Giving back is something Csikszentmihalyi connects strongly with happiness. At the end of Flow, he explains how one can achieve deep, lasting meaning when the various pursuits and challenges one takes on serve a unifying goal. He writes admiringly of a lawyer who devoted his career to improving the experiences of immigrants in the United States.
The man, Csikszentmihalyi explains, was driven to his work because as a child of immigrants himself, he knew the extent of their desperation and need and was determined to ameliorate it.
The psychologist also writes about an oncologist in Chicago who resolved as a young boy to devote his life to curing cancer after he lost his mother to the scourge.
Csikszentmihalyi does not offer himself up as another example, but he could have. The experience he had as a child struggling to find an escape in a difficult, violent world gave him the first inkling that human beings had the tools to be happier if they were willing to expend effort.
As an adult, he built on that early insight to devote much of his career to inking a road map for individuals eager to improve their creative aptitude and capacity for happiness. In the process, Csikszentmihalyi helped inspire other psychologists to reorient the profession in a more ‘positive’ direction. His has been a life filled with flow moments.
But in part because of the unifying goal Csikszentmihalyi adopted, his moments of pleasurable absorption have enriched not just his life, but the experiences of thousands of others as well.
Alexandra Starr has written for the New York Times Magazine, Slate and The New Republic. She is a regular contributor to NRTA Live & Learn.