Growing up in World War Two-ravaged Europe, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi saw the adults around him struggling to rebuild their lives – and often losing the will to try. He became preoccupied by a question that doesn’t trouble most kids: what makes life worth living?
Csikszentmihalyi moved from Hungary to the US to study psychology and the question that had obsessed him since childhood.
He wondered how wealth fit into the happiness equation, but the data suggested money wasn’t the answer; beyond a certain, basic threshold, increases in income hardly affected well-being. So, as he recounted in a TED talk enticingly subtitled The Secret to Happiness, he decided to explore “where in everyday life, in our normal experience, do we feel really happy?”.
Csikszentmihalyi thought that creatives – artists, painters, musicians – might have some insight. There must be some reason why they toiled away at projects unlikely to yield fame or fortune. Did something about their process bring them fulfilment? What made their sacrifice worthwhile? One composer told Csikszentmihalyi how, when his work was going well, he experienced a kind of ecstasy. He didn’t need to think, he lost track of time and the music would “just flow out”. Csikszentmihalyi heard athletes, poets, chess players describe the same phenomenon.