Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: The Father of Flow


Hungarian-American Széchenyi Prize winner and Prima Primissima Prize-winning psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who died on October 20, aged 87. He was an external member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Photo by Nándor Veres / MTI.

Photo by Nándor Veres / MTI.

Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who died recently, developed a theory he called “flow” that has profoundly impacted the way we think about work and life.

Flow has entered pop culture as the concept of being “in the zone.” If you’re of a certain age, you may know it as being “in the groove.”

Csíkszentmihályi described flow to cutting edge tech-mag Wired as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

He was born in Rijeka, Croatia, in 1934 to a career diplomat at the Hungarian consulate. The family name Csíkszentmihályi derives from the village of the same name in Transylvania. Immediately after World War II, his father was appointed Hungarian Ambassador to Italy. Csíkszentmihályi senior resigned in 1949 rather than work for the communists. In retaliation, the family was stripped of its Hungarian citizenship.

No doubt the experience of communism influenced Csíkszentmihályi’s observation that “When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished.”

Csíkszentmihályi’s father opened a restaurant in Rome, and his son dropped out of school to work there and help earn money.

In a 2004 TED Talk, “The Secret to Happiness,” Csíkszentmihályi explained that his experience of WWII and the realization that “few of the grown-ups I knew were able to withstand the tragedies that the war visited on them” led him to become interested in “understanding what contributed to a life that was worth living.”

Philosophy and art didn’t offer any answers; psychology did. As a young man, Csíkszentmihályi attended a lecture in Zurich by Carl Jung in which the pioneering psychologist and psychiatrist explained his theory that Europeans were projecting flying saucers into the sky because their psyche had been traumatized by WWII.

It seemed to Csíkszentmihályi that psychology might have the answer to his desire to find what constituted a life worth living.


In 1956, Csíkszentmihályi emigrated to the United States. Here he worked nights while studying at the University of Chicago. He received his bachelor of arts and doctorate from that university and became a professor there in 1969.

From then on, Csíkszentmihályi focused on finding the secret of happiness, and he found it in flow.

The notion, or reality of flow, is that we’re happiest when in this state. We are fully immersed in what we’re doing, whether writing, running a marathon or playing a game, and nothing else matters.

Csíkszentmihályi defined flow as having nine components: the “challenge-skill balance, merging of action and awareness, clarity of goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, paradox of control, transformation of time, loss of self-conscious, and autotelic experience.”

Autolelic means something with no end or purpose beyond its own existence. We behave autotelically when we do something that’s intrinsically rewarding to us rather than because we’re chasing external rewards. This is closely connected to intrinsic motivation and work orientation.

For Csíkszentmihályi, intrinsic motivation is all about being goal-directed and enjoying challenges, which leads to happiness. When we focus on intrinsic motivation, we’re able to develop work orientation. This he described as a combination of “achievement, endurance, cognitive structure, order, play, and low impulsivity.”

You can see why the concept of flow appeals to the business world. Csíkszentmihályi suggested that “after a certain point […] increases in material well-being don’t seem to affect how happy people are.”

Cultivating autotelic, intrinsically motivated behavior at work can, in theory, make real-world realities such as remuneration or working conditions fade into the background somewhat.

Feel the Joy

In the 2004 TED Talk, Csíkszentmihályi references Masaru Ibuka of Sony. Ibuka’s idea was to “establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society and work to their heart’s content. I couldn’t improve on this as a good example of how flow enters the workplace.”

Presumably, the title of Csíkszentmihályi’s book “Good Business” includes a double meaning. Good as in “decent” and good as in “flourishing.” He may also be responsible for the nauseatingly ubiquitous use of the word “passion” in business.

Today, it does seem to be business that most appreciates the value of Csíkszentmihályi’s findings. His observations have contributed enormously to the gamification of aspects of work.

According to Finnish IT development company Valamis, gamification uses game mechanics, elements, and principles applied to non-game contexts to engage users better. Businesses often use gaming in areas such as employee training, recruitment, evaluation, and organizational productivity.

Dr. Zoltán Buzády, associate professor of management and leadership at Budapest’s Corvinus University with connections to the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of London, is making good use of Csíkszentmihályi’s work.

Buzády describes himself as a “global expert in Flow and leadership development via serious games” who champions the idea that flow promotes leadership. Working with Csíkszentmihályi, he developed a leadership simulation game where players “assume the role of the new manager of a family-owned winery in California, where morale is low, productivity stagnates, and your management team remembers only [….] a distant memory of ever having been in Flow.”

The game enables managers to learn about “flow-promoting leadership” while their bosses audit their management skills. Buzády and Csíkszentmihályi argue that skills are at the core of any company or corporation’s future competitiveness.

Personally, I wish that more schools that teach creative arts promoted the concept of flow. Speaking as someone who abandoned learning music as an adolescent, if I’d known that mastering an instrument would enable me to get into a highly pleasurable state, I’d have stuck with it.

You can watch Csíkszentmihályi’s 2004 TED Talk “Flow, the Secret of Happiness” at ted.com.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of November 5, 2021.

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