Five Ways to Enhance Your Happiness: Way #2—Finding Your Mojo at Work
Do you know what it’s like to be in “The Zone”? To be in a near trance-like state in which you feel strong and awesome? If so, then you know what “flow” is all about.
Flow often is described something like this: “Time flies without noticing it. You can concentrate effortlessly, everything goes smoothly, and you really enjoy what you do. Nothing seems to be able to stop you, and you are totally immersed in what you are doing. You feel as if in another reality and that is a very enjoyable experience” (Bakker, 2008, p. 407).
Do you recognize that feeling? You probably do—since about 85% of the population has experienced flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). With opportunities to feel like that, why do we so often choose passive or mind-numbing activities (like reality TV shows) over flow during our scarce free time? Why do we stay in jobs that are so boring or alienating that we never experience flow?
How Do You Spell Happiness: P-E-R-M-A
Let’s back up a moment to put this idea in context. As I discussed in my last blog (which was way too long ago!), a leader in the science of human thriving, Dr. Martin Seligman (2011), says that happiness or well-being is made up of five elements: 1) positive emotion, 2) engagement, 3) relationships, 4) meaning and purpose, and 5) accomplishment. Together, these elements create the acronym “PERMA.” The five things you can do to enhance your happiness are to pick one PERMA element as your theme each month. In this post, we’re focusing on engagement—the “E” in PERMA.
Defining Mojo—or “Flow”
PERMA’s “engagement” is derived from the concept of “flow,” which has been developed by another leader in human thriving, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Seligman, 2011). “Flow” is a mental state that emerges during optimal experiences—i.e., when we find our mojo. Flow happens at the crossroads of boredom (when a task is too easy) and anxiety (when a task is so hard we fear failure)—when our ability just matches the challenge. Flow tends to occur when we’re responding to a clear set of goals with relevant feedback in an activity that we like (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).
When flow is combined with meaning (personal significance), Csikszentmihalyi calls that “vital engagement,” which he says is necessary for optimal living (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003). We must find the activity important—even if just in a small way—for it to produce flow. Csikszentmihalyi says that both flow and meaning are needed to sustain long-term interest in any activity. If we don’t enjoy an activity, we’ll burn out; if we don’t find the activity meaningful, it’ll feel hollow. On the macro scale, identifying a “life theme” that makes all of our experiences coherent and ordered toward a specific, meaningful goal can transform everyday life into an enjoyable extended flow experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Can You Find Your Mojo at Work?
We can experience flow during almost any activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Most flow research has focused on play and artistic activities. But flow also can occur during work (Ceja & Navarro, 2012). Because work is a central part of many of our lives, it’s important that it be as enjoyable and rewarding as possible. But many feel that, so long as they get decent pay and some predictability or stability, that it doesn’t matter how alienating or boring their jobs are. In effect, they’ve resigned themselves to throwing away about 40% of their waking lives (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Since it’s unlikely that anyone else is going to make sure we enjoy this significant part of our lives, it makes sense for us take on the responsibility ourselves.
Definitions of work-related flow include three primary elements: absorption (i.e., the total immersion in an activity), enjoyment (i.e., making positive judgments about work), and intrinsic motivation (i.e., performing an activity for the sheer pleasure and satisfaction of doing it) (Bakker, 2008). Work-related flow is associated with job satisfaction, enthusiasm, and contentment (Nielsen & Cleal, 2012). For achievement-oriented people, a balance of high skill and high challenge is associated with greater positive mood, task interest, and performance (Ceja & Navarro, 2012). Boredom can be changed to flow by finding new challenges and overcoming anxiety by building new skills (Ceja & Navarro, 2012).
This all suggests that a possible way to enhance happiness at work is to build flow activities (and, preferably, vital engagement) into our work. For me, one of my greatest opportunities for flow as a lawyer has been researching, analyzing stacks of cases, working through the puzzle of the problem, and crafting persuasive legal briefs. Throughout my career, I’ve lost myself for hours (if not days or months) in this flow-inducing process.
Research reflects that I’m not alone. For example, in one study, women (who may experience flow more frequently than men (Fagerlind et al., 2013)) often reported flow at work when problem-solving and interacting with people (Nielsen & Cleal, 2010). Men often reported flow when involved in tasks to complete deadlines and completing projects. Research also reflects that, at work, both men and women are in flow way more often (54% of the time) than during leisure (18% of the time).
Whether at work or play, during flow, people reported that they felt happier, stronger, more active, concentrated more, and felt more creative and satisfied.
Four Science-Supported Flow-Boosters
Science offers some ideas for increasing your flow at work—and helping your team to do the same. At work, our happiness and ability to experience flow often depend on the actions of others. We affect other people’s environments and they affect ours. So it makes sense to not only focus on your own flow and engagement but also on shaping an environment that benefits everyone. Below are four ideas for boosting flow at work.
Flow-Booster No. 1: Keep learning new stuff, challenging yourself, and tracking progress toward goals. Don’t ignore self-growth; your flow depends on it. Bakker (2008) found that opportunities for self-growth played the most significant role in all three factors that make up flow (absorption, work enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation). Feedback and coaching—which support mastery and perceptions of progress—also have been linked to flow at work (Fagerlind et al., 2013; Bakker, 2007).
Professional development and learning opportunities reduce the negative effects of demands and emotional exhaustion and enable work-related flow, work engagement, and task enjoyment (Fagerlind, Gustavsson, Johansson, & Ekberg, 2013). Those who report more learning at work are more likely to report better physical and mental health (Spreitzer, Sutcliffe, Dutton, Sonenshein, & Grant, 2005).
These findings are related to other research showing that progress toward meaningful goals is linked to human happiness and positive work performance. We humans innately enjoy doing things well and gaining mastery regardless of what else the activity produces (Peterson, 2006).
This basic need for growth and progress is reflected in a study by Amabile and Kramer (2011) in which they tracked employees’ daily motivations and emotions as well as their performance (e.g., productivity, commitment, and collegiality). They found that the most powerful motivator was progress in meaningful work. Even seemingly mundane events that were perceived as progress (or setbacks) could significantly influence motivation.
To remind managers to look for and highlight team members’ progress, Amabile and Kramer (2011) proposed a Daily Progress Checklist and created a Tip Sheet to implement findings of their study discussed in their book, The Progress Principle. Questions on the Checklist include, for example, “Which 1 or 2 events indicated either a small win or a possible breakthrough?” and “Did I encourage team members who faced difficult challenges?” (Amabile & Kramer, 2011, pp. 170-171). You can use this idea of a daily progress checklist to track your own progress and that of your team so that you can regularly acknowledge even small wins that enhance engagement.
As the above reflects, challenging ourselves to grow is a key part of engagement and well-being. While we might think intuitively that having a low-pressure job in which we always know exactly what we’re doing would make us happy, the research is just to the contrary. For example, jobs in which employees experience high demands but also high control are the most likely to induce flow (Fagerlind et al., 2013). Demanding jobs spur growth, and we need growth to be engaged and happy.
Flow-Booster No. 2: Other people matter. The quality of our relationships and social support also have been linked to flow at work. This includes for example, social relationships and exchanges, cooperation, trust, and reciprocity (Fagerlind et al., 2013). It includes the extent to which we can count on information, assistance, and appreciation from our colleagues at work (Bakker, 2007). So while you may think that shutting yourself off in your office is a good strategy for getting work done, it undermines engagement and well-being.
Flow-Booster No. 3: Autonomy. Another factor that contributes to flow at work is autonomy (Fagerlind et al., 2013). Autonomy is the social authority for making decisions—especially about ourselves. We are more energized and oriented toward growth when we feel like we’re acting volitionally and not because someone is forcing us to act (Spreitzer et al., 2005).
Flow-Booster No. 4: Build an innovative learning climate. Innovative work climates also are linked to flow (Fagerlind et al., 2013). This includes encouragement of questioning, new thinking, and the development of new procedures and structures. To promote flow, guard against work cultures where people are afraid to speak up or try new things for fear of criticism and judgment.
We can find flow in many kinds of activities—at home and at work. And our lives will be better if we do. So get out there and find some flow!
Amabile, T. A., & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Bakker, A. B. (2008). The work-related flow inventory: Construction and initial validation of the WOLF. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 72, 400–414.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Fagerlind, A-C., Gustavsson, M., Johansson, G., & Ekberg, K. (2013). Experience of work-related flow: Does high decision latitude enhance benefits gained from job resources? Journal of Vocational Behavior, 83, 161–170.
Lucia, C. & Navarro, J. (2012). ‘Suddenly I get into the zone’: Examining discontinuity and nonlinear changes in flow experiences at work. Human Relations, 65(9) 1101-1127.
Locke, E. A. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal setting. Applied & Preventive Psychology, 5, 117-124.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). The construction of meaning through vital engagement. In C.L.M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (p. 83-104). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Nielsen, K., & Cleal, B. (2010). Predicting flow at work: Investigating the activities and job characteristics that predict flow states at work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 15(2), 180–190.
Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M.E.P.S. (2011). Flourish. New York: Free Press.
Spreitzer, G., Sutcliffe, J., Dutton, J., Sonenshein, C., & Grant, A. (2005). A socially embedded model of thriving at work. Organization Science, 16(5), 537-549.