Humanism and the Science of Happiness
A Talk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi- the Father of 'Flow'
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi garnered wide attention with his bestselling 1990 book,
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in which he argued that the most rewarding happiness lies in the skillful performance of meaningful work that fully occupies one's attention.
He has emerged as one of the leading figures in the growing positive-psychology movement.
Free Inquiry's Associate Editor Nathan Bupp questioned Csikszentmihalyi about positive psychology and his own insights.
Free Inquiry: In your opinion, what are some of the most valuable insights to emerge out of the "science-of-happiness" field?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Personally, I have been most impressed by the effects of the "gratitude intervention" that Martin Seligman has devised, which apparently has a lasting effect in raising people's happiness. Basically, volunteers are assigned randomly to various "interventions," and their happiness is assessed before and after.
This method is almost identical to the double-blind, random-assignment experiments used by pharmaceutical companies to assess whether a new drug is effective. In the gratitude intervention, people are asked to think about a person who was kind or helpful to them but has never been thanked for it.
Then the volunteer is supposed to write a one-page letter of thanks, make an appointment with the target person, and read the letter in his or her presence. The volunteers who are randomly assigned to do this task show significant increases in happiness half a year after completing it. Other interventions based on positive psychology experiments also show impressive results, but this appears to be the most effective.
FI: How can we educate our emotions? What is your view on "emotional intelligence?" Is it a valuable construct?
Csikszentmihalyi: I am not sure that educating the emotions alone should be a main goal. From Castiglione's courtier to Dale Carnegie, there have been many good prescriptions for how to achieve emotional education, but it seems to me one needs to ask a more fundamental question: how do we develop character?
FI: Can there be a genuine science of happiness that is entirely distinct from pharmaceutical intervention?
Csikszentmihalyi: I certainly hope so. Drugs can do neat things, but I doubt any state of consciousness worthy of the label "happiness" can be induced by them-except in temporary bursts that do not have long-lasting effects. Think Soma or opium. Drugs can modify behavior and get us to strive for goals, but they cannot indicate what behaviors and goals are more likely to lead to happiness. Whether the nonpharmaceutical study of behaviors and goals that may lead to happiness will ever become a science is, of course, still uncertain, but it's worth pursuing, isn't it?
FI: What-and who-were some of the philosophical precursors to your concept of "flow?"
Csikszentmihalyi: I was influenced by some graduate courses on Husserl and Heidegger that made me take seriously the phenomenological approach, which I have tried to make more systematic in my own research.
Also, Abraham Maslow's concept of "peak experience" was influential, and it resonated with my experience in playing chess and in rock climbing.
After I started writing about flow, I came across a huge amount of material from Hindu and Chinese sources that indicated that similar ideas have a long history in other cultures as well.
FI: In your book, The Evolving Self, you talk about the need to see through the "Veils of Maya," those mental blinders that the self, culture, and our genes impose on us.
Secular humanists have talked a lot about the need for the cultivation of critical thinking in the public at large.
Is there an inherent need in humans to harbor a certain amount of "positive illusions?" What does the science of happiness have to say about this?
Csikszentmihalyi: Yes, the importance of "positive illusions" as an anchor for morale has been recognized for a long time, by observers ranging from Karl Marx to Vilfredo Pareto to Sigmund Freud. Of course, what is real and what is illusory is not always clear.
Current research shows that people who take a positive view of things (and thus might be seen to suffer from illusions) have a better chance of changing their external circumstances, which is to say, their reality.
FI: Are the conclusions flowing from the "science-of-happiness" research humanistic?
Csikszentmihalyi: I do think so. I know that some colleagues who identify themselves as "humanistic psychologists" would say no, as an understandable reaction to the reductionistic, simple-minded application of the scientific method to psychology, especially by workers in the generation from 1950 to 1980. But in my opinion, banning science from human affairs is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
FI: What role or roles can classical conceptions of the good life-such as those of Epicurus, Aristotle, and Spinoza-play in a modern, scientifically advanced world?
Csikszentmihalyi: I am firmly on the side of science, but not to the extent of assuming that because we live in a modern (or postmodern) world we are actually in every respect wiser, or even more thoughtful, than people who lived a few millennia ago. I assume that when we can't learn anything new from Aristotle et al., we will stop reading them. At this point, that does not seem likely.
FI: Has science killed the "soul"-metaphorically speaking?
Csikszentmihalyi: Many people who speak of the "soul" do so in a somewhat narcissistic, romantic way-they mean by it something unique to them, mysterious, perhaps God-given. I like to think of it as something we create by investing our psychic energy in goals that benefit entities outside ourselves. The Romans' term for this was magnanimus, the root of our magnanimous, from the Latin magna (great) and anima (soul); the Hindus strung the same concepts together in their title mahatma, which is given to people like Gandhi. In this sense, science is not inherently inimical to the soul-on the contrary.
FI: In a naturalistic world-devoid of religion-can a creative blend of the humanities and the sciences lead to an ultimately more fulfilling and absorbing life?
Csikszentmihalyi: It had better be possible, or things will not go too well for our species. Such a "blend" will require enormous creativity-but I do think that, as time goes on, its inevitability will become increasingly obvious.
FI: We have often heard about philosophical wisdom. Can there be a genuine science of wisdom, a scientific wisdom?
Csikszentmihalyi: German psychologist Paul Baltes and the American psychologist Robert Sternberg have started systematic studies of happiness-the approach is still in its infancy, but again, I'd say it's worth pursuing.
FI: Americans seem to be caught up in a primarily materialistic conception of happiness-the "hedonic treadmill," as it is sometimes called. Is this written in our genes?
Csikszentmihalyi: I think there is a strong genetic component in this need for possessions. After all, our ancestors living in conditions of scarcity must have been selected for the ability to secure material resources-tools, food, domestic animals, and the like. It's hard to escape from the results of hundreds of generations of natural selection. The question is whether now that we are becoming aware of the fact that we are the main selective force on the planet, will we be able to apply brakes to this greed for ever more stuff?
FI: Is the situation similar in Europe?
Csikszentmihalyi: I think Europe has been to some extent sobered up by how close the West came to annihilation during World War II, and so there is some hope for a new global contract to emerge from there. But of course, greed has been at home in Europe for a long time-just as it has been in China and everywhere else.
FI: In The Evolving Self, you say early on that "at this point in history it should be possible for an individual to build a self that is a conscious, personal creation-not just an outcome of biological drives." What tools do we have at our disposal to help make this so?
Csikszentmihalyi: We have more freedom, more free time, more knowledge, and fewer cultural pressures than at virtually any other time in the past-at least we have the potential for these. While most of these precious resources are ignored or being wasted, the potential for taking control of one's consciousness seems much greater than it has ever been. Perhaps we need a real scare to make us take our task seriously-global warming? Avian flu? George W. Bush?
FI: Is frustration and a vague sense of discontent the price we pay for being human? In other words, are humans victims of their own biological design?
Csikszentmihalyi: I do think that the price we pay for our large brain, which frees us from being completely programmed by genetic instructions, is that, too often, we act in ways that have not passed the muster of natural selection. Instead of adding value to our lives, these acts can detract from it. Of course, the independence of our brains from past instructions has a potentially enormous upside too-the freedom to create completely new ways of being. A dangerous tool, this big brain, but it can be lots of fun.
FI: You have said that you "have a na•ve trust in the universe--that at some level it all makes sense, and we can get glimpses of that sense if we try." Can you explain further?
Csikszentmihalyi: Well, I suppose it's a variation on Pascal's wager-the idea that since we don't know whether there is some meaning in existence or not, we are better off believing in it than not believing. After all, realizing that, despite its size, my brain allows me only a pitifully minuscule glimpse of reality makes me humble about what I don't know. Perhaps there is a rhyme to the music of the spheres after all. And sometimes, one definitely gets that impression-perhaps only a small intimation, but enough to keep hope alive.
FI: Philosophers have often drawn distinctions between a life of contemplation and the life of action.
From the standpoint of the science of happiness, can one be seen to be more fulfilling than the other, or is it the better part of wisdom to attempt to forge a synthesis of both?
Csikszentmihalyi: I was very impressed by Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition and her analysis of the vita contemplativa versus the vita activa-so much so that I can say nothing on the topic that is original.
In my work, I have suggested that the best solution is a synthesis-but saying that is the easy way out, isn't it?
Council for Secular Humanism