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Flow with Soul

An interview with Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
by Elizabeth Debold


Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Creativity—his own, others', and that of life itself—has been the entry point into evolution for Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chick-sent-me-high-ee"). Truly an international renaissance man, born in Hungary, a graduate of the classical gymnasium "Torquato Tasso" in Rome, and an artist, Csikszentmihalyi earned his Ph.D. in psychology in 1965 from the University of Chicago, where he would eventually teach. Yet the bounds of psychology could contain neither his creativity nor his desire to find a greater order: "Somehow I always gravitated to the people in various disciplines—whether it's psychology, sociology, anthropology—who saw a certain unity in their field, who were not what later became known as postmodern reductionists," he explained, speaking on the telephone from his office at the Claremont Graduate University. Influenced by Carl Jung and reading widely in religion, Csikszentmihalyi found himself intrigued by "people who kind of stepped back and tried to say, 'What is it that's going on in this messy and confusing pattern of human behavior over time?' And I was influenced greatly, for instance, by Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit who developed this notion of evolution." Even his current position as a professor at Claremont's Drucker School of Management is a new evolutionary turn in a life lived with passion and curiosity.

Csikszentmihalyi is most well known for his bestselling 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He defined and explored the concept of "flow"—as in "in the flow"—as our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement. Flow, whether in creative arts, athletic competition, engaging work, or spiritual practice, is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation. Csikszentmihalyi describes his life's work as the effort "to study what makes people truly happy." The emphasis here is on the word "truly"—because to him, happiness is not simply flow nor an emotional state nor even the experience of pleasure. The happiness he points to involves the continual challenge to go beyond oneself as part of something greater than one's own self-interest.

What compelled us to speak to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi was his constantly evolving understanding of individual human development in the context of evolution. Ever the empiricist, he has systematically explored what it means to bring the laws of material evolution into both human and cultural development. In his books The Evolving Self and Finding Flow, he develops a moral and ethical perspective on flow as a force of evolution. Integrating the concept of flow with a contemporary understanding of ancient wisdom teachings, he offers a new paradigm for human living rooted in his recognition that human beings now have the unique opportunity—and obligation—to become conscious participants in evolution. In the following interview, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi invites us to join in creating an evolutionary psychology founded in a deeper understanding of human motivation and an attention to our inescapable interconnectedness.


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This article is from
Our Evolution Issue