Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—polymath, psychologist, academic—passed away at age 87. Internationally acknowledged for his pioneering contributions to the understanding of happiness, creativity, and human fulfillment, he received the highest accolades, honorary degrees, and prestigious awards. Together with Martin Seligman, he's recognized as the founding father of Positive Psychology, the field of study exploring what makes the good life, aiming at improving the quality of life, focusing on both individual and societal well-being.
In 1990, the publication of his seminal book Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience brought Csikszentmihalyi's work far beyond the academic discipline of psychology. The notion of flow attracted the attention of leaders in business, the arts, and sports, gaining him legendary status among admirers across disciplines and professions.
Growing up during World War II, young Mihaly experienced the horrors of war first hand, with family members and friends being killed in his homeland Hungary. While himself confined in an Italian prison camp, he discovered the game of chess as:
a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those things didn't matter. For hours I'd just focus within a reality that had clear rules and goals. If you knew what to do, you could survive there.
While visiting Switzerland at age 16, he heard psychoanalyst Carl Jung lecture about the mass delusion that had seized the European mind and resulted in the destruction of the war. This led to a critical realization:
That struck me because, as a child in the war, I'd seen something drastically wrong with how adults—the grown-ups I trusted—organized their thinking. I was trying to find a better system to order my life. Jung seemed to be trying to cope with some of the more positive aspects of human experience.
These external factors might have conspired to direct Mihaly's interest towards the idea of happiness as something humans could make for themselves. Still, he must take all the credit for achieving the intellectual discipline, inner strength, and emotional harmony that allowed him to flourish as a human being and innovative thinker.
After being flabbergasted by his books, I had the privilege of spending many hours in conversation with Professor Mihaly. Along with his sharp mind and encyclopedic knowledge, I will always remember his unassuming stance, welcoming kindness, sense of humor, and childlike playfulness—a unique exemplar of being both an intellectual hero and an utterly delightful person.
Here's a simple yet profound reminder from Finding Flow, something that, if acted upon, can change a life:
To live means to experience—through doing, feeling, thinking. Experience takes place in time, so time is the ultimate scarce resource we have. Over the years, the content of experience will determine the quality of life. Therefore one of the most essential decisions any of us can make is about how one's time is allocated or invested. (…) as life unfolds, it is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.
Goodbye, Mihaly, and thank you for teaching us, in words and deeds, to aspire to become better human beings.