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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Positive Psychology's Leading Researcher, Author, Flow

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Broadcast 10/27/2015 at 16:39:39
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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his book, Flow
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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and of the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College. His Ted Talk, Flow, the Secret to Happiness, has had close to three million views

Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, described Csikszentmihalyi as the world's leading researcher on positive psychology.

Rob: Could you introduce flow with your story of Chess, as a young man.

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We went from a good life in Italy, even during the war, but as the war ended, Russian troops moved into Hungary. My brother was killed trying to defend Budapest from the Russians. Out of 1400 students, only survived. People lost their jobs, their homes, and it looked like complete complete chaos. At the same time we read that a nuclear device had been dropped in Japan, yet they behaved completely like cavemen. People became helpless, didn't know what to do with themselves, they became depressed. As I grew from up there, I tried to understand how people could make a decent life"

I studied religion, history, philosophy" it didn't add up.

I had to leave school when I was 13 because we didn't have any money back then" my father had lost his job" we couldn't get the official documents to work in Italy.

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I had set some money to ski when I was 15, Unfortunately the snow was melted. I didn't have money to go to the movies, but I read in the paper there was a talk about flying saucers at the university-- the guy who talked turned out to be a psychologist, which i don't know existed-- this guy was really amazing. He was talking about how europe had lost all belief in values and conviction that they knew where they were going. One thing that helped them were circles in the sky-- flying saucers. There were a lot of reports of flying saucers. That was a recreation of old hindu religious beliefs of the mandalas-- a circle that reflected on the forces of the universe in balance with each other.

It was his notion that we inherited this belief from generation to generation without even knowing it" That seemed intriguing-- crazy, but intriguing that there were people thinking about these things.

i read more of his books. it was Carl Jung, and his ideas on archetypes.

Rob: so you let me get this straight. Because you were broke and didn't have money to go to a movie, you stumbled into a talk by Carl Jung on archetypes and that's how you got into psychology.

Then I went to Chicago-- worked nights, went to school days, for five years. I was disillusioned by psychology back then because it was the heyday of behaviorism, when the research was on rats.

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I took a course that was like ESL-- and at the end of the course the assignment was to read a few issues of one of five magazines and then describe what the magazine was about. I asked the prof if, instead of doing the assignment, I could write an article and see if they would publish it. For the New Yorker

Rob: what was the article about?

A short story-- a few pages, about my experience at the end of the world war. 1958

At U of Chicago I did my dissertation on creativity-- studying art students at the Art Institute of Chicago.

All of psychology at the time was focused on essentially pathological issues and nobody was interested in the kinds of things that made life worthwhile.

I was interested in creativity-- cognitive aspect-- how it made people, gave them meaning, purpose, significance.

I was teaching a seminar and gave the students three topics to choose one of.

Play among adults was the one the students chose. So they students studied things adults were doing that they didn't have to do

Hockey team, soccer team, musical group, swimming

When they came back we put their findings on a blackboard and we tried to see what was common to them. I was surprised how similar the accounts of people doing very different things were.

focused attention, forgetting troubles, forgetting self, having a challenge, a clear goal"

I remembered that when I was a kid, during the world war, my uncle taught me to play chess. I was 9 years old. When the war came close and there were firebombs, when I played chess, I wouldn't notice that or wouldn't care about it.

That seemed very familiar after a while

At that point we called it the auto-telic experience== self contained goal. The greek philosophers wrote about that.

Because nobody knew what an auto-telic was, I said, let's call it a Flow Experiences, because so many interviews described it was like flowing. Then everybody said, Flow, yeah, I have that experience.

First article on flow was published in American Anthropologist-- we included examples from different play forums and different cultures. Then slowly psychologists began to say Hmm, that's kind of interesting. It slowly became one of the foundations of what's become positive psychology, when Martin Seligman ran into each other on a beach in Hawaii shortly before he became president of the APA.

Seligman wrote to 50 of the most established psychologists in the country and asked them to recommend promising young people who had the potential to become chair of a psychology department by age 50. All of the people answered and sent us names. Then we wrote to the young people. We wrote to them and asked if they would come to a place in Mexico where we would give them food and lodging to talk about this issue.

Out of these 50 we chose 20 who seemed the most promising and invited these young people to a set of villages in Akumai that belonged to the Grateful dead.

Positive Psychology Manifesto written at Akumal in 1999

Whenever we got tired we go to a Cenote

Rob: Did Templeton support the meeting?

yes. I don't recall if Templeton supported all of it or some came from Atlantic" Foundation

Rob: Templeton

Rob: bottom-up connection to flow-- connection consciousness?

State of flow has neuropsychological reasons for occurring-- there

recent studies

Hypofrontality; once you learn to do something well, you don't need the frontal lobe intervention to be doing it.

Frontal lobe criticizes

FL important while you are learning, but once you learn to do something it becomes a backseat driver, and actually diminishes your performance. if you are a skier, at first you have to think about everything you do, but after a while if you think about where you are going to put your weight, you are probably going to fall or run into a tree.

Rob: The frontal cortex is considered the top down part of the brain. If you stop doing that, what are you using?

You are using other parts--- you don't need anymore this nagging thing, "is this good enough?"

Flow happens when you HAVE developed the skills to meet the challenges. If you try to shut off your forebrain while you are learning something you will get into trouble and probably.

Rob: So what parts of the brain are going on during flow-- inhibition of forebrain. What else

physiologists in Sweden report and show people with more flow than most people, and studied people who don't experience flow-- they found there's a very significant difference in the dopamine distributions in those who have a lot of flow-- mostly released from dorsal and caudal parts of the striatum, which are connected to parts of the brain that require effortful, concentrated activity

others-- dopamine secrete to ventral part of striatum, which is associated with passive, hedonic pleasures.

some people learn that they can get pleasure from doing things from focused persistent activity".

Rob: Do you have any idea of the percentage of people who do and do not experience flow.

Don Clifton, CEO of Gallup did something with flow in surveys.

Do you ever feel so involved in something that if something strange happened around you wouldn't know it.

DO you get so involved in what you are doing you don't realize what time it is. We had about four or five of these.

Ernsback institute in Germany-- did something similar at the ame time.

12-15 of people never experienced anything like that

10-12% feel it every day, several times a day.

the rest a few times a week, month year-- a normal distribution.

People in audience ask, "isn't that wrong to lose yourself in what your doing?" Women seem to ask that more

Rob: That could be an evolutional consideration for taking care of children.

we studied the gamut of workers, from assembly line to professionals, using this method I developed in the seventies. We had people wear a pager/beeper that you could signal and had people people, seven times a day, when the signal came they had to take a little book, and write down what they were doing, where they were and write down different dimensions-- happy, sad, cheerful, irritable, friendly/hostile, concentrating"

At end of the week you have about 50 responses" and we could compare how they felt at work, at home, " if they had a strong hobby or interest" which was quite rare" then you had flow. But worked tended to be more flow like than at home.

At home you are more vulnerable to distractions. Women feel more in flow at work you don't feel the kind of personal threats that you can feel at home, when the kids aren't home or you haven't paid the light bill, or you get into a fight with your spouse and you don't know what the outcome will be. It's much more close to the bone at home. Women love to work because what I do it doesn't matter as much as at home.

Rob: Is that the case for factory workers and professional women.

It's more the case for lower workers. For professional women some were more committed to work than most men and some were more like the factory women.

Rob: please talk about intrinsic reward and how that fits into flow.

Most things we do in life because we have to do them or we want something at the end that justifies doing it.

A rate will run down a maze to get to the cheese and that model can be applied to humans who do things to get the cheese.

But artists can get incredibly involved working on a painting, not going to the bathroom, not eating, then they finish the painting, put it against the wall and never look at it again. Those who are successful will have a gallery owner look at the paintings against the wall and sell them, but they are not interested in the painting after it's finished. This doesn't fit the model of rats running after the cheese.

Artists are doing the painting because they enjoy the painting.

It turns out that surgeons say they never took a vacation the first decade of my work, then my wife told me" we have to go to Italy or Mexico and we go to the beach and after I had to go to the hospital and volunteer to do surgery there"

Not just the artist, the surgeon, brick-layers, assembly line workers also get to love what they are doing because they get the feeling of complete immersion" when you are actually doing something that requires your energy, attention and complete immersion in what you are doing, that feels very good. Getting things done well and doing your challenges is important to success.

Just as sex is important to the reproduction of the species it's kind of important to enjoy sex. The same thing is true for food" if you consistently forgot to eat you could end up weakened, sickly"

Essentially I think flow is an adaptive mechanism that helps us to survive. it is something that when we experience we want to repeat it. And after repeating something over and over, unless you make it more complex, you lose focus.

Most assembly line who enjoy doing it are more like an athlete who is trying to perfect a high jump, doing it over and over...

Transcending in a way that is pretty rational-- you transcend by developing skills" mechanical, intellectual, esthetic, spiritual-- which is another form of feeling closer by ignoring the everyday

Rob: Talk about the feeling of connecting to something greater.

That is a form-- all of flow is a form of connecting to getting better, to reach the limits of your capacity-- by jumping higher,

transcending of your previous limits. Some people ask, is that all there is or is there something beyond what I can experience, what I can see. They work to develop sensitivity that can let them " observable and meaningful to other people. Whether this is actually a construction, something you feel, but doesn't have a reality outside o f your brain, or whether it is actually connecting with something outside of your brain that you have been able to connect with because of the effort to connect"

Rob: That sounds religious or spiritual

what I'm saying is that spiritual can be an inner construction of our imagination and creativity or it can be a connection to something outside of us.

Rob: Does love fit in with flow?

Love is a way of achieving.

For women the most common flow experience occurs when they take care of their children, both physically but even more by making them feel happy when they are sad, when telling them stories, when experiencing things together. Most of this you would call love.

Rob: How about oxytocin and endorphins-- are there connections?

flow doesn't happen as the result of any chemical by itself.

Rob: when I think about attention and focus. have you had any thoughts on a tie between Flow and ADD/attention deficit disorder.

In ADD children achieve a state of flow when they do" something that seems to absorb their attention.

Rob: connection between flow and Narcissism/Psychopathy

you could get flow from becoming a boxer and loving to beat people up, or you could be a fisherman who spends all his free time watching the ripples to see his bait. I think there are people can get flow from narcissistic display or trying to impress other people or put people down or outsmart people. if I were to flow is a form of inner energy that is self/intrinsically rewarding. like all energy you can put it to good or bad uses.

Energy can be claimed from different forms and it's true of flow also, I think that the important thing is that kids grow able to find flow in activities that are purposeful and growth producing rather than shoot them video games or listening to music or harassing the neighbor kid.

one problem with our civilized way of life is children are essentially so protected and scheduled that they have less chance of achieving flow than they had 50 or 100 years ago when they played in the streets and they had to amuse themselves. You don't have to amuse yourself. You can get amused by flicking a switch.

Junk flow, as some people call it. Because you are not using skills and there is very little challenge.

Rob: what you spoke about at the 2015 International PP meeting

don't want PP to be a patch on people's lives. We need to find out a way of living which would represent a positive step in the evolution of humankind and we can't get that unless we line up the social i institutions, economy, political system the way we live" with our consciousness the ability to do things through our brain through our body.. the point was to think about becoming the stewards of evolution, to lead evolution away from the short-term improvements in the lives of some of the people while the rest of Africa, South america, southeast asia are swallowed up in chaos, ". and so if you are serious about trying to improve the quality of life we have to move out from the individual psychology of

about humanity as a whole. We talk about globalized economy but we have to talk about globalized social and psychological as well. it's a huge and fearsome challenge, But we we either take it or we end up destroying the".

I think " we have a responsibility to d

"Repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished. Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason.

PP direct the evolutionary forces towards a world of peace, prosperity, and continuing psychic complexity.

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Rob Kall is an award winning journalist, inventor, software architect, connector and visionary. His work and his writing have been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC, the HuffingtonPost, Success, Discover and other media. He's given talks and workshops to Fortune 500 execs and national medical and psychological organizations, and pioneered first-of-their-kind conferences in Positive Psychology, Brain Science and Story. He hosts some of the world's smartest, most interesting and powerful people on his Bottom Up Radio Show, and founded and publishes one of the top Google- ranked progressive news and opinion sites, OpEdNews.com

more detailed bio: 

Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind.  Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives  one person at a time was too slow, he founded Opednews.com-- which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big)  to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project. 


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