Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., has made important contributions since 1998 to the understanding of optimal functioning and to the growth of positive psychology. He was born in Fiume, Italy, where his father served as Hungarian consul. Childhood years shuttling between Hungary and Italy while observing the chaos of wartime, adults’ denial, and the disappearance of neighbors and family members were formative. After leaving school at 16 and working in jobs as varied as poster painter, waiter, translator, travel agent, newspaper stringer, and trainer of Boy Scout troop leaders, Csikszentmihalyi turned to psychology for answers to the bewilderment he felt at the behavior of the adults he knew during the war. The decision was influenced by a lecture he happened to attend by C.G. Jung. Csikszentmihalyi emigrated to the U.S. in 1956, arriving in Chicago with $1.25 in his pocket.
Csikszentmihalyi completed college in 1960 at the University of Chicago while working nights and stayed on to pursue doctoral studies in human development, completing a dissertation supervised by Jacob Getzels on the creative process. During graduate school, he married Isabella Selega; they have two sons and five grandchildren. One son is a digital artist, the other a Han dynasty scholar. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1965, he joined the faculty and subsequently chaired Lake Forest College’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. In 1971, he returned to the University of Chicago, chairing first the Committee on Human Development and later the Department of Psychology. In 1999, he relocated to Claremont Graduate University to establish the Quality of Life Research Center.
Csikszentmihalyi has drawn upon classical European education and interdisciplinary graduate training to put psychological phenomena within socio-cultural context and locate contemporary experience within historical and evolutionary frameworks. His goal has been the scientific study of subjective experience, in particular optimal functioning. He is an author or editor of 20 books including Flow (1990), which was published in over 20 countries.
He is best known for three lines of work. First, since the 1970s he has investigated the dynamics of intrinsic motivation, identifying and exploring the phenomenon of flow, or the enjoyment of intense absorption in an activity. Second, in the 1970s he and his graduate students developed the experience sampling method (ESM) for collecting ecologically valid snapshots of experience, making a systematic phenomenology possible. Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues have employed the ESM to map the daily lives of working adults, teenagers, and families; the experience of specific activities such as television viewing; and the nature of specific subjective states, particularly flow. Finally, he has studied creativity, talent development, and aesthetic experience, modeling creativity as both a cognitive and a systems (social-cultural) process.
Csikszentmihalyi began two collaborative projects in the mid-1990s. With Howard Gardner and William Damon, he has studied “good work” in professional life — work that is ethical, excellent, and personally fulfilling. Since 1998, he has helped foster positive psychology. He co-edited its inaugural publication with Martin Seligman, a special issue of American Psychologist, and chaired the U.S.’s first international Positive Psychology Summit.
—Jeanne Nakamura, Claremont Graduate University