13 Lessons Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Can Teach You


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I could never pronounce or correctly type his last name) is one of the psychologists who has had the biggest impact on me. His biggest idea is this concept of “flow” — or being in the zone. He says that “happiness” is nothing but achieving this state of “flow” — where we no longer feel anxiety, fear, or dread. Being in a state of “flow” is when we’re the most creative, excited, and invulnerable. When we’re fully-engrossed into our creative work, we lose a sense of time, hunger, and ego. We feel like all possibilities are infinite — and that we’re never going to die.

What are some practical lessons you can learn from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? Below is what I’ve learned from him, and what you can learn from him too:

1. How to get into state of flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that having a state of “flow” in life as an “optimal experience.” Those who report the most creativity and happiness in life are the ones who are in the state of “flow” as often as possible.

But how do we get into a state of flow? Below are some strategies and tips to enter “the zone”:

  1. Have concrete and manageable goals: Have a practical goal you set out to do or accomplish.
  2. Adjust opportunities to capabilities: Don’t do something that is too easy or too difficult for you.
  3. Clear information how we are doing: Getting feedback on your progress. Can be measured by others, or internally.
  4. **Screen out distraction and concentrate***: This means turning off all distractions (email, social media, internet, smartphone, mental distractions).

To get into a state of “flow” in photography, this can mean the following:

  1. Have a concrete goal in your photography: are you going to improve your composition, work on a photo project, or work on your website portfolio?
  2. Don’t bore yourself: The secret to getting into a state of “flow” in your photography is to challenge yourself enough that you’re being pushed outside of your comfort zone, but not so much that you’re feeling anxious. Avoid boredom, but avoid anxiety.
  3. Get feedback: To enter a state of flow, you can judge your progress in photography as the following. You can get immediate feedback on your photos by checking your LCD screen. You can get feedback on your photos by the emotion or sensation you feel while you’re shooting. You can get feedback on your photos by asking others what they think about your photos. You can also get feedback on your photos on social media.
  4. Don’t get distracted: When you’re taking photos in the streets, turn off your phone, don’t listen to music, and don’t think distracting thoughts. Focus on the task at hand — by turning off all distractions.

When you’re in a state of flow, you will totally forget a sense of time.

In photography, I’m often in a state of flow when I’m wandering aimlessly and shooting photos. I’m in a state of flow when I talk to my subjects, and get to know them deeper. I’m in a state of flow when I’m teaching photography, when I’m blogging about photography (like now), or when I’m selecting and choosing my best photos on my computer.

The more you get into a state of “flow”, the more creative and alive you feel.

Try to be in a state of “flow” as often as you can in your photography and life.

2. Aim for more complex experiences

In order to improve in your photography, creativity, and life — try to seek more complex experiences.

For example, don’t just take easy photos. Take photos which stretch your imagination and ability.

When it comes to life, don’t just choose an easy experience that makes you more passive (watching TV, movies). Seek experiences which expand yourself (learning a new art, sport, how to cook, or a new instrument).

In photography, seek to make more complex compositions. Seek to add more layers. Use artificial flash. Shoot in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Be a more critical self-editor of your work, and only show your best work.

In socialization, seek more complex conversations (talk about the meaning of life and philosophy, instead of sports and current events).

The more complex your experiences, the more you will grow and cherish life.

3. Blend your ego with humanity as a whole

To expand your self-consciousness and to feel more connected with humanity — blend your ego with humanity as a whole.

Which means, when you’re helping others, you’re helping yourself.

Many of us as photographers want to become “successful” by promoting our photography, our social media accounts, and our images.

However, to become “successful” — try the opposite; promote the photography and work of others. This will eventually return to yourself — helping others is helping yourself.

Detach your ego from just yourself. Know that you’re a part of humanity as a whole, and we all exist to help one another.

4. Control your own destiny

Another lesson I learned from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is that we can control our own destiny. This is what gives us a sense of freedom, excitement, and passion in life.

If we knew that life was already pre-determined— what reason would you have to work hard? To innovate? To wake up in the morning?

Know that no matter your life situation, you can always control your destiny.

You can work hard to improve your photography, you can change your lifestyle to free up more time to make photos, and you can get your photography better-known by actively promoting yourself and making the right connections.

Don’t fall into fatalism and think that everything in the world is f*cked. You can control your own destiny.

5. Creativity = crossing domains

What is “creativity” in photography?

Creativity is about crossing domains. About mixing your interests in photography with other forms of art. Mix your photography with your interests in drawing, painting, dance, theater, sculpture, or music.

The most innovative photographers are the ones who don’t start off as photographers. They’re the ones who mix other domains and interests. For example:

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: Mixed surrealism/painting/drawing with photography.
  • Sebastiao Salgado: Mixed economics/politics/social consciousness with photography.
  • Saul Letter: Mixed painting and photography.

How can you mix your photography across different domains and innovate?

6. Productivity = saying “no” to others; focusing on your own work

How do you want to become a more productive person and creative person?

Simple: learn how to say “no” to others; and knowing how to avoid distractions.

If your focus is your photography, you’re going to have to learn how to say “no.”

Do you not have enough time on the weekends to make photos, because you’re tied up with all these (superfluous) social events? Thank your friends and colleagues for an invitation— but subtly say “no.”

Say “no” to social media, blogs, and websites which distract you from your work. Say “no” to your smartphone, to emails, text messages, and over-communication.

If you don’t learn how to say “no” to others, you will never have time, focus, and energy for yourself.

7. See the world as an opportunity for challenges

If you can see the entire world as full of challenges for you to conquer, you will never be bored with life.

Boredom simply tells us that we need new challenges to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Every arena is an opportunity for creativity.

We can challenge ourselves with more complex conversations with our peers. We can challenge ourselves to make more complex art and photos. We can challenge ourselves to increase complexity to ourselves— by consuming different forms of art, music, and literature.

Avoid boredom at all costs— and always seek everything that can be a positive challenge for you.

8. Become a “transcender”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduces this concept of being a “transcender” — someone who transcends themselves in order to help others. A “transcender” has a transcendent purpose — to help all of humanity with their skills, talents, and life experiences.

When you’ve learned that you already have everything you need in life to survive— what would you use the rest of your mental energy for? How could you help empower others?

In photography, would you spend more time teaching other photographers, giving away your secrets, or by inspiring others with your images?

How can you best use your skills and abilities to help empower others? Only you have the answer.

9. Be active

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we are happiest when we are active. An “optimal experience” isn’t when we are passive and relaxed (like watching TV, or browsing the web). It is when we are actively creating. It is when we are in control of our concentration and attention.

We often gain “flow” experiences when we are partaking in sports, mountain climbing, reading a challenging book or novel, writing, taking photos, or by teaching.

Why is it that we think that true happiness and leisure is passive? Probably because society and pop culture/media tells us to “relax.” But I think true “relaxation” and leisure is doing what you love, and sets your heart on fire.

10. Live in the present; not the future

The roots of discontentment are internal. We are often dissatisfied with the present, and look forward to the future. Other times, we let our regrets from the past overwhelm us.

F*ck that. Live in the future. Nobody who lives in the present moment can be miserable.

Be totally present in each moment in life. Cherish each moment, and make the best of it.

Take control of what happens in your mind, and be active. Be creative. Don’t worry about our opinions of the actions of others. Only focus on yourself, and what you’re doing (right now) to be creative, and to transcend yourself.

What can you do right now to feel more fulfilled? Does that mean you can go out and make some photos now? Perhaps it means looking at a great photo book, and finding inspiration? Maybe it means re-arranging your portfolio? Or by starting a website or photo-book?

Focus on the now.

11. Enjoy the presence of other people

I think the two most important thing in our lives include our work and our relationship with others.

In Latin, there is a saying that to be alive is to be with other men (inter hominem esse).

Not only that, but in Latin, “death” means ‘to cease to be amongst men.’

Even more, the word “idiot” refers to a private person, who didn’t know how to learn from others.

Most of our anxieties in life happen when we are alone. When we are alone, we often think depressive thoughts. When we are with others, we feel joyful, uplifted, and our anxieties dissipate.

Francis Bacon once said: “Whoever enjoys solitude is either a wild beast or God.”

It takes mastery to enjoy our solitary time. But let us never forget, to be human is to enjoy the company of other humans.

We need to have alone time to do our creative work, and to focus on what is important to us. But at the same time, we also need to prioritize spending time with loved ones, with our local communities, and with our families.

Learn to blend the two.

For me, I dedicate the mornings and afternoons for work. Then I totally turn off my devices in the evenings, and enjoy leisurely 3-hour dinners with close friends and family.

Love the company of your fellow humankind, and love your work. This is the key to happiness.

12. Cheat reality

No matter what, there will always be shit that happens. But the secret to life is learning how to “cheat reality” — to turn every misfortune into a gift.

How can we turn adversity into an “admirable challenge?” How can we learn to see every opportunity as a chance to grow?

What is the “project” for your life? What is your “life theme” or ultimate goal? What do you find meaning in life? And how can you learn to find meaning in everything that happens in your life?

When you face suffering in life, how can you find meaningful purpose and a challenge from it?

We can’t control whether we will be insulted, whether someone will die, whether we fall into poverty, or whether we become sick. We can’t prevent misfortune from happening in our life.

However no matter what, we can always control our opinion of things. We can always control our reality by learning how to interpret reality.

If we always see everything that happens to us as a chance to grow, introspect, or evolve — what do you have to fear in life?

13. What to strive towards

If you want to never stop learning in life, follow these tips from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

  1. Enjoy life: Pleasure and happiness is constructed in our minds. If we find meaning, purpose, and blessings in every point in our life — we will enjoy life far more. Know that you need to work hard in life, but you also need to learn how to enjoy life. You can enjoy life through your social connections, through your work, and through appreciation of the small little blessings in your life.
  2. Seek complexity: Continue to follow your curiosities and interests in life. Keep developing new skills. Never stop learning and pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone.
  3. Master wisdom and spirituality: Learn what are the false lessons and “rules” that society tries to impose upon you. Study the philosophers from the past, and create your own personal life philosophy. Learn “wisdom” by learning what doesn’t lead to happiness in life (money, fame, pleasure). Learn to become more spiritual in life— to trust the universe, God, or whatever you believe in. Seek to find more gratitude in your heart, and seek to help others.
  4. Invest psychic energy into the future: You don’t just live for yourself. You live for the rest of humankind, but also the future of society. How can you work diligently in your work to help improve the lives of others in the future? What kind of legacy can you leave behind, that will make the lives of others just a little bit better? What kind of information will you produce in your life? How will you raise your children? Think about the future of humankind, and how you can put a “dent in the universe.”


If you want to learn more about the philosophy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the psychology of creativity and happiness, I highly recommend reading the book: “Flow.”

The biggest takeaway I learned from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is that “happiness” isn’t an external state of being. “Happiness” isn’t owning a lot of physical possessions, having a lot of money, or having a lot of status.

“Happiness” is being engaged in the work that you do. In the creative work that you do. In the meaningful and deep conversations you have with others. It means to be active in your life, and not a passive consumer. It means to create. It means to push your boundaries, and liberate yourself from the opinions of others and society.

Learn to transcend yourself, and dedicate your life to improving your own life and the life of others.


## Video lecture on “flow”

Ted Talk Page

Books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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