Ten insights on human well-being and potential from two giants we sadly lost in 2021: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Ed Diener

Many of us suf­fered ter­ri­ble loss­es in 2021. In the field of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy, we lost two of our most influ­en­tial schol­ars: Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi and Ed Diener. In their hon­or, I’d like to remem­ber and appre­ci­ate the con­tri­bu­tions they made to the under­stand­ing of human flourishing.

Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi was born in 1934 in what today is Hun­gary. He grew up curi­ous and spir­it­ed, but his world changed with the out­break of World War II and the insta­bil­i­ty that fol­lowed. After attend­ing a lec­ture by Carl Jung as a young adult, he left for the Unit­ed States and even­tu­al­ly land­ed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, set­ting out to under­stand why peo­ple are the way that they are.

As a stu­dent at Clare­mont Grad­u­ate Uni­ver­si­ty, I stud­ied with Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi. With Mar­tin Selig­man, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi for­mal­ized the idea of a field of study that focused on human poten­tial instead of human lim­i­ta­tions: pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy. But what I was left with after my years study­ing with him, besides immense awe at his accom­plish­ments, was his unend­ing thirst for knowledge—and how he saw his place as con­tribut­ing to ideas that could help make the world a bet­ter place.

Ed Diener grew up in very dif­fer­ent sur­round­ings, but was seem­ing­ly dri­ven by a sim­i­lar desire to under­stand the con­di­tions that help peo­ple to thrive. He was born in Glen­dale, Cal­i­for­nia, and was raised on a farm in Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia. After receiv­ing his doc­tor­ate from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton, he spent 34 years teach­ing and research­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois. In that time, he pio­neered work on sub­jec­tive well-being, the study of the ways in which peo­ple eval­u­ate their own lives.

Specif­i­cal­ly, Diener sought to under­stand what makes peo­ple hap­py. He made such strides in that pur­suit that he was nick­named Dr. Hap­pi­ness. His work has helped to under­cov­er what hap­py peo­ple tend to have in com­mon, as well as what does (and doesn’t) make peo­ple hap­py. His lega­cy con­tin­ues to be felt in the field of psy­chol­o­gy, as both his daugh­ters (Maris­sa and Mary Beth) and his son (Robert) are also psychologists.

Both Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi and Diener shift­ed our under­stand­ing of human behav­ior, and more impor­tant­ly pro­vid­ed insights about how we can be hap­pi­er and more pro­duc­tive. It is dif­fi­cult to sum­ma­rize the insights of these great thinkers, but in the spir­it of hon­or­ing their mem­o­ry, here are 10 ideas, con­cepts, and insights that they left us with.

1. Our well-being can (and should) be examined scientifically.

As founders of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi and Diener are part­ly respon­si­ble for intro­duc­ing a new way of think­ing with­in psy­cho­log­i­cal sci­ence. Before the ear­ly 2000s, psy­chol­o­gy was seen most­ly as the study of human deficits. While an impor­tant under­tak­ing, this focus on under­stand­ing and fix­ing what was wrong with peo­ple large­ly ignored what was right with peo­ple. That is, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi and Diener helped to pop­u­lar­ize the sci­en­tif­ic study of the qual­i­ties, from grat­i­tude to grit, that can help us to live our best lives.

2. Happiness is (mostly) about other people.

On the jour­ney to under­stand­ing human flour­ish­ing, one of the first ques­tions peo­ple ask is, “What makes peo­ple hap­py?” While every­one has their own opin­ions on the sub­ject, Diener was one of the first to exam­ine the evi­dence. What he found is that when you look at the 10% of indi­vid­u­als who report the great­est lev­els of hap­pi­ness, the one thing they have in com­mon is hav­ing strong ties with friends and fam­i­ly, and dis­play­ing a com­mit­ment to spend­ing time with them.

3. We should strive for flow.

Diener’s insights into hap­pi­ness inform us on what helps peo­ple feel best. Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi, mean­while, was keen to under­stand what helps indi­vid­u­als be at their best. In his study of peo­ple who excel at a craft, such as musi­cians and rock climbers, he found that their skill seemed to devel­op most when they were at the ide­al inter­sec­tion between skill and chal­lenge. This moment where they were being pushed just beyond their lim­its, which he called flow, has become a source of inspi­ra­tion for com­pa­nies, schools, and peak per­form­ers around the world.

4. Money can buy happiness…to a degree.

Every­one knows the phrase, “Mon­ey can’t buy you hap­pi­ness,” but the debate con­tin­ues to rage about its accu­ra­cy. Again, it was Diener who was able to gath­er evi­dence to help clar­i­fy and inform pub­lic per­cep­tion. He found that, in gen­er­al, wealth­i­er coun­tries did report greater lev­els of hap­pi­ness than poor­er coun­tries. And to show that this was not just coin­ci­dence, he also found that coun­tries who increased in wealth also increased in hap­pi­ness. While the debate continues—and some research claims that this is only true until an indi­vid­ual reach­es a cer­tain amount of wealth—Diener helped to show that mon­ey plays an impor­tant role in cre­at­ing con­di­tions where hap­pi­ness is more like­ly to bloom.

5. There are many parts to our well-being.

All of this empha­sis on hap­pi­ness might sug­gest that the cen­tral com­po­nent of a good life is one full of good feel­ings. But it was schol­ars like Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi and Diener who have helped to expand our under­stand­ing of well-being. Flow, for exam­ple, is not always a plea­sur­able state, as it like­ly involves strug­gle and frus­tra­tion. Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi found that this desire to push one­self often stemmed from a sense of intrin­sic moti­va­tion, which leads peo­ple to choose a more dif­fi­cult path based on a dri­ve to achieve mas­tery, not just be happy.

6. Happiness is good for your health.

While hap­pi­ness isn’t every­thing, it does have its perks. One of the most com­pelling links that Diener and his col­leagues made is that sub­jec­tive well-being seems to help peo­ple be health­i­er and live longer. This is com­pelling enough, but Diener also linked high­er sub­jec­tive well-being to high­er income, bet­ter job per­for­mance, and increased creativity.

7. We don’t like TV as much as we think we do.

While it may not make head­lines, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi also intro­duced a new way of study­ing peo­ple. His­tor­i­cal­ly, insights about people’s lives came either from small moments of obser­va­tion or sur­veys ask­ing peo­ple to remem­ber their expe­ri­ences. With expe­ri­ence sam­pling, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi and his col­leagues asked peo­ple about their lives–while they were liv­ing their lives. Through this method, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi was able to learn that while peo­ple spend a lot of their time watch­ing TV (or brows­ing the Inter­net), this is one of the least engag­ing things that we do, way behind our hob­bies and even our work.

8. It’s not just individuals, but also institutions and society, that contribute to well-being.

Read any pop psy­chol­o­gy book or blog and you will like­ly come across some form of, “You con­trol your hap­pi­ness.” While there is some truth to this, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi and Diener also strove to under­stand the role that insti­tu­tions play. Diener found that what makes you hap­py in one cul­ture may not nec­es­sar­i­ly make you hap­py in anoth­er. And Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi strove lat­er in his career to help nation’s think about how they can sup­port the well-being of their cit­i­zens, push­ing for well-being to be a stan­dard nation­al met­ric sim­i­lar to GDP.

9. Your well-being can change.

One com­mon notion with­in psy­chol­o­gy before the pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy move­ment was that indi­vid­u­als had a set hap­pi­ness point, and that this point did not change dras­ti­cal­ly. So why both­er try­ing to improve it, right? Diener helped to change that nar­ra­tive by find­ing that cer­tain sig­nif­i­cant events did in fact change well-being per­ma­nent­ly. This sug­gests that inter­ven­tions can have a last­ing impact, and has paved the way for pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gists to focus on apply­ing their research to improve the human condition.

10. It is possible to live what you learn.

It is easy to say what it takes to live a good life, but it is much more dif­fi­cult to live these ideals. Both Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi and Diener strove to do just that. They were beloved by their fam­i­lies, friends, and col­leagues, and had as pos­i­tive an impact on their per­son­al lives as they did on their pro­fes­sion­al ones. They were true exam­ples of how to prac­tice what you teach.

Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi and Ed Diener have giv­en us these insights, and so much more. They will be cher­ished and remem­bered for what they taught us and for who they were. And in remem­ber­ing, we will help their lega­cies to leave a last­ing impres­sion on what it means to live life to the fullest–just as they did.

James McConchie, Ph.D., is an applied researcher whose work lies at the inter­sec­tion between pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships, emerg­ing adult­hood, and career devel­op­ment. He lives in San Diego, Cal­i­for­nia, with his wife and three grow­ing boys. Copy­right Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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