Excerpt from the chapter on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934- )
At age 21, Csikszentmihalyi interviewed several Eastern Europeans who had been imprisoned under Stalin. In his conversations with these prisoners who managed to live through torture and incredible squalor, Csikszentmihalyi noticed that not only did some prisoners survive; they seemed to attain a transcendent kind of inner peace. Csikszentmihalyi resolved to figure out how a person could live a better life, beyond the control of external events. “I wanted to find out how optimal states of being occur and what people can do to bring them about.” (1998, 3) After decades of studying happiness and engagement among adolescents and adults, Csikszentmihalyi published his findings in Flow (1990), in which he described the nature of peak experiences and explained the virtues of mental discipline. Many of Csikszentmihalyi’s books enjoy widespread popularity among an eclectic readership, including psychologists, politicians, artists, coaches, teachers, athletes, and writers.
Each of us has a picture, however vague, of what we would like to accomplish before we die. How close we get to attaining this goal becomes the measure for the quality of our lives (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 9).
I want to begin with a personal story about a friend from college. Duane was a pale, dark-haired, rather shy senior who lived down the hall from me in the dormitory at the University of Texas. I was a dazed and confused sophomore who had only a vague notion about what interested me. As an upperclassman on the verge of graduation, Duane took it as his personal quest to help me decide on a major. As my unofficial counselor, Duane would sometimes rouse me from my room around 2 a.m. to discuss “life after college.” If I were lucky, he would offer me several cans of beer and pretzels to share during the conversation. The beer would have been smuggled and the pretzels would have been leftovers horded from last month’s party.
“You ought to major in accounting,” Duane would advise. “There are always jobs for accountants and the pay is great.”
I thought about it. “Oh, do you like working with numbers?” I asked.
“No, not really. I like to fish and I like to read, but no one’s going to pay me to go fishing.”
“Maybe you could become a librarian or a writer or something,” I suggested. “You could fish on the weekends.”
“No, I’ve got it all planned out. When I graduate from here, I’m going to get a job as an accountant with the civil service. Then, I’m going to work thirty years and retire at age 51. The civil service has a great retirement plan. Can you imagine that? Retired at age 51? Waking up when you feel like it, knowing that you don’t have to punch the clock—you could sleep until noon!”
“But, Duane, can you really work at a job you don’t particularly like for 30 years?”
“Baines,” he’d say. “Think of me when you’re 50 and working your butt off. I’ll be in a boat somewhere fishing, guzzling a six-pack, with a mystery novel by my side.”
I’ve often wondered what happened to Duane. If he remained true to his plan, today Duane would be on the verge of retirement with almost 30 years of figuring debits and credits for the U.S. government under his belt. Like many Americans, Duane believed that material comforts and a permanent escape from “the rat race” were worthy goals that lead to a contented life. To the contrary, the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has determined that Americans are most depressed when they are alone with nothing to do—precisely the future for which Duane was willing to barter thirty years in the prime of his life.
Interestingly, the Greek word idiot means someone who lives by himself. Centuries earlier, it was assumed that a loner who avoided community contact was either criminal or crazy. While loneliness is an inevitable condition for most of us at some points in our lives, Csikszentmihalyi has found that most successful people have strong, close relationships with spouses, family, and friends. A close-knit group of friends and family can provide a support system that emancipates the individual to pursue his/her particular talents. Apparently, the introverted, isolated genius is more mythical than real.
The formula for getting a better life is neither complex nor particularly mysterious. Csikszentmihalyi believes that if people spent more time doing what they love and less time doing what they loathe, they would experience less anxiety and have more fun. The problem with contemporary life is that it is often so frantic with routines, habits, and obligations that we fail to recognize and nurture the muse within. In many ways, the habits we choose provide the framework for our lives. A man who routinely spends his free time stealing car radios, robbing liquor stores, and sniffing cocaine has set a trajectory for his life. A man who writes poetry in the morning, volunteers at the homeless shelter in the afternoon, and plays with his children in the evenings also has established a trajectory. If our habits align with our talents and desires, then less time is wasted in meaningless pursuits and more time is spent on worthwhile activities. Of course, to more closely align with your talents, you first must know your particular strengths, likes, and dislikes.
In his writings, Csikszentmihalyi (1997) often refers to “psychic energy,” or the power to willfully harness and focus the mind on the task-at-hand. A person without the ability to control his/her psychic energy has little chance for self-improvement. “The first step in improving the quality of life is to pay close attention to what we do every day, and to notice how we feel in different activities, places, times of day, and with different companions” (121). For individuals who are unable to take control over their thoughts and actions, some force will use them to serve other ends.
If we don’t take charge of its direction, our life will be controlled by the outside to serve the purpose of some other agency. Biologically programmed instincts will use it to replicate the genetic materials we carry; the culture will make sure that we use it to propagate its values and institutions; and other people will try to take as much of our energy as possible to further their own agenda—all of this without regard to how any of this will affect us (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, 1-2).
In other words, if you can’t find ways to utilize your unique talents, someone (or something) else will.
In his research, Csikszentmihalyi found that many adults considered their “real lives” to exist outside of their work week. For example, a manager of a Denny’s Restaurant might tolerate her frantic job because it provides her with enough money to go snow skiing in different regions of the world on vacation days. Many Americans accept that some jobs are alienating, degrading, or boring but keep them for reasons of security or money. “Such an attitude, however, amounts to throwing away almost 40 percent of one’s waking life” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, 101). A job that aligns more closely with your particular interests and talents could profoundly enhance the quality of life.
Some people say they are ‘happy’ even when they dislike their jobs, when their home life is nonexistent, when they spend all their time in meaningless activities….The point is to be happy while doing things that stretch our skills, that help us grow and fulfill our potential (1997, 122).
Thus, the restaurant manager might consider a job that would keep her on the snowy slopes for longer periods of time—perhaps a job as ski instructor at Crested Butte.
Unfortunately, few Americans take up activities that are challenging or fulfilling outside of the work day. Statistics indicate that Americans spend much of their free time watching television, viewing videos/DVDs, and shopping, none of which seem inherently fulfilling. While there is nothing wrong in watching television or running up the charge card occasionally, Csikszentmihalyi (1996) thinks that spending too much time in passive leisure activities can lead to sloth and complacency. “It is difficult to imagine beneficial contributions to evolution from watching soap operas and MTV on the home screen” (325). Instead of turning off the mind after work, Csikszentmihalyi suggests that it is during leisure hours that you should open up to new challenges—snow skiing, rock climbing, singing, painting, writing, reading or some other activity. “Consuming culture is never as rewarding as producing it” (342).
In each of the three types of activities—productive, maintenance, and leisure—it is possible to enhance the quality of life by regaining consciousness, by becoming alive in the moment. Once you get control over your thoughts, “the next step is to transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks that you don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something you never did before, or something you enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems too much trouble” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, 127). If, through this gradual process of self-examination, you discover that you detest any aspect of life—your job, a friend, a mate, a hobby—you should reflect on whether or not you might be better off without it. “It makes no sense to persevere in an activity that gives no joy or the promise of it” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, 353). On the other hand, if you discover that you treasure some aspect of your life, but are not spending much time on it, you might consider rearranging your priorities and daily routine.