Monday, June 2, 2014

Before I go: Meeting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


I left Dear Boy mid ice-cream treat on Saturday night and bolted to the airport for a late flight to Newcastle. "Be a good boy for Daddy and Uncle X and I'll see you tomorrow. Mummy's got to go on a plane for some work". I had to go on a plane, I really did, but not for work. I flew off to meet Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ("call me Mike") who was in Australia briefly with his wife for a conference. Through the magic of family and colleagues I got to attend a special lunch with him in the Hunter Valley.

I spent many years reading his work on creativity: reading it, applying it, using it, talking about it. I added several extra letters after my name and a big fat 'Dr' before it because of him. And although I had 'meet Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi' on my Before I Go list, I was quaking in my boots at the thought of actually doing it. It felt like an audience with the pope. Or as one of the lunch guests put it, as if his supervisor had called and asked if he wanted to have lunch with Eric Clapton. A table full of academics, of doctors, and we were meeting our superstar, bursting to take photos and ask him to sign copies of his books, but too nervous to say so.

This is, of course, entirely geeky by nature. Academics generally are. But Csikszentmihalyi is one of those special individuals that probably translates well to the general public. His TED talk (above) on his concept of flow sketches some some of his early years that led him towards the work he does: Hungarian born and then interned in an Italian prison camp as a child during the war, watching the adults and how some survived and other buckled; a poor young man's holiday in Austria and stumbling upon a public lecture on flying saucers... by Carl Jung; flow and optimal experience; theories of creativity and now... happiness. He researches happiness.

Most psychologists focus their work on the mind that is dysfunctional, on the illnesses or issues that lead the mind from its normal path. Csikszentmihalyi investigates what it takes to experience a happy life.


His European accent muted by almost sixty years of life in the United States was captivating in person. He was quiet and calm and asked thoughtful questions. He remembered my beautiful friend's PhD thesis amongst dozens probably hundreds that he'd marked. He told us of his current work on happiness and some of the trips he's taken because of it: to South Korea where an electronics company increased their profits by several billion and to Sweden where a small family run company doing important work for the country became profiable for the first time in their history, all after applying his concept of flow and happiness to their management techniques (although it's not a management technique). Happy workers, workers who experience a sense of flow in their day to day lives, are productive workers, more innovative workers. It seems like such a common sense notion but one that's rarely considered by big business.

Now his research is focusing on older generations and their happiness. Where so much is done on developmental psychology with young people, older people are ignored. As a neglected portion of society, they are in essence a wasted resource. We ignore their experience, their knowledge, their potential for innovation, their happiness, to our detriment as a society. This is not research to support raising the retirement age further or to cut pensions, but research that aims to extend happiness across the full length and breadth of one's life.

I met Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. And although I now get to check this off my list, I hope I get to meet him again. And again.

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