Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, native form is Csíkszentmihályi Mihály

Hungarian Psychology Professor, Author, Head of Department of Psychology at University of Chicago and Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, known for seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

"We normally allow a whole series of illusions to stand between ourselves and reality. Built out of genetic instructions, cultural rules, and the unbridled desires of the self, these distortions are comforting, yet they need to be seen through for the self to be truly liberated."

"We generally prefer our illusions to reality, even though the illusions may lead to tragic consequences... How much of our psychic energy is channeled away by those who drain our lives to enrich theirs."

"There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life. The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better. For instance, feeling secure is an important component of happiness... risks are inevitable."

"The thoughts we think of and the things we make are under our control, that we can manipulate them at will. The evidence seems to suggest the contrary. The information we generate has a life of its own, and its existence is sometimes symbiotic, sometimes parasitic, relative to ours.... It doesn’t seem that memes are any more dependent on their environment than we are."

"The more the self becomes identified with external objects, the more vulnerable it becomes."

"The realization that many of our actions are not of our choosing is the first step toward the development of a more authentic, more genuinely individual agenda."

"The greatest threats to human survival will not be natural ones, but originate from inside ourselves.. For our ancestors, understanding themselves better was a pleasant luxury. But nowadays learning to control the mind may have become a greater priority for survival than seeking any further advantages the hard sciences could bring."

"Science could not survive without a community sharing scientific values. Moral systems do not continue unless individuals subscribe to a common set of ethics. Values are so ephemeral that they require the joining psychic input of a group to retain their hold on each person’s attention. They may be created by individuals, but they must be maintained by the collectivity."

"Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge."

"It is important for each person to recognize that the values, rules, habits, and attitudes we inherit are useful and necessary, but are not absolute."

"Freedom without responsibility is destructive, unity without individual initiative stifling, and equality that does not recognize differences is demoralizing."

"Moral codes have become necessary because evolution, in liberating humankind from complete dependence on instincts, has also made it possible for us to act with malice that no organism ruled by instincts alone could possess."

"But repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished. They become rigid and defensive, and their self stops growing. Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed, and still kept within the bounds of reason. If a person learns to control his instinctual desires, not because he has to, but because he wants to, he can enjoy himself without becoming addicted."

"Every product of technology takes up space in the mind, and requires some investment of attention that could have been used for some other purpose."

"We should not surrender to the cliché that the quality of life has been much better in the past, and is just recently growing worse... One solution is simply to improve one’s own self, and work toward a better society within existing institutions"

"A person is unlikely to take risks and work for the common good unless he or she believes that it will make a difference... The idea of free will is s self-fulfilling prophecy; those who abide by it are liberated from the absolute determinism of external forces."

"Each of us has this freedom to control our subjective reality."

"A good society makes it possible for each person to develop the skills necessary to experience flow in socially productive activities. At the same time, it guards against anyone’s exploiting the psychic energy of another person for his or her own advantage. There is a constant watch for oppressors and parasites. According to this perspective, freedom does not apply to doing, but to being."

"Education takes place in the whole community. It is in the malls, the highways, the media, and their parents’ lifestyles that give young people their clearest ideas of what reality is about"

"Evolution is the result of competition between organisms for the energy required for survival... If there is any meaning to the past, it is to be found in the increase in the complexity of material structures and information over time"

"Action and reflection should ideally complement and support each other. Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent."

"Great thinkers have always been motivated by the enjoyment of thinking rather than by the material rewards that could be gained by it."

"From the point of view of an individual, it does not matter what the ultimate goal is - provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime's worth of psychic energy... As long as it provides clear objectives, clear rules for action, and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can serve to give meaning to a person's life."

"Harmony is usually achieved by evolutionary changes involving an increase in an organism’s complexity, that is, an increase in both differentiation and integration. (Differentiation refers to the degree to which a system (i.e., an organ such as the brain, or an individual, a family, a corporation, a culture, or humanity as a whole) is composed of parts that differ in structure or function from one another. Integration refers to the extent to which the parts communicate and enhance one another’s goals. A system that is more differentiated and integrated than another is said to be more complex.)"

"History is taught with little regard to the ecology, the economics, the sociology or psychology - let alone the biology - that are necessary to understand human action. The same is true of all other academic subjects. Yet if we continue to teach physics separately from ethics, or molecular biology without concern for empathy, the chances of a monstrous evolutionary miscarriage are going to increase. To avoid these possibilities, it is imperative to begin thinking about a truly integrative, global education that takes seriously the actual interconnectedness of causes and effects."

"Just as we have learned to separate ourselves from each other and from the environment, we now need to learn how to reunite ourselves with other entities around us without losing our hard-won individuality. The most promising faith for the future might be based on the realization that the entire universe is a system related by common laws and that it makes no sense to impose our dreams and desires on nature without taking them into account. Recognizing the limitations of human will, accepting a cooperative rather than a ruling role in the universe, we should feel the relief of the exile who is finally returning home. The problem of meaning will then be resolved as the individual's purpose merges with the universal flow."

"Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience."

"The meaning of life is meaning: whatever it is, wherever it comes form, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life."

"Purpose, resolution and harmony unify life and give it meaning by transforming it into a seamless flow experience. Whoever achieves this state will never really lack anything else. A person whose consciousness is so ordered need not fear unexpected events, or even death. Every living moment will make sense, and most of it will be enjoyable."

"No matter how much we strive to understand, ultimate reality will always remain hidden? Only if the search for truth is motivated by the desire to reach an absolute answer. The person looking for certainty is bound to be disappointed... If on the other hand we realize that the partial truths we uncover are all legitimate aspects of the unknowable universe, then we can learn to enjoy the search and derive from it the pleasure one gets from any creative act... One must painstakingly match one’s preconceptions against actual, ongoing experience to begin separating truth from illusion."

"The paradox of rising expectations suggests that improving the quality of life might be an insurmountable task. In fact, there is not inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chance of contentment."

"One difficulty about achieving social improvement is that we tend to uncritically regard any advance in either differentiation or in integration as a good thing. If a new law increases freedom, it must be progress, as is a new movement that fosters the feeling of solidarity among people. yet neither of these programs is likely to improve matters without the complementary contribution of the other. Complexity requires the synergy of these dialectically opposed force; a gain in only one is likely to promote confusion and chaos. We think of social entropy as being caused by a loss of liberty or a loss of common values; but gains in either at the expense of its complement are just as dangerous."

"There are two opposite tendencies in evolution: changes that lead toward harmony (i.e., the ability to obtain energy through cooperation, and through the utilization of unused or wasted energy); and those that lead toward entropy (or ways of obtaining energy for one’s purposes through exploiting other organisms, thereby causing conflict and disorder.)"

"The merging of action and awareness is made possible by centering attention on a limited stimulus field. To insure that people will concentrate on their actions, potentially intruding stimuli must be kept out of attention. Some writers [such as Abraham Maslow] have called this process a "narrowing of consciousness" or "a giving up of the past and the future.""

"When attention is not focused on a goal, the mind typically begins to be filled by disjointed and depressing thoughts. The normal condition of the mind is chaos. Only when involved in a goal-directed activity does it acquire order and positive moods... Boredom directs us to seek new challenges, while anxiety urges us to develop new skills; the net result is that, in order to avoid such negative feelings, a person is forded to grow in complexity."

"While freedom and equality can be legislated, brotherhood cannot. Neighborly love is a spontaneous feeling that can be affected by external information, but cannot be controlled from the outside."

"It is not a circular motion that returns to where one started, but rather, it resembles an ascending spiral, where concern for the self becomes steadily qualified by less selfish goals and concern for others becomes ore individualistic and personally meaningful."

""Flow" denotes the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement."

"You don’t get much out of the passive consumption of pleasure, compared to enjoyment that is active, creative, and self-directive."

"In the lives of many people it is possible to find a unifying purpose that justifies the things they do day in, day out – a goal that like a magnetic field attracts their psychic energy, a goal upon which all lesser goals depend… Without such a purpose, even the best-ordered consciousness lacks meaning."

"Almost any description of the creative experiential accounts which are in important respects analogous with those obtained from people at play."

"As long as we respond predictably to what feels good and what feels bad, it is easy for others to exploit our preferences for their own ends."

"If one has failed to develop curiosity and interest in the early years, it is a good idea to acquire them now, before it is too late to improve the quality of life. To do so is fairly easy in principle, but more difficult in practice. Yet it is sure worth trying. The first step is to develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention, with skill rather than inertia. Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art. The next step is to transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks that we don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems too much trouble. There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don’t become actually interesting until we devote attention to them."

"A self that is only differentiated - not integrated - may attain great individual accomplishments, but risks being mired in self-centered egotism. By the same token, a person who self is based exclusively on integration will be well connected and secure, but lack autonomous individuality. Only when a person invests equal amounts of psychic energy in these two processes and avoids both selfishness and conformity is the self likely to relect complexity."

"A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe."

"Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos…when we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic order of the mind reveals itself…Entropy is the normal state of consciousness—a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable. "

"It does not seem to be true that work necessarily needs to be unpleasant. It may always have to be hard, or at least harder than doing nothing at all. But there is ample evidence that work can be enjoyable, and that indeed, it is often the most enjoyable part of life."

"People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy."

"It is how people respond to stress that determines whether they will profit from misfortune or be miserable."

"People without an internalized symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media."