Happy at work
If a large part of our lives are spent at work, why is our happiness at work more likely to be viewed as a lucky outcome rather than an enduring prerequisite?
When I think about what makes me happy at work, it’s being able to contribute to something I believe is meaningful, having the freedom to be creative, and knowing that I belong to something that matters. Apparently there’s nothing new here. It ties directly to decades-old conventional wisdom that has only recently been backed up by science.
Psychologist Martin Seligman asserted that Authentic Happiness is a combination of engagement, meaning, and positive emotions. He studied people from all over the world and discovered that when a person exercises certain traits or virtues such as duty, kindness, and leadership it promotes authentic happiness.
Psychology about positive emotions such as happiness and interest explains how these expand our awareness and encourage us to be innovative, seek greater diversity, and be more exploratory in the things we do. This effort builds our skills and resources, e.g. curiosity about a landscape becomes valuable navigational knowledge; pleasant interactions with a stranger become a supportive friendship; aimless physical play becomes exercise. Much of the research, and not just Seligman’s work, points to the important things being:
- Relationships with other people.
- Experiencing flow and accomplishment.
- Things that help to promote meaning—purpose in life.
Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi explains how we can achieve happiness by entering a state of perfect equilibrium. In the state of flow, we are completely and utterly absorbed in an activity. It's characterised by intense concentration, loss of self-awareness, a feeling of being perfectly challenged (neither bored nor overwhelmed). There’s a sense that time is flying by. Flow is an intrinsically rewarding experience and can be experienced in many different ways, for example during play, being creative, and doing work. To experience flow, you need to be sufficiently challenged. Too challenged results in anxiety. Not being challenged enough results in boredom.
Czikszentmihalyi identified nine elements of flow:
- There are clear goals every step of the way.
- There is immediate feedback to the action taken.
- There is a balance between challenges and skills.
- Action and awareness are merged.
- Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
- There is no worry of failure.
- Self-consciousness disappears.
- The sense of time becomes distorted.
- The activity becomes autotelic (an end in itself, done for its own sake).
Seligman describes three kinds of happiness that we can experience, one progressing to the next:
- Pleasure and gratification.
- Embodiment of strengths and virtues.
- Meaning and purpose.
Pleasure is fleeting. Pleasures have clear sensory and strong emotional components. Gratification is long-lasting and requires effort. It typically comes from doing activities we really enjoy because they fully engage us and they’re not easily habituated. We become immersed and lose self-consciousness.
The Pleasant Life
We enjoy as many pleasures as possible, and experience and savour the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living, for example from our relationships, hobbies, and interests, or being entertained. This is the most transient form of happiness and may be the least important, despite the constant attention we give it.
The Good Life
We are passionately engaged where our work facilitates a state of flow. We know our strengths and we shape our work, relationships, and leisure to use those strengths so that we experience the benefits of flow more in our lives. It’s a good life to be so engaged. Time flies when we’re having fun.
The Meaningful Life
We contribute to a higher purpose, using our strengths in service of something that we believe is larger than us (e.g. nature, social groups, organisations, movements, traditions, belief systems), and which rewards us intrinsically with a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose.
In his book, Nonzero, Robert Wright explores our social and natural evolution in terms of game theory, with zero-sum and non-zero-sum interactions being played out. Seligman proposes that positive emotions have evolved to help us identify and make the most of non-zero-sum interactions, whilst negative emotions help us identify and play zero-sum interactions.
This explains why intrinsic desires are so positively emotionally charged.
Seligman’s more recent thinking has moved away from happiness towards a theory of well-being, called the PERMA framework:
- Pleasure (tasty foods, warm baths, etc).
- Engagement (or flow, the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity).
- Relationships (social ties have turned out to be extremely reliable indicator of happiness).
- Meaning (a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger).
- Accomplishments (having realised tangible goals).
This framework accommodates the people who don’t seem very happy, but do seem to be doing well — he refers to them as Flourishing.
Back to work
Much of work these days provides a sugar-rush. We experience short bursts of pleasure as we chase the next high, getting things done and achieving extrinsic goals. However, the workplace and the people you work with provide the greatest potential to elicit engagement, meaning and positive emotions.