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What Makes Us Happy?

A professor explores our capacity for deep enjoyment and mental well-being

To be a young boy in World War II Italy did not make for an idyllic childhood. The psychologist and scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recalls how the ground shook when bombs rained down on Rome. He and his family were interned in a POW camp and later a refugee camp after the end of hostilities, as Italian authorities vetted his Hungarian diplomat father for Fascist ties (he didn’t have any).

It was a lot for a 10-year-old to confront, but Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHICK-sent-me-high-ee) had an escape: When he played chess, the outside world, with all of its tensions, dissipated. “It didn’t bother me that bombs were exploding,” he recalls. “It was one of the first times I realized you could get taken up in something to the point where everyday life problems disappeared, at least temporarily.”

Decades later, as a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, Csikszentmihalyi coined a term for this sensation of being wholly absorbed in an activity: He called it flow. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes the feeling in lyrical terms: “it is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair…what the painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape.”

All kinds of activities can trigger flow. People talk of “losing track of time” when they are gardening or cooking an elaborate meal; athletes speak of “entering the zone” when their training sessions are going well. Csikszentmihalyi found he experienced it when he rock climbed, and also when he wrote and painted.

There is a common thread in these diverse pursuits: They all require concentration and effort. For this reason, the most common pastime, watching TV, rarely induces flow. To be sure, expending effort and energy doesn’t always bring immediate gratification. Competitive swimmers, for example, are often beset with aching muscles during a race. But if they don’t always relish the feeling while they are in the pool, losing themselves in a pursuit and attaining mastery over time can be addictive. “They emerge from the activity feeling good,” Csikszentmihalyi says. “They think, ‘I wish I could have more experiences like this.’”

The path he pioneered as you might surmise from that description, a life filled with flow experiences is likely to be a fulfilling and happy one. And in fact, happiness is the overarching theme of Csikszentmihalyi’s life work.

Thanks in part to his efforts, the discipline of psychology is now more generally oriented towards discovering ways for people to feel more positive and satisfied in day-to-day life. That constitutes something of a sea change: traditionally, academics focused on improving therapies for mental illness and depression. Colleagues praise Csikszentmihalyi for helping to pioneer the new path.

Unlike many academics, “He does not ask, ‘How can I amplify an existing paradigm, in order to squeeze out a new result?’” says Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has collaborated occasionally with Csikszentmihalyi.

“Instead, he asks about the phenomena that are most important to people—what makes life meaningful, what is the nature of the artistic experience and, more generally, human creativity? And in fact, these are the principal reasons people turn to psychological research.”

Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t just preach the value of flow—he structures his life to optimize chances to experience it.

Eight years ago, at the age of 66, the psychologist left the University of Chicago to become director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.

There, he is creating the first PhD program in positive psychology. The academic acknowledges it is unusual for a person to assume a major undertaking at a stage when most people are contemplating retirement. But work doesn’t feel like a burden to him—quite the opposite.

“I didn’t want to quit,” he says. “I like to write, look at data, work with students. It’s just too much fun to leave it.”

Csikszentmihalyi also makes time for intense pursuits outside the office. He travels around the world; this past year, for example, he delivered the keynote address at the fourth annual European Conference on Positive Psychology in Croatia and embarked on a safari in Zimbabwe.

Now 74, he’s given up rock climbing, but he relishes hiking with his grandchildren on paths near his summer home in Montana, where it’s not uncommon to spot rattlesnakes and elk.

Csikszentmihalyi has found there are benefits to being older. “We sometimes feel empowered to experiment more,” he says. “When we volunteer, often we are not in it just for a good time, but to give something back.”

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.