Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi on How to Create a Happy Life

I was at a business conference a while ago and I was surprised at the number of people who said they wanted to create businesses around helping people create happiness. So I did a Google search of the term “happiness” and what came up was an outstanding 557 million results in 85 seconds! So happiness is something that’s on people’s minds. 

But what is happiness and how do we achieve it? One of the ways that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness is as a state of well-being and contentment, or  joy.

​Key Takeaway

They key to sustained happiness is creating a life of flow. Flow means being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter and the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. To create a life of flow, we need a compelling life goal that will link all of our activities and interests into a unified goal. This could be as large a finding a cure for cancer, or simply raising healthy children who prosper. A life of flow is achievable by us all.

There are simple lifestyle changes that we can make to reduce our risk of dementia and disability in later life. These include managing blood pressure controlling cholesterol, keeping blood sugar normal, getting physically active, eating a healthy diet, losing extra weight, quitting smoking, maintaining social relationships, and managing depression and hearing loss.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has been studying happiness for over 40 years. He started by asking the question “what makes people happy” and surveyed a large number of people in a wide variety of occupations, from artists and chess players to business leaders, and from ordinary people to the elite.

Flow is the key to happiness

From his research, he found that what makes people happy is “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter and the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” He called this experience of total, joyous immersion “flow.” Flow is central to peak performance and quality of life. It enhances people’s creativity and productivity, corporate performance, and even shareholder value. It is the key to happiness and is achievable by anyone

In this article, I want to focus on creating a life of flow, or as Csikszentmihalyi calls it, an autotelic life. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) wrote that his studies “have suggested that happiness depends on whether a person is able to derive flow from whatever he or she does” and even goes as far as to term flow “the bottom line of existence (because) without it there would be little purpose in living”. He states that happiness is derived from personal development and growth—and flow situations (i.e., situations in which we are faced with challenges that can be handled) permit us to grow.

Csikszentmihalyi (1990) believes that one can create a life of flow. He describes Joe Kramer, a welder in a railroad company. Joe was working in the plant for 30 years and had declined several promotions because he was happy being a welder. Everyone agreed that he was the most important person in the company. Why? Because he learned every job and was able to take anyone’s place if required. He could fix any broken piece of equipment, from huge mechanical cranes to tiny electronic monitors.

Change constraints into opportunities for expressing freedom and creativity

What astounded people most was that Joe not only could perform these tasks, but actually enjoyed it. He had a fascination with discovery. At home, he built intricate gardens, and invented and built small gadgets for his garden: One of the things he built was a sprinkler that produced a rainbow. His work at the railroad company was hard and unglamorous but he transformed his job into a complex activity. He did this by recognizing opportunities for action where others did not, by developing skills, by focusing on the activity at hand, and allowing himself to be lost in the interaction.

Joe made his job enjoyable by changing constraints into opportunities for expressing freedom and creativity. Csikszentmihalyi identifies another way to make your job more enjoyable: Making it resemble a game - with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback.

Four rules

He describes four rules for creating the autotelic self: 1) Set goals to strive for, recognize challenges, and identify skills you need to reach your goals; 2) Become immersed in the activity; 3) Pay attention to what is happening rather than worrying about how you're doing; 4) Learn to enjoy immediate experience: This allows us to enjoy those small things that enrich our lives, such as watching a child play with a puppy, or listening to the first song of a cardinal signalling that spring has arrived.

And even if you’ve achieved flow in one activity, it does not necessarily guarantee that it will carry over to the rest of your life. A workaholic, for example, may achieve flow at work, but his family life may be failing. Even if we enjoyed work and friendships, and faced every challenge as an opportunity to develop skills, this would not be enough to ensure optimal experience. As long as the enjoyment from activities are not linked to one another in a meaningful way, we are still vulnerable to the unpredictability of life. What we need is to turn all of life into a unified flow experience. 

Create a goal that is compelling enough to order a lifetime's worth of psychic energy.

“If we set out to achieve a compelling goal, from which all other goals logically follow, and if we invest all our energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then our actions and feelings will be in harmony, and the separate parts of our life will fit together - and each activity will make sense in the present, as well as in view of the past and the future. In this way, we can give meaning to our entire life.”

It doesn’t matter what that goal is provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime’s worth of psychic energy. It could be finding a cure for cancer, or simply to raise children who will survive and prosper.

I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired to create a life of flow.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.

Photo by Luca Upper on Unsplash

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