Finding happiness at work: the concept of Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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Why is it that some people love what they do and others spend their workweek dreaming about the weekend?

There is not one simple and straightforward answer because people are layered and complex individuals, however many business people use the concept of Flow, developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as an entry point to a better understanding of what makes people happy, successful and fulfilled.

What is Flow?

Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who grew up in Europe during World War II. After the war, he noticed many people struggle mentally and emotionally with the reality of losing their jobs, their homes and life as they knew it. By chance, he attended a lecture by Carl Jung that resonated deeply with him and thus began his life’s work into the exploration of what makes people truly happy. He is best known for his book Flow: the psychology of optimal experience.

Flow can be best summarized in an article by Learning Theory:

Flow is an optimal psychological state that people experience when engaged in an activity that is both appropriately challenging to one’s skill level, often resulting in immersion and concentrated focus on a task. This can result in deep learning and high levels of personal and work satisfaction.

Basically, you are in a state of Flow when you are so actively engaged and involved in what you are doing that you “lose yourself” in the activity. Many understand the concept of Flow most easily as it relates to sports: when your favourite player is “in the zone” and performing at a high level, this person is in a state of Flow.

How does Flow relate to work?

Activities such as work, physical activity or creative endeavours have the most potential to draw us into the Flow state because we are focused and concentrated on the activity. We have a sense of clarity about what needs to be done and we feel challenged yet serene because we have the skills to accomplish the task. We typically experience a Flow state in the areas where we are most talented and therefore intrinsically motivated. Everyone’s talent is different, and Flow can be experienced by everyone, from the janitor to the CEO.

I was reading an article by Nathan Jaye where he shared a great example of a man who works at a deli and regularly experiences Flow:

There was a “Good Morning America” episode featuring flow. They opened with an interview of a guy working in a delicatessen in Manhattan. His job was to prepare lox and bagels. The guy explained that he gets up at four in the morning; by five or five-thirty he gets to work. The first thing he does is go to the freezer. He takes four or five huge salmons that were put there before he arrived by the buyers who go to the fish market. Then he says, “Okay. I’ll take the first salmon. I drop it on the counter. Then I lift it and drop it again until I develop a three-dimensional x-ray of how this fish is made inside.”

He knows where the bones are and where the muscles are. He has trained himself to know, by seeing the shimmer on the scales of the fish after it hits the table and by the sound it makes. He knows how far the spine of the fish is from the surface, from the skin, and how dense the bones are. And every fish is different. Then he starts filleting the fish, with the goal of doing it the fastest, with the least effort possible, making the thinnest slices that he can make, and not leaving anything on the bone (throwing out the least amount of excess fish). Those are his four goals, on every cut.

This is something this guy developed. Nobody taught him, but he taught himself this method after a few years on the job and not liking it. Now he says when he goes home at the end of the day, he knows that no one else could have done what he has done. He’s made the best lox and bagel sandwich that could be made.

What I love about this example is that it illustrates that everyone has the potential to experience Flow in their work; it isn’t reserved only for top-level athletes or great composers.

The difference between Flow and distraction

Unfortunately, there is some confusion between being in a state of Flow and being distracted. Losing the concept of time in a productive activity is not the same as wasting time in a low-level activity such as watching an endless series of cat videos on YouTube.

Flow is unique to the individual and is inspired, dedicated action, accessible at the crux of challenge and skill. Distraction acts more as an escape and takes the focus away from activity. Distractions are quick-fix solutions. Some companies that struggle with employee engagement will implement distractions like a foosball table or casual Friday in an attempt to boost employee morale as opposed to tackling the real issues.

It’s therefore important that as an employee, you find your intrinsic motivation in your job and perform to the best of your talents and abilities. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to favour the conditions for Flow:

  • What parts of my job do I love most?
  • What am I good at?
  • How can I make my work more meaningful?
  • How can I benefit others through the work that I do?
  • How can a challenge myself to reignite my passion?
  • What do I do that is unique, that only I can contribute?

It’s not realistic to be in a constant state of Flow 24/7/365, so this should not be your goal. Even great athletes have to do practice drills and great musicians must practice scales. However, if you start by seeking the Flow state in key moments, this will help you to bring enjoyment to more mundane activities because you will start to view these activities as a necessary part of the whole.

I hate my job; how can I find Flow?

Ironically, even though my expertise is in recruitment, I do not recommend that you go look for a new job right away. Remember that a prerequisite for getting into a state of Flow is intrinsic motivation. Finding a new job can be an exciting distraction but if you are only changing the outer conditions, the excitement will fade and you will be back to square one.

A good place to start would be to better understand your strengths. I wrote an article a while back that includes a free personality indicator. You can discover more here.

By defining your strengths in concrete terms, you can now look at your job and see what areas you can capitalize on by incorporating those strengths. As in the example with the man from the deli, he did not like his work in the beginning. By paying close attention to detail and setting goals for himself with each slice, he found a way that he could enjoy his job. He was then able to achieve the Flow state on a regular basis.

If you are young or just starting out in your career, it can be frustrating to sit in a learning job while others on your team are flying ahead with more meaningful projects. Csikszentmihalyi says that it can take several years to learn our jobs well enough to get into the Flow state. You can deepen your understanding of your career by finding a mentor to help in your development. Feel free to check out my previous article to make the most of the mentoring relationship.

Finally, you can choose to be positive. The development of the Flow theory is rooted in positive psychology (not to be confused with “positive thinking”). We are hardwired to move towards what we want and to move away from what we don’t want; therefore you have to look at the Flow state as something you move towards. If you spend your days complaining about your boss or gossiping about a coworker, you are putting your job in the light of something you want to move away from. This will make Flow impossible. Decide for your own well-being to either take action and change what you are complaining about or make the conscious effort to curb your rants.

If you have taken these steps and you realize that it’s time to change jobs, you will be doing so from a position of strength with the knowledge that you have taken action to improve your situation for your own development. Be sure that you choose your next job carefully so that you can focus on being your best. You can find more info to help your job search here.

If you are interested in learning more about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and hearing about the theory of Flow in his own words, you can watch his TED Talk. He has also written a book Good Business: leadership, Flow and the making of meaning which offers some fascinating insights into the application of Flow in the business world.