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Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow Theory Architect Dies at age 87

World-renowned Hungarian psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, died at the age of 87 on Wednesday. Besides being one of the world’s leading researchers on positive psychology, he was best known for introducing flow theory in the 1970s, defining it as a state of mind attained when one becomes fully immersed in an activity.

Csíkszentmihályi was born in 1934 in Fiume (Rijeka), then part of the Kingdom of Italy. He emigrated to the United States in 1956. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1959, he taught at Lake Forest College. From 1971 to 1987 he was professor of human development at the University of Chicago. From 1985, he was a member of the advisory board of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. From 1999 until his death he was professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University.

Csíkszentmihályi was elected as an external member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) in 1998. In 2011, he was awarded the Széchenyi Prize for his research on developmental education, creativity, talent and skills, and his development of flow theory. In 2014, he was awarded the Order of Merit of Hungary, Grand Cross, civilian division. He was also a holder of the Prima Primissima Prize and an Honorary Member of the Club of Budapest.

The flow concept

Csíkszentmihályi first described the experience of flow in his best-selling book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, published in the early 1990s, which has since been translated into more than 20 languages. In his groundbreaking work, Csíkszentmihályi outlined his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. He named the concept so because during his 1975 interviews, several people described their “flow” experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along.

In an interview with Wired magazine, he described the concept as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Csíkszentmihályi characterized nine component states of achieving flow, including “challenge-skill balance, merging of action and awareness, clarity of goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, paradox of control, transformation of time, loss of self-consciousness, and autotelic experience.”

To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.

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