Prof. Emeritus Mihaly “Mike” Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneering University of Chicago psychologist known as the “father of flow,” died Oct. 20 at his home in Claremont, California. He was 87.
As a scholar, he is best known for creating flow theory—referring to a state of being in which people become so immersed in the joy of their work or activity “that nothing else seems to matter.” He outlined the theory in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a seminal 1990 book that influenced leaders from politics to sports.
“Mike had a genius for creating simple, generative models of flow, creativity and aesthetic experience, and then unfolding their implications in his writings; the impact of his ideas has been remarkably broad,” said Jeanne Nakamura, an associate professor at Claremont Graduate University, where Csikszentmihalyi taught after retiring from UChicago in 1999.
Csikszentmihalyi’s work was “like a flashlight in a dark tunnel,” said Jennifer A. Schmidt, a former UChicago doctoral student who is now an associate professor at Michigan State University.
Often known as Mike C. to friends and colleagues, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Chick-SENT-Me-High) once wrote that the best moments in life are not the passive, receptive or relaxing times. By that logic, he undoubtedly counted many great moments in his lifetime, authoring numerous books and holding countless titles—not least among them husband, father and grandfather.
“Since his death, so many people have talked about Mike's impact as a person—alongside talking about his impact as a scholar—appreciating his humor, warmth, and generosity,” said Nakamura, co-director of the Claremont Graduate University’s Quality of Life Research Center, which Csikszentmihalyi founded. “He was the best example of the things that he studied about the life well lived.”
Csikszentmihalyi was born on Sept. 29, 1934, in Fiume, then part of the Kingdom of Italy and now known as Rijeka in Croatia. His father worked at the Hungarian Consulate in Fiume before being appointed the Hungarian ambassador to Italy shortly after World War II. When communists took over Hungary in 1949, the elder Csikszentmihalyi resigned and opened a restaurant in Rome. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dropped out of school to help support the family.
Csikszentmihalyi became curious about happiness after seeing the pain and suffering of Europeans around him during World War II. He found that many were unable to live contentedly after losing their jobs, homes, and general security during the war. The observations led him to become curious about what made life worth living, and he began to explore art, philosophy, and religion as he sought answers.