An Addendum to a History of Modern Psychology:Csíkszentmihályi Mihály Róbert (1934-2021)

Roy Æ Hodges
Department of Psychology, Washington State University
PSYCH-401: Historical Development of Psychology
Jesse Byrd
April 28, 2023

An Addendum to a History of Modern Psychology:
Csíkszentmihályi Mihály Róbert (1934-2021)

A contemporary of a Martin E. P. Seligman, Mihaly R. Csikszentmihalyi helped originate positive psychology, and co-authored its manifesto (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014a, p. xxii). He had been principally recognized for the concept of flow, “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 4). Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, attributed Csikszentmihalyi as the “world’s leading researcher on positive psychology (i.e., human strengths such as optimism, creativity, intrinsic motivation, and responsibility)” (American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2022). Csikszentmihalyi’s works on play, attention, flow, and positive psychology had been transformative, impactful, and highly beneficial to the paradigm shift of positive psychology.

Csikszentmihalyi was at university during the dominance of behaviorism and psychoanalysis, saying of psychoanalysis as “the last great attempt to free consciousness from the domination of impulses and social controls was psychoanalysis” (p. 25). In his most publicized book on flow, unlike humanist and cognitive psychologists pushing against behaviorism, Csikszentmihalyi attacked behaviorism at its flanks and rear, “to overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 16). In his studies, Csikszentmihalyi had discovered an alternative route to happiness—joy in flow.


Csikszentmihalyi was born on September 29, 1934, in Fiume, Kingdom of Italy to Hungarian parents Alfred Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian diplomat, and Edith Jankovich de Jeszenicze, a homemaker who had later worked for the United Nations (Isham & Jackson, 2021; Risen, 2021). Growing up in World War II, he lost a brother in the Siege of Budapest, and another to a labor camp in Siberia. Alfred had helped Jews escape Hungary by providing exit visas (Risen, 2021). His father was then threatened with death, and their family left to live in exile (Isham & Jackson, 2021). In exile, Csikszentmihalyi searched for ways to support his family and had been imprisoned in Italy (Isham & Jackson, 2021). It was in prison that Csikszentmihalyi discovered chess amidst war and imprisonment, as “a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those things didn’t matter” (Isham & Jackson, 2012). His experiences during World War II left him in want of a search for what caused the war, and what might prevent it from reoccurring (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014a, pp. xii–xiii). 

Csikszentmihalyi’s interest in psychology started in Switzerland, where he attended a lecture about soldiers’ anxiety manifesting as UFO sightings given by Carl Jung (Isham & Jackson, 2021). He moved to the United States with $50 in his pocket and started a job in a hotel (Risen, 2021). Determined to study human nature, he started at the University of Illinois, Chicago and continued to the University of Chicago in pursuit of a PhD (Isham & Jackson, 2021; Risen, 2021). Csikszentmihalyi’s decision to become a scholar had been based in his early exposure Teilhard and Jung, and as mentioned, combined with “the last years of the academic hegemony of Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis” (pp. xiii–xiv). Csikszentmihalyi later taught at Lake Forest College, then moving to Claremont Graduate University in 1991 (Risman, 2021). In his teaching style, he would guide graduate students to write about “small things” for ten years prior to writing about anything one wants (Csikszentmihalyi & Leben, 2017, p. 819). This is “small things” approach is evidenced in his first published papers, but it wasn’t small in support of his grand quest to resolve the causes of war. These early papers are foundational to understanding Csikszentmihalyi and the invisible hand that guided research on flow.

Many years later, Csikszentmihalyi had been awarded the Grand Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary, and died peacefully in his home on October 20, 2021 at the age of 87 (Isham & Jackson, 2012). His principal work on flow had been a bestseller (Claremont Graduate University, n.d.a). Awards include the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award and he had been a Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in addition to the Clifton Strengths Prize and 2011 Széchenyi Prize. He had published 130 publications; spoke Hungarian, Italian, German, and English, and served on the Board of Consulting Editors of Social Behavior and Personality (Stewart & Krivan, 2022). Csikszentmihalyi founded the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University, focused on social innovation and good work in all times of life, where current work is in the area of studying mentorship in professional life (Claremont Graduate University, n.d.b).

Small Things—Big Things. Csikszentmihalyi’s first publications were in the field of anthropology, covering an investigation of gifted students (Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1962) and a cross-cultural comparison of group drinking (Csikszentmihalyi, 1968). The latter paper revealed Csikszentmihalyi’s spark of insight as to his own future theorizations in the enjoyment of experiences moderated by skill/challenge in a narrow gate between anxiety and boredom. He had reviewed literature on seating arrangements, specifically “whether problem-solving was facilitated or hindered by… seating arrangements… members of such groups reported to have enjoyed the experience more than any of the groups with different seating patterns” (p. 206; emphasis added). In this paper, Csikszentmihalyi demonstrated his earlier driven concerns of World War II in addressing “tribal emotions” fostered in café-houses and wine shops within which Hitler ascended to leadership in the Deutshe Arbeiterpartei (DAP), the precursor to the Nazi party (p. 208). Hitler had found a seating configuration that changed “the dynamics of presentation” (Csikszentmihalyi & Lebuda, 2017, p. 819), taking advantage of geometric effects of relationships confounding theories of social psychology, arising to a terrorizing skillful power over peoples in its facilitated understanding and exponential application later arriving at the Holocaust. A power and cause of great concern to a future founder of flow and originator to positive psychology.

Just before his greatest known work, he turned toward research on attitude and creative production, to determine processes, relations, and attitudes as related to the quality of productions of artists (Csikszentmihalyi & Getzels, 1970). Results found that problem-finding and problem-formulation were components of the creative process and that artists that lacked volition in the use of “predetermined patterns” concomitant gained volition in the discovery of artistic problems in situations had been rated by critics as more creative than individuals starting with predetermined patterns (p. 103). It is clear from this early work that Csikszentmihalyi had been sensitized to differentiation of problem (i.e., challenge) solving (i.e., skill) to its core functions, which would come up later in studies of everyday experience and flow.


Originating Flow & Positive Psychology. Csikszentmihalyi’s works had evolved after 1978 toward “psychic energy, or attention” having claimed this as a “latent organizing principle” of his research (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014a, p. xv). His early literature review in methodologies concerned with measuring (i.e., sampling) changes in attention led him to attempts at quantification of time utilization of people’s attention and “the frequencies of psychic energy they allocate to different kinds of experiences” (p. xvii). Many sociologists influenced his research methodology (p. xvii). Of import, are Le Play’s (1855) use of diaries that recorded how workers spent their days in England, time-budget studies of Lundberg et al. (1934) that studied leisure time domestically, time-budget studies of Sorokin and Berger (1939), Szalai’s (1966) analysis of time-budget research, and Campbell et al.’s (1975) investigation of upward moving economic indicators and downward moving measures of happiness in the affluent that triggered a call for better measures. However, research in these domains was about to get a boost from an electronic communications device that revolutionized the world. The invention of electronic pagers. This invention in the 1970s brought a breakthrough that Csikszentmihalyi took advantage of in more accurate randomization of a sample’s self-report collection. 

The Experience Sampling Method. It was his early faculty member days at the University of Chicago, where Csikszentmihalyi would take his students to Jimmy’s, a bar, to talk about life and research (Doris, 2021, 00:09:42). This was the time of Csikszentmihalyi’s use of pagers, triggered at random times prompts to research participants to fill out a questionnaire (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014a, p. xvii). A questionnaire that asked participants as to “where they were, with whom, what they were doing, what they were thinking about; in addition, they filled about 40 numerical scales about how they were feeling in at the moment of the signal” (p. xviii). This had been the birth of the Experience Sampling Method (ESM; p. xviii). Csikszentmihalyi used this method at the University of Chicago in 1975 to research human participant experiences in daily life (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1987, p. 36). Pagers as a new technology combined with self-report as an innovative way to collect randomized point in time self-report data via the newly developed experience sampling method (ESM; p. 36).

Across this time, ESM had revealed more about people’s lives, and Csikszentmihalyi had developed an interest in what “the most positive aspects of life” had become (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014a, p. xviii). Around this time, Csikszentmihalyi started teaching sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College, a choice thought by his peers/teachers to be a commission of “academic suicide” (p. xviii). Csikszentmihalyi’s works were less structured less by pressures of prestigious academics at larger research universities (e.g., Harvard) and more by the Zeitgeist of the 1960s (p. xix). At Lake Forest, he was invited to become chair of his department, and launched a seminar about “play” (p. xix), which led to student that researched commonalities in play experiences. This research resulted in a concept of autotelic behavior, used interchangeably with optimal experience, later to be summarized as flow (p. xx). 

Flow. Influenced by his earlier studies of play (Csikszentmihalyi & Bennet, 1971), Csikszentmihalyi’s research discovered that individuals enter peak experience or flow experience during periods of voluntary exceptionally intense concentration on limited stimulus fields of “objectively pleasurable or attractive” stimuli as opposed to involuntary intense concentration on limited stimulus fields of anxiety inducing aversive or unpleasant stimuli (Csikszentmihalyi, 1978). Csikszentmihalyi (1978) leaned on convergent validity with William James’ focus on attention leading experience, attention’s adaptive function, and later leaned toward a study of the conscious, reflecting earlier efforts to study the consciousness. 

After “discovering” flow, Csikszentmihalyi returned to the University of Chicago as a member of the Committee on Human Development, where he received his PhD (p. xxi). Here, Csikszentmihalyi developed flow further, applied ESM, and published his first book, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975a). Today, one can find the classic diagram of flow featuring a flow channel between anxiety and boredom, where too much challenge may not be met by enough skill to warrant flow lending to anxiety, or where lack of challenge may frustrate skill obstructing flow lending to boredom. Individuals had been discovered to experience joy in a narrow band of tightly coupled increasing challenge and skill. The earliest appearances of this diagram appeared in research on play and its intrinsic reward (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975b). Things accelerated quickly and Csikszentmihalyi determined to overcome lack of literature’s coverage of a sense of freedom with respect to perceived skill and intrinsic motivation and found that skill was important in the perception of freedom, where freedom is an attribution to intrinsically motivated activity (Csikszentmihalyi & Graef, 1980).

Csikszentmihalyi had discovered that flow is concomitant joy, a joy discriminated from pleasure, and called for a “psychology of optimal experience”, publishing a paper rejecting “pessimistic conclusions” of prior psychologies unable to distinguishing pleasure from enjoyment (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014b/1982). Following this call, Csikszentmihalyi and his peers/students in the study of flow were well underway finding further application of ESM and the newly conceived model of flow in the study of adolescent intrinsic motivation (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989). Here he called for a concept of intrinsic motivation that earlier behavioral psychologists and mechanistic models could not be seen to explain. The relation of flow with the organismic perspective of humanistic psychology was important in the consideration of flow echoing earlier arguments against mechanistic perspectives (p. 68). The arguments between psychological perspectives had been inherited by Csikszentmihalyi:

If we conceive of human behavior mechanistically and explain phenomena in mechanistic terms, we stand to treat people accordingly. On the other hand, if we conceive of humans as intentional agents, who sometimes choose to act for the sake of intrinsic enjoyment alone, we might be able to facilitate people’s enjoyment of the activities in which they engage. (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989, p. 69)

Self-Enjoyment Paradox. One of the most curious findings in flow research had been a lack perception of self in flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989). Flow was discovered to nourish self, but self “destroys enjoyment”. Csikszentmihalyi offered an explanation that today is still being researched. “I” emerges when action departs expectation, where successful coping in this state reforms “I” to “me”, but a different me from prior. This paradox is evident in flow research where optimal experience is found devoid of self-concept and remains to be researched more completely.

The Foundation of Positive Psychology. Csikszentmihalyi serendipitously met Martin Seligman while visiting Kona Village in Hawaii in the 1990s, having helped an older Seligman to get out of the surf (Claremont Graduate University, 2021). The two spent the next two days in enthusiastic discussion to help Seligman prepare his theme on positive psychology to present at Seligman’s running for president of APA. This chance meeting and subsequent collaboration, culminated in Seligman’s declaration at his 1998 APA Presidential address “officially” founding positive psychology. Later Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi issued an introduction to the “science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institution[al] promises to improve quality of life and prevent the pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; edit for readability). 

Founders & Originators. Despite Csikszentmihalyi being credited as the founder of flow, the term was coined by researchers in anthropology and sports psychology ten years prior (Csikszentmihalyi & Lebuda, 2017). This term carries unique connotations in social sciences, physics, and has an extensive history (Rockefeller, 2011). Though the concept had been in literature, Csikszentmihalyi and the ESM method brought rigor, validity, and reliability to the foundations of positive psychology. The field of positive psychology had been founded, and like Fechner as originator, so too had been Csikszentmihalyi—a chief originator responsible for the new paradigm of positive psychology. There is no doubt about Csikszentmihalyi’s contributions as the “leading researcher” of positive psychology, where his students today carry on research not only flow, but also group flow (M. Csikszentmihalyi, personal communication, October 2, 2017). Today flow is a concept used in businesses, management, leadership, and organizations attempting to balance employees and customer experiences in navigating escalating skills and challenges between anxiety and boredom while manifesting joy for said employees and customers. 

In Their Own Words

The relationship between optimal experiences and the self is fraught with apparent paradox. On the one hand, the self is hidden during a flow experience; it cannot be found in consciousness. On the other hand, the self appears to thrive and grow as a result of such experiences. This anomaly, suggests that further exploration of the relationship might prove theoretically fruitful.

Experimental social psychology has amply documented the fact that objective self-awareness is an aversive experience. This has been explained in terms of self-awareness inevitably involving self-evaluation and a failure to live up to expected standards (Duval and Wicklund 1972; Wicklund 1975). In an earlier volume in this series, it was pointed out that self-awareness produces negative affect only when the discrepancy between the actual and the ideal states is unlikely to be reduced (Carver and Scheier 1981). In other words, the problem with focusing attention on the self is that it reveals depressing inadequacies.

A recent study using the Experience Sampling Method replicated outside the laboratory this negative association between self-awareness and affect, but found it contingent on whether the person was involved in a voluntary or obligatory activity. Self-awareness was associated with a negative experience only when the person felt he or she had freely chosen to do an activity. When doing something that had to be done, focusing attention on the self made no difference in the moods reported (Csikszentmihalyi and Figurski 1982). These findings suggest an alternative explanation for why being aware of the self is not a positive experience: because self-awareness interrupts involvement in an enjoyable activity. To explore this issue further, it might be helpful to develop a model of the self that will account for the findings.

The self shows itself as a pattern of information in consciousness; more specifically, it is information that stands for, or represents, the information-processing organism itself. It is composed of past experiences strung together by acts of intentionality and shaped by feedback (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981).

Being a pattern, the self requires inputs of energy to keep its order intact. Like consciousness itself, of which it is one of the contents, the self does not keep its shape unless appropriate information is constantly provided to perpetuate its existence. To put it in the simplest possible terms, the self survives by assimilating feedback to intentions. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1982; citations preserved)


Csikszentmihalyi’s early studies of play are insightful, and it is here where a great diversity of scientific fields, markets, institutions, and governments world round had embraced his landmark studies and publications. To study flow state, Larson & Csikszentmihalyi (1983) detailed a specific form of in-the-moment self-reporting—ESM. His use of objective self-report data, and introspective techniques of self-report participants, without calling it such, provided qualitative and quantitative datasets which had helped give positive psychology a reliable method for establishing validity and reliability. These methods evolved over time, revealing that there is a powerful relationship between apathy, anxiety, boredom, skill, challenge, and flow. Furthermore, that happiness is tightly connected with flow, and that self-concept is paradoxically incompatible with flow, has strong application in attempts to attain and retain enjoyment for all peoples. His further typology of autotelic behaviors, intrinsic motivation, and commentary on wisdom, creativity, teaching, and the restructuring of education are critical in the field of positive psychology.

These contributions and more land Csikszentmihalyi in the histories of psychology, where his students continue to make contributions today in many domains individual and group. For these reasons it is submitted, in memoriam (Claremont Graduate University, 2021; Risen, 2021), that Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi is entered into a revised modern history of psychology as a praxical figure transforming the practicum of psychology toward a better, more positive, and ecologically sensitive human future in the hopes to avoid influences of the very manipulative effects that lead to war.

It is arguable that the nexus of flow is leading to that long-sought praxis of fields, and the foundation of a paradigmatic perspective organizing all fields of psychology around human experience in a constellation organized by flow’s guiding compass. It is difficult to unsee the convergent validity of mechanistic, functional, behaviorist, humanist, and positive psychology with Csikszentmihalyi’s works, which lends greater credibility and utility in multicultural psychology. It is therefore arguable that Csikszentmihalyi may have originated a field of psychology yet assembled—psychology, and humanity, flows forward, in his absence.


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