Vest in Life

Vest in Life

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s now 30-year-old essay on achieving flow and awareness remains timeless and current.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, gained fame and an international reputation from the central concept in this book. In this seminal, influential, perennially best-selling treatise, Csikszentmihalyi captures one of the deepest personal needs of contemporary people: making progress in their quest for harmony or, in his crystal-clear term, achieving flow.

Professor Csikszentmihalyi’s research-based essay on the nature of human consciousness and the obstacles people put in its path, first appeared, incredibly, in 1990 – but his presentation reads as if it were written tomorrow.

Csikszentmihalyi, the Davidson Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker School of Management and director of its Quality of Life Research Center, cites current trends in self-obsession, self-healing and the search for transcendence. Attitude is everything, according to his insightful depiction of the path to harmony.

Three decades ago, he recognized that folks want to feel better about themselves and always have. The most daunting obstacle, the author reveals, is what goes on in your head.

We do not understand what happiness is any better than Aristotle did, and as for learning how to attain that blessed condition, one could argue that we have made no progress at all.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Newsweek wrote that Csikszentmihalyi “rethinks what motivates people.” You might be amused to read The New York Review of Books 30-year-old summary: “Flow is important….The way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful challenge.” This notion has become such a part of common wisdom that today few would bother stating it aloud.


Csikszentmihalyi assures you that your internal balance, strength and adaptability can enable you to cope with most struggles, including distracted or self-destructive inner voices and their outer manifestations. As he stresses in his introduction, Flow isn’t a guide to achieving happiness. It’s a description of how people attain flow, itself – deep, concentrated and pleasurable immersion in an activity – and the mental, emotional and physical methods they employed.

Integrity of the Self

Eventually, Csikszentmihalyi says flat out, no matter your wealth, health, fame or satisfaction, life won’t play out the way you want. Disappointment, frustration and tragedy are universal. Your integrity derives from your ability to turn harmful chance into a positive way forward. You can’t transform negative events through denial, regression, drugs or alcohol, though you may try – and try again. Csikszentmihalyi insists that, instead, you need courage, resilience, perseverance and self-aware coping. 

How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depend directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences. Whether we are happy depends on inner harmony, not on the controls we are able to exert over the great forces of the universe.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The author believes that if you grow up with familial love and a strong community, your coping skills will flourish. If not, they may wither. If you can cope, you may still feel crushing sadness, but, he discloses, it shouldn’t warp your fundamental view of the world or your identity. 

Unselfconscious Self-assurance

Csikszentmihalyi cites unselfconscious self-assurance as a tool for turning desperate moments into a positive flow activity. He discusses studies revealing that people who successfully coped with unimaginable stress – for example, those marooned in the Arctic or imprisoned in a concentration camp – never doubted that they controlled their own destinies. 

Surprisingly, given his academic credentials and bottomless research, Csikszentmihalyi’s anonymous case studies, while evocative, turn out to be less compelling than his personal insights. 


If you constantly look inward and value inner experience over engaging the world, Csikszentmihalyi teaches, your ego will leech away your precious psychic energy. Simply put, he believes the less you think about yourself, the greater your resilience. The author argues that if you examine and process your feelings when under threat or experiencing trauma, you will cope poorly. Life doesn’t stop, Csikszentmihalyi asserts, so you must engage.

An individual can experience only so much. Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and quality of life.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The author emphasizes that every situation, no matter how tragic, offers growth potential, and he encourages you to open yourself to unexpected opportunities. He suggests exercises you can use to expand your outlook and your ability to synthesize discord into harmony. For instance, he recommends setting goals to gain control over your life, vesting in whatever you do – even washing dishes – by concentrating on every task and savoring each moment of your life.

Csikszentmihalyi’s other works, all profound yet readable studies of psychological conditions relating to creativity, include Beyond Boredom and Anxiety; Creativity and – as co-author – The Creative Vision; The Meaning of Things; and Being Adolescent. Other enriching works on achieving transcendental states of performance include Steven Kotler’s The Art of Impossible and James Clear’s Atomic Habits.


Csikszentmihalyi seems to have – 30 years ago – unintentionally launched the industrialization and mass marketing of many contemporary self-reflective industries: martial arts, meditation, anger management, fulfillment classes, mindfulness, and so on. He lyrically, soberly dissects ideal states of psychological and spiritual harmony with an academic’s eye for detail and a poet’s understanding of human foibles.

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