What is happiness and how can we hope to achieve it? That is I suppose one of life’s Big Questions and one that we spend most of our lives trying to work out for ourselves! But I think that the work of American Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who I have mentioned in my previous blog, gives us a good understanding – or at least some useful pointers. 

Happiness and flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s name is most linked to the study of FLOW, a highly focussed mental state that he says leads to happiness. He says that “Flow is the process of achieving happiness through control over one’s inner life. The optimal state of inner experience is order in consciousness. This happens when we focus our attention on realistic goals and when our skills match the challenges we face.” 

Being “in the zone”

Another way of describing flow is being “in the zone”. It is a feeling we have all experienced at times, perhaps during exercise or when we are involved in a hobby or pastime that we really love. Flow allows us to take our attention away from ourselves and focusing it on the environment while maintaining confidence in our ability to cope.  We get completely absorbed in the activity at hand and the situation – to such as extent that nothing else seems to matter. 

Similar to Viktor Frankl who I mentioned in my previous blogs on managing uncertainty, Csikszentmihalyi faced considerable hardship growing up. He was a prisoner during World War II, and witnessed the pain and suffering of the people around him during this time. After the war, he took an interest in art, philosophy, and religion as a way to answer the question, “What creates a life worth living?” 

An internal not an external state

His studies led him to conclude that happiness is an internal state of being, not an external one.  And that happiness levels can be shifted by getting into flow. He argued that happiness is not a rigid, unchanging state,  and takes a committed effort. So, to some extent, it is under our control. Through research, Csikszentmihalyi began to understand that people were their most creative, productive, and happy when they are in a state of flow. He interviewed athletes, musicians, and artists because he wanted to know when they experienced optimal performance levels and how they felt during these experiences. In these states, people told him, their work simply flowed out of them without much effort.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (1990).

Flow and connection

Research has shown that if we take part in activities in groups rather than in a solitary way, we are more likely to experience flow. Charles Walker psychologist, in 2010 carried out research on students and found that they rated flow to be more enjoyable when in a team rather than when they were alone. Students also found it more beneficial if the team members were able to talk to one another. 

Motivation and flow

There are two basic motivation types: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is when you do something because you love it and is more likely to result in a state of flow and thus, happiness. Csikszentmihalyi said the highest intrinsic motivation is a flow state where self-consciousness is lost, one surrenders completely to the moment, and time means nothing. Think of a musician playing without thinking, or a surfer riding a great wave.

Extrinsic motivation is when your motivation to succeed is controlled externally. That includes doing something to avoid getting into trouble or working hard to earn more money. That type of motivation is short-lived and less likely to result in flow.

Here is a link to a TEDtalk given by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 


Charles Walker reference:


Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!


See also: A State of FlowGrit, How to Develop Grit