21 October 2021

20 October 2021 We Lost Csikszentmihalyi, Who Taught Us About Creating a Life of Engagement and Meaning

“A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

One of my heroes died yesterday.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote two books that hugely influenced my worldview. One day over lunch he agreed with my characterization of the first as an answer to the question of how to find engagement and the second an answer to the question of how to create meaning.

Freud explained great accomplishments as sublimation of cruder instincts like sex and violence into socially accepted activities. Skinner explained great accomplishments as all done in response to rewards and punishment. As a young psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi didn't think either explanation was particularly tied to real people doing real things. For instance, he interviewed a lot of folks who were painting. The thought that they were doing this as some odd diversion of energy that would otherwise go into sex and violence struck him as nonsensical. Nor did any of the painters seem to believe that they'd be rewarded as if they were a Picasso for their efforts or punished if they didn't paint. As Csikszentmihalyi talked to these people, they would often use the term "flow," as in, "I began to paint (or write or rock climb or whatever) and just got into the flow of it." His great insight was that the psychology of engagement was not only one that made us happy but was a route to productivity, creativity, and self development. Being fully engaged not only makes us feel better; it actually makes us better.

His Evolving Self never sold as well as Flow but strikes me as even more important. (Apparently I bought it as a gift for my son-in-law at least twice.) Flow was a very successful book and concept but missed something revealed to him when one day he asked a student how his summer was. The student’s eyes lit up as he told Csikszentmihalyi about his amazing job of clubbing baby seals for their fur. More innocuously, video games are a marvelous example of tasks that fully engage us – provide flow – but have dubious value outside of the experience of flow they provide. In Evolving Self he explored how lives – how our actions – have meaning. His conclusion wasn’t wildly different from Sartre’s, building on the notion that we have to create our own meaning, creating and finding flow in tasks that contribute to some greater good that lies outside of ourselves. Our lives have meaning as we connect to something bigger than us.

Csikszentmihalyi helped me – and probably millions of people – to better understand how to find and create engagement and meaning. Now that’s a life.

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