From the early days of modern psychology, researchers were enamored with the “Disease Model.” But starting in the 1950s, a new wave of psychologists who were fed up with the focus on dysfunction decided to take a different approach. They dedicated themselves to understanding what contributed to health, happiness, and peak experience. 

One of the early pioneers in the field that would later become known as Positive Psychology was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-HIGH Chick-Sent-Me-High).

Born in Hungary in 1934, Csikszentmihalyi first discovered what he’d later name the “flow” state while imprisoned as a boy in Italy in World War II. He told an interviewer: I discovered chess was a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those things didn’t matter. For hours I’d just focus within a reality that had clear rules and goals.

Years later, Csikszentmihalyi immigrated to the United States, became a psychologist, and set out to study flow, the state of optimal enjoyment in which an individual is so completely immersed in the present moment that time seems transformed and nothing else seems to matter. 

Happiness is something we make happen.

In 1990, Csikszentmihalyi finally published his seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it, he writes his central thesis: The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen. 

In other words, happiness is not a fixed state or something that passively happens to us. Happiness is something we cultivate. In his book, Csikszentmihalyi lays out many preconditions for flow: In a flow state, the activity is intrinsically motivating, the goals are clear, feedback is straightforward; the individual knows what they’re doing, believes they can succeed, and lets go of self-consciousness; distractions are minimal. 

The most important preconditions for flow, however, are that an activity’s challenge level and an individual’s skill level be well-matched and that both be high. 

Most career counselors assess your strengths because it’s obvious that if you know what you’re good at, you can more easily identify which jobs might be a good fit. What’s less obvious is that when you know what you’re good at— and what you want to become better at— you increase your chances of flow. 

Csikszentmihalyi and other flow researchers discovered that the higher the challenge and the higher the skill, the greater the likelihood that an individual will experience flow. In other words, we are more likely to experience flow and a sense of overall life fulfillment when we are exercising our strengths and playing at our learning edge.

For example, I experience flow while writing. When I first started my practice, this sense of flow was much less. I struggled to hone my craft and took several classes to improve. As my skill has improved, I’ve challenged myself to take on bigger and bigger projects, like the book I’ve been working on. For me, there’s nothing more meditative than my hour of morning writing. If my introverted writer side had her way, I’d spend way more than an hour, and some days, I do.

The artists, athletes and other high-achievers who frequently experience flow have something else in common: A commitment to continuously cultivating their craft.

In addition to understanding happiness, many Positive Psychology researchers devoted themselves to understanding motivation, and as Daniel Pink lays out in his book on intrinsic motivation, Drive, one of the most conclusive findings is that “mastery” is central to motivation. 

Pink defines mastery as the desire to get better at something that matters. Being on a path of mastery is not just about being great at something. It’s about being passionately committed to becoming greater, no matter where you currently are on the path. It’s about cultivating your craft not only because you want to succeed, but because you love to learn. George Leonard describes this mindset beautifully in his book, Mastery: And if the traveler is fortunate—that is, if the path is complex and profound enough—the destination is two miles farther away for every mile he or she travels.

When you know what you’re good at and what you want to become even better at, you have an easier time staying motivated, focused, and fulfilled.

Let’s bring this psychology lesson back to your reality, shall we?

To do so, I invite you to grab a piece of paper and a pen. Then get comfortable and ready to reflect. Set a timer and give yourself three minutes to free write on each of the following questions. Write without censoring yourself and keep your hand moving, stopping only when the timer goes off:

  • When in my life have I felt so wholly immersed in the moment that time seemed transformed and nothing else seemed to matter? Your response can include activities you’ve engaged in recently, a long time ago, or both.
  • What big challenges do I have the big skills to match? Which big challenges am I excited to develop the big skills to match?
  • What skills or areas of expertise do I long to cultivate or continue cultivating?

When you’re complete, look over your list and notice key threads. 

As you go through your week, I invite you to stay curious about how you might weave these threads into your life— not expecting yourself to immediately “master” the flow state, but rather, approaching happiness as a craft you can continuously cultivate, baby step by baby step.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Much love,

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