Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – A life story with his own words

The following article is the translation of a nearly 30 minutes televison interview in Hungarian, that is available by clicking on the photo below:

“When I was 10, I felt that adults did not understand what was happening in the world and I wanted to understand why this was so.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, founding father of the Positive Pscychology movement, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management. He is interested in studying the feeling of being involved in an activity, the feeling of full involvement. Why is it so, that some people enjoy their work, even though they often do not get paid for it? Flow theory was born by researching the previous question. This theory is one of the most famous theories of Positive Psychology today, and the educational method based on it, is also a worldwide success.

…My grandmother’s janitor in Buda, who lived in the basement, had a son who was about as old as I was. In ’43 when I last visited my grandparents, we went with this boy, the son of the janitor, to play football, and to do all kinds of other things … and he did tell me what was going to happen. That he and his family will move up to where my grandparents’ apartment was and my grandparents will move to the basement. He was 9 to 10 years old, but he knew well what would happen. The thought, that it wasn’t enough of being successful, rich and well-educated if you could not understand reality, influenced me. And so I decided at the time that I wanted to learn to get to try to understand what the reality was about. But that was all that impossibility after the war.

In ’42 when they began to bomb Fiume – where my father was the consul – really heavily, I went back to Budapest with my mother and my two sisters. And then they started bombing there as well, so then we left for a farm. But as Russian troops had come closer and closer, we decided to go back to my father, to Italy. We left Budapest on the last train before the siege began. The train just crossed the bridge over the Danube before it exploded. We went to Venice and then we stayed there. My father was working at the embassy until the war ended. After the war, we spent 8 months at a refugee camp, till they figured out that my father did nothing, nothing bad during the war. Actually, he was even helping many people to escape by giving them a visa or other ways… So then they apologized and released us. And then my dad went back to Budapest to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where they hired him again – even though, of course, it was a different government. They not just hired him, but he even got promoted to an ambassador, so we moved to Rome. Later on, the Foreign Ministry recalled all the ambassadors including my father from all over the world, but most of them did not return. My dad neither. Then he decided to sell some of the antiquities he always loved He got to know an old, Italian waiter had convinced him to become a waiter. The owner of a new restaurant converted an old, medieval house 50 meters from the Trevi Fountain in Rome. The restaurant’s name was Piccolo Budapest. Inside everything looked like rural Hungarian, there were nicely painted tables and chairs. It was a very good place. I became one of the headwaiters, while my father was doing everything else. We found a Hungarian cook, an old lady, and then we brought a band from Hungary. Five gypsies, who played the violin, contrabass, and dulcimer, and later they became very famous in Italy.

After the war, I stayed until ’56 when I got the visa to America and I came here. I was lucky because one of my two older brothers died as he defended Budapest against the Russian troops. He was a university student at ELTE when he was ordered to become a soldier to defend the country… about 1400 university students were collected and taken to the battlefield and only 17 of them stayed alive. My older brother was already married and had a baby. One day, as he went to buy food for the family, he was caught on the road. The Russian army had a quota to make – I think – to take 1200 Hungarian men to the mines in Russia. He was taken away without being able to notify his wife or child. He spent almost 8 years in the mine – I think. I wanted to go back (to Hungary, as well), but I was told that I would not get a visa. There was news about what was happening in Hungary every night on television and on the radio, so it was difficult. I was living in Chicago then, and there was a Hungarian community there from those people who emigrated in the 30s or 50s. We tried to ensure each other, that our families would be okay … It was hard to get to know what was happening, for a while.

In ’53, I think when I was 19 years old, I had enough money to go skiing to Switzerland, but it became really warm from one day to another, so the snow melted. So, I did not know what to do in Zurich, as the cinema was way too expensive, I did not have enough money for it. As I was going through the newspaper, I saw an ad about a lecture at the local university about flying saucers. When people saw such things in the sky and they thought there were little people in them. This time a lot of people reported from all around Europe, that I saw one, it flew like this and that…. So I found it very interesting; strange, but interesting. So I went to the lecture and the guy who gave the lecture approached the whole concept differently. What he said was, that in Europe the war broke the virtues, the beliefs, and everything and there was only just a big confusion left. And people wanted to find a new deal, and so what they found, as they were thinking about it, was an ancient Hindu symbol that was called mandala. The mandala is uniting the female-male, the strong-weak (energies). But instead of facing each other, they work together. And then I began to read the works of this Zürich lecturer, and it turned out that he wrote a lot. He was Carl Jung, Freud‘s favorite student. In any case, I was interested in, that there are people who are really trying to understand how strangely people behave and lose their ability to understand reality and live in reality. I wanted to learn this, but I could not do it in Europe because I did not finish secondary school due to the fact that I had to work. In Italy, psychology was not yet widespread. So that was the main reason I wanted to come to America because I knew it was easier to go to college here.

I arrived in Chicago in September 1956. I went to Chicago because in order to get the American Visa you had to have someone who lived in America, who guaranteed to help you in case you couldn’t find a job. And it was necessary to find such an individual. There was a Catholic organization that promised me to find a sponsor who would be responsible for me when they learned that I wanted to come to America.  This individual who took the responsibility was a Hungarian steelworker. When the plane landed in Chicago, someone was waiting for me from the church aid institution and they said that unfortunately this sponsor died, but they have found another place for me to live. This place was a widow’s nice little house – of Hungarian origin – and I lived there for 3-4 years. Meanwhile, I worked from 11:00 p.m. till 9:00 a.m., then I went home at 9:00 a.m., slept 2-3 hours, and then I went to college in the afternoon. And I did this for about 6 years. And that was quite hard. In the meantime, I got admitted to the University of Chicago and I also got a scholarship, and then I stayed there until I finished my Ph.D. Then I started teaching at a small university. I think it was 1980 when the University of Chicago asked me to return. I was working there as a teacher for about 9 years, and then we came here. Peter Drucker, an economist, saw the connection between flow and economics and wanted me to teach it. It was a whole lot of work, but I learned a lot again through teaching, so it was good.

Flow is an experience that almost everyone has experienced here and there throughout the life. And there are 5-6 dimensions, which if we have it, we can call that experience being flow. The first thing is that a person’s attention is very focused on a particular purpose and when the concentration is very deep then one feels as if it was going on effortlessly, there is no need for any violent force. And then whatever you want to achieve has to be neither too difficult, nor too easy. So there needs to be a good, almost 1 to 1 ratio between difficulties and abilities. In case of other ratios, you either have to find more difficulty or develop your abilities. An experience has to contain the following: you know what you want to do and you get feedback about how you do it (from the activity/experience itself), so you would know, that OK, I should do it better, but I am doing quite well already. If there is a balance between difficulties and abilities, then a person starts to forget about himself/herself. The person starts to feel that there is no other thing except what he/she is doing.

Really happy communities, happy people experience their lives differently than those who are not happy, and of course, much depends on how happy a person is. But if happiness comes from work or relationships, then it’s likely to increase happiness in general. If an activity contains the above-given conditions, then a person want’s to experience it over and over again, even if there is no one who would pay for it, or say: “That’s good!” It’s very good! It’s all not important, because what important is to be able to get absorbed in the activity itself. Creating something is enough to make us happy.

The method I use in research is the so-called Experience Sampling Method (ESM), which is now widespread. It is based on the fact that the people who are involved in the research, are getting a little pager. Nowadays it can be a phone as well. About 10 times a day at a different time, this pager or the phone starts ringing. We gave a little booklet to the people and they had to fill out two sheets in it every occasion. They had to scale from 1 to 10 for example: how happy they were, how much they were able to pay attention to a given activity, how difficult it was to pay attention to the given activity. These last two scales are excellent indicators of who was being in flow and who wasn’t. Those people who participated in this research had to carry the pager for a week. At the end of the week, we have collected all the booklets, and we got a great picture of the people’s feelings and experiences. If 100 people participated in the research, then it meant about 3000 little “pictures” of their feelings and experiences. And then we entered all these data into a computer and started to analyze it and all the connections between the various results. And it brings up a miraculously interesting thing. We made a game about flow that might be interesting.

I usually tell what my name means in Hungarian, and that family is of Transylvanian origin. And people usually know that I am Hungarian. I have a granddaughter who studies both in Hungarian and Chinese, so it’s hard to know which one she will like better. We have 6 grandchildren of our two sons. One of my older son’s daughter was named Kinga. Noone knows this name here, but they have decided to name her Kinga. She is a footballer (soccer player). She is the best female football player in San Francisco, in the state of California. I want her to go to Hungary and show her talent in playing football. All of them are interested in their Hungarian origin. I was born in a Hungarian family, and we went to Hungary every year until I turned 10. It is not ideological but rather an emotional notion of being Hungarian.