Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Me Hi Yee Chick Sent Me Hi Yee. I think that is how you pronounce his name. He is a professor at the University of Chicago and is my all time favorite psychologist. Matt really likes him too.

If our liking for him frightens you - as well it might - stop reading now.

Well, don't say I didn't warn you. Csikszentmihalyi is perhaps most famous for his studies and work popularizing the term, 'flow'. 'Flow' is used to describe the affective state many feel when they are fully engaged in the challenges of a certain task. The task can be one that takes place at work or during play and it can be wholly physical or wholly mental or some combination of both. 'Flow' is not about mere pleasure; one does not attain flow through getting drunk or 'high'. Rather, flow is about the fruits of our efforts. We attain it when engaged in tasks where there is both a high level of demand and a correspondingly high level of skill with which we meet the demand. Too much demand in relation to skill gives us stress. Too much skill in relation to the demand gives us feelings of boredom.

Flow is commonly experienced during sports. When one is playing against a competitor who is well-matched to us in terms of skill, for example, strange but pleasant things can occur with our psychological states. We can develop a focus on the activity in which we are immersed and nothing else. Time seems to strangely slow down and yet speed up at the same time. We seem to lose ourselves in the action and almost feel that we can predict our opponent's moves. The action itself is what counts and our own sensations of pain or exhaustion can become of secondary importance. When these things happen, we are in a state of 'flow'.

Csikszentmihalyi has studied in great detail the contexts during which flow occurs and has come to some startling conclusions. Among the people who most commony have rich flow experiences, for example, are paralyzed people with spinal cord injuries. The rigours of their rehabilitation routines are exhausting, to be sure, but provide these people with a purpose to their lives and (potentially flow-inducing) challenges that they theretofore lacked. While none of these people interviewed by Csikszentmihalyi would ever have chosen the bad twists of fate that overfell them, there was nonetheless the recognition that flow proved to be a very effective silver lining to their dark clouds.

Another interesting thing that Csikszentmihalyi has found is that while people commonly complain about work and look forward to the weekends, to holidays, and to retirement, work is the area where we often have most of our flow experiences. The message here is that people quite often enjoy their work and do so to a degree that is often quite surprising.

What can we learn from flow? I think we can gain a greater appreciation of the importance of effort as a source for satisfaction in life. Csikszentmihalyi himself has recommended that people 'burnt out' at work should look for ways to do just a little more in order to transform their dull and often stressful work situations into meaningful flow-producing experiences. This may involve taking a course to learn a new skill for a promotion. Perhaps it is using some creative thinking to come up with a more efficient and effective way to perform a certain task. Perhaps new tasks can be mastered that will fit in with a current job description and that can pave the way to a new job description - or an entirely new job altogether. Csikszentmihalyi provides several examples of people transforming their lives at work and outside work through flow.

In one's personal life, a fitness program can be started with the attitude that new flow experiences can be had. Every session with the weights, each time on the treadmill, can be both a step toward a better body and an immediate opportunity for a flow experience. Volunteer work can be seen as not only a way to help other people but also as a means by which we can have even more flow experiences. Flow can change our lives and the lives of others at work and outside work.

Flow is cool.

Check it out.

For more information about flow and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, check out these books:

"Flow, the Psychollogy of Optimal Experience."
"Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life."
"The Evolving Self."