feeling a father or mother has when their child first responds to his or her smile. It's the feeling a painter has when the colors create almost a magnetic tension between them, when you are “in the groove” of doing what you love to do.
Optimal experience is also related to being in control of things that are actually in your control. When you think about it, so many things in our lives are outside our control. You can’t control your looks, your temperament, how tall you will be, or how smart you will get. You don’t get to choose your parents or determine if there will be a war or depression in your lifetime. The instructions in your genes, the pull of gravity, the time in history in which you are born – these and other conditions determine what you see, what you feel, what you do. But hopefully you will have experienced times when you have worked really hard for something, when your body or mind has been stretched to its limits, by choice, to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is something that we make happen. A child, for example, who struggles to put the last block on the highest tower he's ever built; a pianist who masters a difficult musical passage. We all have thousands of opportunities, or challenges, to expand ourselves.
Dr Kawamura: And what is flow?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Flow is a state of consciousness, a state of concentration that is so focused that you really are absolutely absorbed in the activity, when you feel strong, alert, and in effortless control. You are unself-conscious and working, or creating, or skiing, or whatever, at the peak of your abilities. When you’re in flow, you know that what you need to do is possible to do, even if it's difficult – in fact, even because it's difficult. When you are experiencing flow, time disappears, emotional problems disappear, and you almost feel like you are transcending time or place. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.
Dr Kawamura: How is flow related to happiness?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: This is a very interesting and delicate question. At first, it's easy to conclude that these are the same things. But actually, the connection is a bit more complex. When we are in flow, we do not usually feel like we are happy – simply because when we are in flow, we feel only what is relevant to the activity. Happiness is just a distraction. It's only after we get out of flow, when we finish the flow activity, that we can indulge in feeling happy. Then we get a rush of well-being, of satisfaction that whatever we are doing was well done. In the long run, the more flow we experience in our daily lives, the more likely we are to feel happy overall. We’ve also found that the link between flow and happiness depends on whether the flow-producing activity is complex, whether it leads to new challenges and then to personal as well as cultural growth.
Our research has shown that people are at their optimal level of consciousness when they are in an engaged state of flow: they feel most alert, focused, in control, creative – and also happy. In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: it provided a sense of discovery. It gave a person a creative feeling, and transported them into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to new levels – previously unheard-of levels – of consciousness. It also transformed the self by making it more complex.
Dr Kawamura: You write about the complex self in many of your books. What is a complex self? Is there a journey we take to become a complex self?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: In a nutshell, you could say that following a flow experience, the organization of the self is more complex than it was before. A self can be said to grow when it is becoming increasingly complex.
Let me explain what I mean by this. Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation is the process of being unique, when you separate yourself from others. Integration is its polar opposite and refers to a movement toward union with other people, toward ideas and entities that are beyond the self. A complex self is one that successfully combines these opposite movements. During one's life, a person constantly moves between these opposites. So, the ability to move from one trait to its opposite is part of the more general condition of psychic complexity. A system that is differentiated but not integrated is complicated but not complex – it will be chaotic and confusing. A system that is integrated but not differentiated is rigid and redundant but not complex. Evolution appears to favor organisms that are complex; that is, differentiated and integrated at the same time.
Flow differentiates the self, because in order to do anything difficult well one has to develop skills that are uncommon, that require individual personal commitment to acquire. At the same time, flow integrates the self, because when a person is in that state of deep concentration, consciousness is unusually well ordered – thoughts, feelings, intentions, all the senses are voluntarily focused on one goal. The whole system is in harmony. When the flow episode is over, one feels more put together than before – both internally and also with respect to other people and the world in general.
A self that is only differentiated and not integrated may attain great individual accomplishments, but risks becoming stuck in self-centeredness or egotism. A person whose self is based exclusively on integration will be secure and connected, but may lack autonomous individuality. Only when a person invests equal amounts of his or her psychic energy in both differentiation and integration – and avoids selfishness and conformity – is the self likely to reflect complexity.
Dr Kawamura: In Good Business (and other works), you lay out the conditions for experiencing flow. Could you highlight them for us?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Yes. First of all, the goals are clear. A person knows precisely what tasks he or she must accomplish, moment by moment. Second, feedback is immediate. A person needs to get timely, “online” information about how well he or she is doing in order to stay absorbed in any activity. Third, there is a balance between opportunity and capacity in the tasks. A person needs to believe that the task is doable yet not boring. Flow optimally occurs when both challenges and skills are high and equal to each other. Fourth, when a person responds to an opportunity that has clear goals and provides immediate feedback, and the involvement passes a certain threshold of intensity, a person's concentration deepens; he or she is absorbed deeply into the activity. Fifth, being in the present is what matters. Because a person's attention must be focused in both the space and time of the moment, events from the past or future can’t enter consciousness. To some degree, it's a little like “escaping into the moment,” but in a good way, as it leads to growth. Sixth, when people describe being in the flow experience, they describe having a great deal of control. Some describe that they feel like a vessel – they speak of being inspired, or of being possessed by the Muse. Seventh, one's sense of time is altered – time feels like it is flying by. And last, when people are in a state of flow, they are immersed in the experience and forget their problems, surroundings – even themselves. It's as if their awareness of their personhood is temporarily suspended.
Dr Kawamura: In Flow, you say, “How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depend directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences.” Could you explain this statement?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Well, one of the main reasons happiness is so hard for people to achieve is that the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind. It's huge, and most of the universe is empty and cold. It's really a setting for great violence. People need to survive. We have struggled for millions of years against cold, fire, floods, violence, wild animals, even microorganisms. There are so many natural processes that don’t take human desires into account – in fact, chaos is a natural state in the universe. There is great irreconcilable disorder in the cosmos, and there isn’t much that we as individuals can do to change the way the universe runs. In our lifetime, we can actually do very little about the forces that interfere with our well-being. Yes, we need to do as much as we can to prevent nuclear war, to eradicate poverty, to take care of the planet. But we can’t really expect that the things we do to change external conditions will immediately improve the quality of our lives.
Whether we are happy or not depends more on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences than how we control the outside world, how we reduce the chaos of the world as we experience it, how we exert control over the great forces of the universe that, frankly, are bigger than we are. Improving how we feel in our lives, how happy we feel, depends on how we achieve mastery over consciousness itself.
Dr Kawamura: So how can we improve the quality of our lives?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Well, we certainly need to address the basic problems of survival. But for many, this is no longer sufficient to make people either content or happy. We all have goals, and it's important to enjoy the struggle along the way to achieving them. The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they stop finding pleasure in the present. When this happens, they give up their chance to feel contentment. In our research, we’ve found that there are many people who have escaped the treadmill of rising expectations. They are happy, and they are satisfied. They improve the quality of their lives, and they have a way of making people around them also feel a bit happier.
Dr Kawamura: What are some of the qualities of these people?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Well, they lead vigorous lives. They are open to a variety of experiences. They keep on learning throughout their lives. They have strong ties and commitment to other people and the environment in which they live. They enjoy whatever they do, even if it is boring or hard – and they are hardly ever bored! I think their greatest strength is that they are in control of their lives.
Dr Kawamura: How do they become in control of their lives?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: For the most part, people who live high-quality lives have stepped away from social controls, societal rewards, and even their own genetic programming, their instincts. They are able to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience – in the process of living itself – the burden of social controls falls away. Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer determined by outside forces. They also don’t need to strain for that tantalizing end goal that is dangling in the future, the rationale that they will truly live or be happy if they just attain “X.”
People who live quality lives are also able to separate themselves from the instinctual desires of the body. They learn to take charge of what happens in the mind. They know that pain and pleasure occur in their consciousness – and only exist there. For example, when we see an ad and think, Oh, I have to buy that to be happy, to be somebody, we have given up our life, our experience, to something outside of ourselves. Whatever we experience is our reality, so we can transform reality to the extent that we influence what happens in our consciousness. This helps us become free from the outside world's threats and judgments, from its rules and definitions of happiness and success and quality.
Dr Kawamura: You also talk about the role of attention in improving the quality of experience, which ultimately will improve the quality of life. What is attention, and how can we harness this to improve our lives?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: The nervous system has definite limits on how much information it can process at any time. Scientific knowledge suggest that we can, at most, manage seven bits of information – such as differentiated sounds, or visual stimuli, or recognizable nuances of emotion or thought – at any one time. And the shortest time it takes to discriminate between one set of bits and another is roughly one-eighteenth of a second. If you multiple this number out over a lifetime, we can process and experience about 185 billion bits of information. It is out of this total that everything in our life must come – every thought, feeling, memory, experience, or action. It seems pretty big, but it really isn’t. Though we don’t fully understand how the mind works, we can still estimate that we need to spend 8 percent of our waking time eating, 8 percent doing physical self-care activities, and 33 percent – or more – working. If you look at this purely from an information perspective, people can experience only so much of this. Therefore, any information a person lets enter their mind is important. And that information is what determines the content and the quality of that person's life.
Dr Kawamura: How does information enter our consciousness?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Information enters consciousness either because we intend to focus attention on it or as a result of our attentional habits, based on biological or social instructions. Attention is a choice. Though judgment seems to be a lightning-fast reaction, it doesn’t happen automatically. The process that makes reactions possible is attention. It is attention that selects the relevant bits of information from the potential of millions of bits available. It takes attention to retrieve references from memory, to evaluate current events or situations, and then to choose the right thing to do.
Some people use attention well, and some people waste it. If you can control your limited consciousness at will, focus your attention at will, concentrate, and be oblivious to distractions, you can enjoy the normal course of everyday life. You can invest your attention in numerous ways – ways that can make your life either rich or miserable.
Dr Kawamura: How is attention related to psychic energy?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: We like to think of attention as psychic energy because attention determines what will or will not appear in consciousness, and also because it is required to make any other mental events such as remembering, thinking, feeling, and making decisions happen there. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, feelings, experiences are all shaped by how we use attention or invest our psychic energy. It is an energy that is under our control. Our experience depends on how we invest psychic energy – our attention – which is also related to our goals and intentions.
Dr Kawamura: How do people creating meaning in their life, or a life worth living? How is meaning related to flow?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Well, meaning, of course, is a concept that is very difficult to define. There are three ways you can look at the word to get to the relationship between meaning and achieving optimal experience or flow. “Meaning” can point toward the end, purpose, or significance of something, like when you ask, “What is the meaning of life?” Here, meaning reflects the assumption that events are linked to each other in terms of an ultimate goal – that there is a temporal order, a causal connection to things. Meaning can also refer to a person's intentions, such as when you think, She usually means well. Meaning can also be used to order information, like when you think, Red sky in the evening means good weather in the morning, or, If I act like this, he or she will respond like that. In this case there is relationship between two events that helps you understand, or bring order, even in your own mind, to unrelated or conflicting information.
In terms of optimal experience, creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of your mind by integrating all of your actions into a unified flow experience. All three uses of the word “meaning” come into play here. Applying the first definition of meaning, people who find their lives meaningful usually have a goal that challenges them enough to take up all their energies, a goal that has significance – we can call this achieving purpose. To experience flow, you must set goals for you actions: to win a game, to make a friend, to accomplish something in some way. Applying the second definition of the word, we can see intentionality involved. This is important to the issue of how to create meaning by transforming all life into a flow activity. It's not enough to find a purpose that unifies your goals – you must also carry through and meet the related challenges. Intention has to be translated into action. We may call this resolution in the pursuit of one's goals. The third way in which life acquires meaning is the result of the first two steps. When an important goal is pursued with resolution, and all your varied activities fit together into a unified flow experience, the result is that harmony is brought to your consciousness. So, purpose, resolution, and harmony unify life and give it meaning.
People will also unify their meaning by creating life themes, which identifies what will make existence enjoyable to them, and link together a series of flow experiences. With a life theme, everything that happens will have a meaning – maybe not a positive one, but it will have a meaning.
Dr Kawamura: Let's shift to talking about experiencing flow in work and in organizations. You write that “work taken as a flow activity is the best way to fulfill human potentialities.” Research shows, however, that many people are dissatisfied at work today. They are stressed out and lack loyalty to the organization. Why has this happened?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Work has changed over history. Long, long ago, when people were hunter-gatherers, flow may have been more easily achieved. People used whatever skills they had, goals were clear, and feedback was immediate. People had joy in the expression of their beings, their lives, which were connected to others. People couldn’t really exploit the work of others, there was little surplus produced, and people worked interdependently – most goods like food and property were communal.
Then, for most people, their working conditions changed when farming developed. Some people were able to accumulate surplus food and resources with which to hire others – opening the potential for exploiting labor. With most technological developments, there are usually some enterprising individuals who can get an edge over the rest of the population. This minority in power used political and legal means to institutionalize and protect its power, until a new technological or political revolution came along to challenge the existing inequalities.
Let's roll forward to today. The government still tends to protect the gains of the few who are able to benefit from technological advances. The gap between rich and poor is increasing in the United States and many other countries. With this gap, workers feel increasing vulnerable and threatened in their jobs, so work isn’t the joyful expression of their beings, but more a hated necessity.
Even though work conditions have greatly improved over time, there isn’t any guarantee that average workers are having more flow experiences while on their jobs than they did earlier.
Dr Kawamura: Why is this occurring?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Well, most of the conditions for flow are not being met. Few jobs today have clear-cut goals. People seldom get enough feedback about their work, so they may end up feeling like a replaceable cog in a machine. Even if a company has the right values, the CEO isn’t always effective at communicating them throughout the entire organization. In many jobs, workers’ skills are not matched to the required skills for the job, or to the kinds of opportunities that allow them to act. People also experience lack of control in their jobs. Time, however, is controlled as people are expected to “turn on” between eight in the morning and five in the afternoon – their psychic energy is controlled by standards and expectations rather than by their own choice.
Dr Kawamura: What does flow theory suggest are the main obstacles in our culture that prevent workers from finding meaning and value in their work today?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Well, we live in a consumer-oriented culture, which extols the virtues of relaxation, material comfort, and pleasure. “More is better,” as we all have heard. What interesting is that peoples’ bodies are really built for work. The human nervous system functions best when it is challenged, when it is focused on a task. Most of us actually feel better about ourselves when we do a good job.
The question managers need to ask is “Why do people want to work in the first place?” And then they need to create the conditions that meet that need. People's experience of work is based on the specific job they are doing, the values attached to the work – including the interpretations a culture provides about work, and the attitude they have toward their job. It is possible for someone to find redeeming value in any job, no matter how uninspiring it is, if they know what to look for.
The problem in many organizations is that the goals of the work itself have been devalued in this consumer-oriented culture. Work is something that is unpleasant. Children grow up grimacing at the notion of work, the loss of freedom, the loss of self in work. It's true that some jobs contribute nothing really valuable or meaningful, so it's difficult for workers to get involved in them for anything other than the paycheck. It's hard to find meaning if your company exploits the environment or people, or builds weapons of mass destruction, for example.
“Good work,” in fact – work that is both well executed and of benefit to humanity – is not as easy to find as you would think. An important role of management is to avoid making it even more difficult to do good work by emphasizing greed, cutting corners in quality, exploiting people, and ignoring the needs of customers and workers.
Another cultural obstacle to flow is the impermanence of most postmodern business organizations. It's hard to find meaning and give loyalty or commitment when your organization may not be around in a year.
Dr Kawamura: So how can managers create flow in organizations?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Well, top management needs to be committed to creating flow in their organizations. Leaders must know that they are primarily responsible for the emotional well-being of their employees – even before creating products, profit, and market share.
I write about this, in depth, in Good Business. All the conditions for creating flow experiences for individuals relate to creating flow in organizations: establishing clear organizational goals, from communicating vision and mission to performance goals; providing good feedback; and developing incremental challenges that stimulate the growth of the worker's skill and allow flow to occur.
The goal of management is to create value through the labor of people working together for a common cause. The best way to manage people is to create an environment in which people actually enjoy their work and grow in the process of doing it. This kind of work environment is going to attract the best, or most able, people, will probably keep them longer, and will inspire people to spontaneously invest their effort. It will also enable employees to live happier lives, and help them develop personal complexity.
A manager who wants to build an organization that will last – in which people are motivated to contribute and to stay – has three options. First, they need to make the objective conditions of the workplace as attractive as possible. Second, they need to find ways to bring meaning and value to the job. And third, they need to select and reward individuals who find satisfaction in their work.
Dr Kawamura: In Good Business you interviewed numerous leaders who were able to create flow and meaning in their organizations. What were some of their common qualities?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Well, we see that they focus on the long term rather than the short term. MBAs’ focus on the goal of achieving the bottom line is a tragic oversimplification. Leaders who view their work as a calling commit themselves for a lifetime – and beyond. We need these kinds of visionaries in business today. Leaders need to know that there is a relationship between business and happiness, between business and the sum of human well-being. The leaders we interviewed were successful and cared for more than success. They defined their priorities – the things they believed were worth living for. Doing this helped shape the vision that motivated others to invest their energies in the organizations they headed.
A leader, by the way, will find it hard to articulate a coherent vision unless it expresses his or her core values, his or her basic identity. Thus, leaders of these kinds of organizations got to “know thyself.” They used introspection, critical thinking, and a constant testing and questioning of the basis of belief and knowledge to know themselves, and then to act. For them, knowing themselves is not an end but a means. Their ultimate goal is to act effectively in the world, and to do this, they must know who they are. They need a core belief that will sustain them through their lives and decisions.
Dr Kawamura: You’ve written a lot about the role of self-reflection for managers and leaders – to know thyself – so they can create visions and inspire people to follow them. Many people, however, are not self-reflective. How do leaders and managers promote self-reflection in themselves and others – whether through their work or associations?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Well, essentially, you are right. You can’t do much in this age of consciousness unless you are not only aware of your motives but also your strengths and weaknesses. One of the major contributions of positive psychology has been to develop things like StrengthFinder and other tools that will allow you to get a better idea of what you can do best. But frankly, I’m not much for tests, in general. I think testing can be carried too far. Take IQ – it's not a bad thing to know what your IQ is, but it makes a big problem if you take it too seriously. So I think reflection is something that has to continue even after whatever test you use.
Dr Kawamura: It's a way of life, right?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Yes, essentially. But again, there's the danger of falling into rumination, which means that you never act, or you think too much about all the options that need to be considered. It's interesting that flow, in a sense, is a process in which the prefrontal cortex gets temporarily disconnected. All reflection and judgments happen in the prefrontal cortex. When you are skiing or playing music, you can’t keep thinking, Is this right? Is this what I should be doing? Should I turn here or there? You have to do it in terms of your past learning and say, Okay, now I’m going with it, and liberate yourself. Before you can do that, however, you have to make sure you know what you are doing and where you want to go. And then you learn how to get there, and you do it spontaneously, effortlessly.
Dr Kawamura: You also talk about the “soul of the business.” Why is it important to develop this in an organization?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: For the most part, a paycheck gives the impetus for some employees to do the minimal amount of work to get by, and for others, the opportunity to “get ahead” drives them. However, these incentives alone are rarely enough to inspire workers to give their best to their work. If managers want to create this kind of work environment, they need a vision, an overarching goal that gives meaning to the job, so that an individual can forget him – or herself in the task and experience flow without doubts or regrets. The most important ingredient in this kind of vision is what we call “soul.”
Dr Kawamura: What is soul to the individual, and to the organization?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: To the individual, what we call soul is a manifestation of the complexity achieved by the nervous system. After our nervous system reaches a certain level of complexity, we will exhibit traits that didn’t exist at previous levels of organization. If we judge something to have no soul, we believe that all its energies are devoted merely to keeping itself alive.
We attribute “soul” to those entities that use some portion of their energy to make contact with other beings and care for them – they reach out toward others to use energy beyond self-survival. So a soul exists when a system uses some of its surplus energy to reach outside itself and invest it in another system. It becomes a stakeholder that is connected and invested in other stakeholders or entities that are outside, or larger, than itself. Soul looks like the human capacities of caring, empathy, curiosity, generosity, responsibility, and charity. Soul in action shows up when a person devotes attention to the needs of others, or to the cosmic forces that we assume rule the universe – something more than their own selfish interest or material goals. Soul is really surplus psychic energy that can be invested outside of self-preservation and applied to change and transformation.
Soul in the organization shows up in the organization's vision. When you think about it, the organization's vision is really the anticipated evolution of an organization that has become conscious of its own potentialities. Most of the business leaders we interviewed [in Good Business] endorsed a vision for their companies that was characterized by soulfulness – it extended beyond the interests of the owners and shareholders and reached out to wider goals. One of the more frequently mentioned objectives was that it attempted to achieve excellence. Yes, excellence can mean that the company is reaching financial goals and industry power and brand, which involves selfish goals. However, there is a transcendent, evolutionary motivation for being the best – reaching for a Platonic goal of perfection that draws the company and each employee to reach to a higher level of performance.
Some people seek a life that has relevance or meaning beyond their material existence – this is a concern of the soul. This is precisely the need that a person who is aware of his or her own limitations, even death, feels, the need that motivates us to become part of something greater and more permanent. If a leader can make the case that working for the organization will provide relevance and meaning, it will connect the workers to this greater sense of meaning, and the leader's vision will generate power. People will naturally be attracted to this kind of organization, as they seek to find this “soul” within their own lives and choices.
When the leader's vision embraces a soul-filled goal – to help people, to help the environment, to obey a cosmic purpose, to do an excellent job – the organization itself becomes invested with a soul. It doesn’t exist just for itself, to make a profit, or to benefit those who have invested in it. It has a purpose beyond itself and it reaches out to help other systems, to create other forms of organization.
Dr Kawamura: Can this reach for soul be exploited, or manipulated, by organizations?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Yes, it can. The more desirable something is, the more it may be exploited by people who will mimic its form without its substance. If a vision is genuine and is carried into action, however, it will become a powerful attractor for the energies of members of an organization. It will provide a goal that is worth pursuing above and beyond the extrinsic rewards of the job. When people are motivated to reach a greater cause, the satisfaction of being part of a creative and soul- or vision-filled organization will motivate them to invest their energy. When an organization knows how to inspire flow activity within its employees, people will find meaning, allow more complex connections to form, and contribute their skills, knowledge, and purpose.
Dr Kawamura: How has your work intersected the discipline of cross cultural management?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: I’m not an anthropologist or an anthropological psychologist, but I think I know more or less the basic issues of cross cultural management because of my upbringing. I grew up as a child in Italy, and my first language was German because my nanny was German. So to me, being cross cultural is the natural way to be. I think that the discipline of cross cultural management ranges from chauvinism to cultural acceptance to complete acceptance of differences, and so forth. It is a huge area for people now, in the global economy, putting people together in new ways, and so forth.
I’m not sure what the important issues [in cross cultural management] are from the point of view of the consumers of information, what they want to know. I know it addresses how to get people to work together, to be more productive. That's a very different point of view from the way I approach these issues, but it's interesting.
For example, a few years ago, the CEO of one of the major Korean firms, LG, kept asking me to go and talk to his managers. I ignored these requests. Finally, two of his subordinates came here and knocked on the door. They came in and said, “Sorry, but our boss sent us here and we need to talk to you.” They carried a copy of Flow that had all kinds of stickers coming out of it. Opening it up, you could see it was all underlined. They said, “Our boss wants you to know that he read the Bible two times, and he read Flow four times. He wants you to go to Korea.” So finally I went there. He showed me their revenues for the past twenty-five years that had been going up like this [hand motion indicating steady rise]. The actual profits had been going up too, but then started to go down for a while. Then, seven years ago, there had been another big increase in profits, and he said, “See, this is where we instituted flow in the management system. Since then, we’ve made six and a half billion dollars more than we had predicted.” Essentially, the notion of giving people the opportunity to do their best, to work from their strengths, to get good feedback, and to match their skills to the challenges of the place – all of these are pretty universal conditions [for optimizing their human potential] as far as we know.
A nearly exact same story came from Sweden, where a big state-owned company had been losing money for 125 years. Suddenly, they instituted flow and three years later, they made a profit.
These are all nice stories. They don’t, however, particularly excite me because I’m not saying the goal of all of this is to make profits for companies. The point is that they show that there is a way in which you give people the opportunity to express themselves in their work – in a way they feel “I’m doing something good” – that is a universal condition, regardless of culture and value systems. It's something that gives people motivation to work and satisfaction in their work. This is a fundamental need that is not influenced by culture.
[On the other hand], there are ways in which subtle things are expressed that you can’t predict because they are accidents of history and time. For example, you know that in some cultures you don’t show the sole of your shoe because it's a horrible form of disrespect. There are so many little things like this, like dietary things, that can set people off or make them feel mistrustful. They vary from culture to culture. But I’m more impressed with the unity of mankind rather than the differences – in the things that matter.
For instance, just before you got here, I had a meeting with a PhD student who worked with another student to conduct a global study of love. I was really impressed. They traveled around the world for six months asking people, “What do you love, and why?” She showed me the videos and results. There are differences between Hindu respondents and American respondents, but what people love and what they appreciate are not that different.
Dr Kawamura: You’ve talked about the need to find your life theme in order to take the moment-to-moment experiences of flow and find purpose and a meaning in life. Can you talk more about this? How is this created? How do you find your life theme?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: It's hard to know which comes first – flow or the life theme. Usually I think that you begin to enjoy something. You build up the related experiences and skills, and then you end up having a life around it. But it could also be the other way. Some people almost have a road-to-Damascus kind of experience. They think, So this is what I should be doing, and they start doing it – and they continue doing it more and more.
For instance, some studies show that people develop a passion for a particular sport or particular activity. At the beginning, they do it because they want to show off or because their friends are doing it. So they are doing it for reasons that are not ultimately very noble or sustainable. Let's say their first exposure is to show off. Then they realize, Oh my gosh, this is something very important, or difficult, or exciting. And they forget about showing off and they take this activity seriously because it's the best expression of who they are. As they do it, they learn that this is what they would like to do for a living. So you can find a life theme either way.
The life theme that people usually remember is what some call a “crystallizing experience” – a time when suddenly your mother dies, and you decide that your goal in life is to defeat cancer or get rid of it. And then you start studying and falling in love with the work itself.
Dr Kawamura: The Evolving Self was an amazing and inspirational book in which you lifted up from examining flow in the self to flow in society. In it, you said the world is at risk because of the choices we’ve made, and that even the very gifts of creativity have a darker side that have created this risk.. What do you see as some of the more important moral choices we need to address right now?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Well, I don’t know the most important moral choice, but the one I mentioned before is the environment and our stewardship of the planet. We are organizing the meeting [that I mentioned before] partly to see how we can provide a positive goal to address this rather than try to scare people about what will happen in the future. That is scary enough by itself, but it doesn’t seem to motivate people. It's not enjoyable for people to feel constrained or tell themselves, “I have to cut down.”
Or “I have to recycle.” It's quite punitive.
Dr Kawamura: Yeah. So the question is, how can you turn conservation into an inner flow experience?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: I think that's a very interesting issue. For instance, in Milan, which is one of the most polluted cities in Italy, if not the world, they started building a forty-storey skyscraper of apartments. Every floor has a terrace jutting out with trees growing on it. If you look at it from far away, it looks like a vertical forest. In fact, that's what they call it: the Vertical Forest. This has changed the climate in one quarter of the city; the air quality has improved tremendously.
The idea is to be able to make the world better by actually creating things of this sort, but the question is, how can you bring it down to an individual level? The Vertical Forest is an example at a high level – it contributes beauty, freshness, health, et cetera – yet it can be something that everyone can actually do that has an immediate beauty. I think this is a big task, and one that we need to try to somehow begin to address. We started looking at this last year when we had the Third World Congress of Positive Psychology, which we organized here [at Claremont Graduate University] but held in Los Angeles at a big hotel. The most successful part of it was a line of talks, symposia, and panels on the environment and on how positive psychology can help with the environment.
I think there are many other moral choices that we need to confront. Another one is this horrible situation of hundreds of thousands of African boys whose only feeling of self-expression is to carry a gun and help the narcotic trade or the diamond trade, and so forth. To a certain extent, a less clear thing that's happening here is that young people have no way to express their skills, energy, and vision except in school, through education, which is a very controlled situation that is good for only a small part of the population. For most kids, that's not who they are. They need to do something that's built more on their strengths, that's based on their strengths. This will be another big challenge we have.
Dr Kawamura: I know that you’ve done a lot of work with Howard Gardner, who has studied the concept of multiple intelligences. Does your point relate to his work when you say that not everyone wants to read a book or study in the classroom?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Yes. Yes.
Dr Kawamura: There are all sorts of ways of being intelligent, of bringing your strength out, whether you are in Africa, in an inner city, or anywhere, right?
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: That's right.
Dr Kawamura: So the flow experience can be in any of these aspects of intelligence.
Dr Csikszentmihalyi: Absolutely.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper & Row, New York, NY
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993), The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium, HarperCollins, New York, NY
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, HarperCollins, New York, NY
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003), Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning, Penguin Books, New York, NY