Mark Craemer No Comments

Nearly one-third of our waking lives are spent on the job, so it seems worthwhile to consider whether or not we can find happiness there. Some would argue work can never make us happy, otherwise it wouldn’t be called work.

Other people seem to enjoy their work immeasurably and not just professional athletes or celebrities. We can all think of people in our own workplace who seem to love what they do for a living. Why is that? And why don’t more of us find this sense of joy in our jobs?

The leading researcher on positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-SENT-me-high”), says the key is first ensuring the relevant elements are in place in order to produce a sense of flow. Flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is “completely focused motivation.” In flow emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.

Much of daily life is caught up with a lack of focus and attention. This inattention makes us constantly bounce between the anxiety and pressures of our obligations and, during leisure moments, we tend to live in passive boredom.

Flow is present when people describe a feeling of effortless action in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes report of “being in the zone.” Flow is when we immerse ourselves into something and lose all sense of time.

We can certainly find happiness without being in flow. In fact, happiness is typically not reported during flow states, but only after the task is completed. That’s because to experience happiness, you must focus on your inner state, and this takes attention away from the task at hand where flow is found.

Happiness in general is vulnerable because it is dependent on favorable external stimulus; for example, time spent with another person or relaxing in a comfortable setting. The happiness that follows flow, however, is of our own making and can lead to increasing complexity and growth in our consciousness.

The key to finding flow in the workplace is to challenge oneself with tasks that require a high degree of skill and commitment. Finding flow means learning the joy of complete engagement.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow in the workplace requires:

  • clear goals
  • immediate and unambiguous feedback
  • challenges that match the worker’s skills
  • a sense of control
  • few distractions
  • intrinsic motivation
  • feeling a part of something larger than the self

Employee engagement requires many of these same elements to be present. Employers need to ensure goals are clear, provide regular feedback, match challenges and skills, and remove distractions. Employees have responsibility as well and need to help cultivate the intrinsic motivation and feel a part of something larger than them selves. The sense of control, I believe, is a shared element between employer and employee.

Optimal experiences typically involve a fine balance between one’s ability to act and the available opportunities for action. In the workplace, this requires clear communication and a great deal of trust between employers and employees.

Flow is found directly between arousal on the one side and control on the other. In order to reach flow from a state of arousal, a little more skill may be necessary. And reaching flow from a control state may require a bit more challenges.

If challenges are too high, however, you can get frustrated, worried and anxious. If challenges are too low relative to one’s skills, you can become relaxed and bored. When both challenges and skills are perceived low, you may feel apathetic. On the other hand, when both challenges and skills are high, flow is most likely to occur.

“When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind,” says Csikszentmihalyi, “whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own.”

What about you? Do you feel moments of flow in your work? If not, what are the specific missing elements and what can you do to help bring them into your work so flow is possible?

The question of how to find happiness in our jobs perhaps should be revised: how can we help create full engagement in our jobs so that we can feel happier in our lives?

Mark Craemer

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