Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Working Like Flow

Like every other animal, we must spend most of our existence in the pursuit of a living. The calories needed to feed the body do not spontaneously appear on the dinner table, nor do houses or vehicles gather around themselves. However, there is no exact formula for how long people actually have to work. For example, it seems that early hunter-gatherers, as well as their descendants today, lived in the harsh deserts of Africa and Australia, spending only three to five hours a day doing what we call work. lodgings, clothing and utensils. They spend the rest of their day talking, resting, or dancing. At the opposite extremes were the industrial workers of the nineteenth century, who were often forced to spend twelve hours a day, six days a week toiling in harsh factories or dangerous mines.

Not only the volume but also the quality of the work is extremely diverse. An old Italian proverb put it this way: "Il lavoro nobilita I'uomo, e lo rende simile alle bestie", which means: "Work gives a man nobility and then turns him into an animal". This ironic rhetoric can be a commentary on the nature of all work, but it can also be interpreted in the sense that work that requires superior skills and is done freely, will refine the complex self; And on the other hand, there are few things that disturb the order of the mind as a task that is not specialized and performed under duress. A brain surgeon who works in a prestigious hospital and a slave laborer who staggers through heavy cargo as he wades through the mud are both working the same. But the surgeon has the opportunity to learn something new every day and through each day he learns that he is in control and can perform difficult tasks. The other worker is forced to repeat the same exhausting movements over and over again, and what he learns is mostly about his own struggle.

Because work is global and diverse, it makes a huge difference to a person's life satisfaction, whether the work they do for a living is enjoyable or not. Thomas Carlyle was not wrong when he wrote, "Blessings to those who find their work, which allow him to pursue no other blessings." Sigmund Freud expanded a bit on this simple advice. When asked about the recipe for happiness, he gave a short but logical answer: "Work and love." It is true that if a person finds flow in their work and in their relationships with others, they are already on a path towards improving their overall quality of life. In this chapter, we'll explore how work creates flow, and in the next chapter, we'll cover another major Freudian theme: enjoying the company of others.


As punishment for his ambition, Adam was condemned by God to work on earth with sweat on his forehead. A passage of Genesis (3:17) concerning this event reflects how most cultures, especially those that have touched on the complexity of "civilization," have expressed their views on work—as a curse that we must avoid at all costs. The truth is, because of the inefficient way the universe works, it requires a lot of energy to meet our basic aspirations and needs. As long as we don't care how much we eat, whether we live in beautifully decorated and solid houses, or whether we can afford to buy the latest technological achievements, the burden of necessity of "work" rests lighter on our shoulders. just like with the nomads of the Kalahari Desert. But the more mental energy is invested in material goals and the more unrealistic goals are formed, the harder it will be to turn them into reality. Then we need higher and higher labor inputs, mental and physical, as well as natural resource inputs, to satisfy escalating expectations. For most of history, the vast majority of people living on the periphery of "civilized" societies had to give up any hope of enjoying life in order to make the dreams of the few who had found a way to exploit others come true. The achievements that set civilized nations apart from more primitive ones—such as the Pyramids, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, and ancient temples, palaces, or dams—were often built with the energy of slaves forced to fulfill the ambitions of the rulers. Not surprisingly, the work therefore carries a bad reputation.

However, with all due respect to Scripture, it seems incorrect to assume that working is necessarily unpleasant. Work can always be hard, or at least harder than doing nothing. But there's plenty of evidence that working can be quite enjoyable and, indeed, it's often the most enjoyable part of life.

Sometimes cultures evolve in ways that make each day's productive work as close to those operational flows as possible. There are groups of people where both work and home life are challenging but harmoniously integrated. In the high mountain valleys of Europe, in Alpine villages that did not experience the Industrial Revolution, these types of communities still exist. Curious to see how work is experienced in a "traditional" organization that represents the agrarian lifestyle seen anywhere in the past few generations, a team of Italian psychologists, led by Prof. Fausto Massimini and Dr. Antonella Delle Fave, He recently interviewed some of the residents and then generously shared his thoughtful notes.

The most striking feature of such places is that the people who live there can rarely distinguish between work and free time. It can be said that they work sixteen hours a day, but at the same time it can be concluded that they never work. One of the residents, Serafina Vinon, a seventy-six-year-old woman living in the tiny village of Pont Trentaz, in the Val d'Aosta region of Italy's Alps, still wakes up at five o'clock in the morning to milk cows. Afterwards, she cooked a hearty breakfast, cleaned the house, and depending on the weather and the time of year, she led the cows down to pastures just below the glaciers, tended the orchards, or brushed some fleece. In the summer, she spent weeks in the upland pastures mowing hay, and then she wore those huge bundles of grass on her head for a few miles, back down to the barn. It might only take her half the time to get to the barn if she just went straight back; But she likes to wander along hidden winding trails to keep the slopes from eroding. Late in the afternoon, she could read, or tell stories to her great-grandchildren, or play the organ at one of the parties among friends and relatives that gathered at her home several times a week.

Serafina knew every tree, every cobblestone, every feature of the mountains as if they were best friends. Stories told about the clan centuries ago are associated with the scene: On this ancient stone bridge, when the plague of 1473 dissipated itself, one night the last surviving woman in Serafina's village, with a torch in her hand, met the last surviving man of another village far down the valley. They helped each other, married and became the ancestors of her family. It was in that raspberry field that Serafina's grandmother died when she was still a child. On this rock, pitchfork in hand, the devil threatened Uncle Andrew during the violent snowstorm that lasted for twenty-four hours.

When Serafina was asked what she enjoyed doing most in her life, she answered without hesitation: milking cows, leading them to lawns, trimming orchards, grooming sheep. In fact, what she loves to do most is what she has always done to make a living. In her words: "It gives me a wonderful satisfaction. Going outside, chatting with people, being with my pets... I talk to everything – plants, birds, flowers and animals. Everything in nature keeps us company; We see the development of nature every day. I feel so fresh and happy that I feel sorry that I am tired and have to go home... Even if you have to work a lot, it's great."

When asked what she would do if she had all the time and money in the world, Serafina laughed — and repeated the same sequence of activities: she would milk cows, lead them to lawns, tend orchards, groom sheep. It's not that Serafina is ignorant of the city alternatives: she occasionally watches television and reads books, and many of her relatives are young people who live in big cities and lead comfortable lifestyles, with cars, appliances and vacations abroad. But their more modern and fashionable way of life did not appeal to Mrs. Serafina; She is completely content and at peace with her role in this universe.

Ten of the oldest residents of the village of Pont Trentaz, between sixty-five and eighty-two years old, were interviewed; they all gave answers similar to Serafina's. None of them draw a clear line between work and leisure time, all see work as a primary source of optimal experience, and none want to work less even if given opportunities.

Most of their children, when interviewed, expressed the same attitude towards life. For the grandchildren (between the ages of twenty and twenty-three), however, more typical attitudes toward work prevail: If given the opportunity, they would work less and, instead, spend more time resting — reading, etc. Play sports, travel, watch the latest shows. Part of this difference between generations is a matter of age; Young people are less content with their destiny, more hungry for change and unable to tolerate the constraints of routine. But in this case, the dissent also reflects the fading of the traditional way of life, where work is meaningfully linked to people's identities and ultimate goals. Some young people in the village of Pont Trentaz will probably think about work like Serafina when they reach old age; And most probably won't. Instead, they will continue to widen the gap between necessary but unhappy jobs and the pursuit of fun but less complexity.

Life in the Alpine village has never been easy. In order to survive the day, each person must master an extremely vast range of difficult challenges from strenuous manual work to crafts that require ingenuity, and also the preservation and construction of a special language, songs, works of art or complex traditional customs. And somehow, the culture has evolved in such a way that those who live within it perceive these goals as enjoyable. Instead of feeling pressured by the need to work hard, they agreed with Giuliana B., a seventy-four-year-old woman: "I am free, free in my own work, because I do what I want. If I don't do anything today, I will tomorrow. I don't have a boss, I own my own life. I have maintained this freedom and have fought for it."

Obviously, not all pre-industrial cultures were this idyllic. In many farming or hunting societies, life is harsh, brutal and short. In fact, some communities in the Alps, not far from the village of Pont Trentaz, were described by foreign tourists of the last century as being enveloped by hunger, disease and ignorance. To perfect a lifestyle capable of harmoniously balancing human purposes with environmental resources is a rare feat like the construction of great cathedrals that overwhelm visitors. We cannot generalize from a model of success to pre-industrial cultures. Besides, even one exception is enough to disprove the notion that work is always less enjoyable than freely chosen leisure.

What about the case of an urban worker, whose work is not clearly tied to his or her subsistence? Serafina's attitude, incidentally, is not unique to traditional farming villages. Sometimes we can find it all around us, in the midst of the whirlwinds of the industrial age. A good example is the case of Joe Kramer, the man we interviewed for one of the first studies of his flow experience. Joe had just turned sixty, and he was a welder at a train assembly plant in south Chicago. About two hundred people worked with Joe on three huge, dark, and enclosed structures, where steel plates weighing several tons circling around the overhead tracks and welded in the rain of sparks to form axles for freight cars. In summer it was an oven, and in winter the icy breeze from the prairie blew through. The sound of metal collisions is always so loud that people have to shout in each other's ears when talking.

Joe came to the United States when he was only five years old and he dropped out of school after finishing fourth grade. He worked at this factory for more than thirty years, but never wanted to be a foreman. He turned down several opportunities for promotion, stating that he liked being a simple welder and that he was not comfortable being anyone's boss. Although he stood at the lowest rung of the factory system, everyone knew Joe and everyone agreed that he was the most important member of the whole factory. The manager also insisted that if he had five more people like Joe, his factory would be the most efficient in the industry. Joe's fellow workers said that without him, they would have closed.

The reason behind his reputation was simple: Joe was clearly adept at every stage of factory operations, and he could take anyone's place when needed. What's more, he can repair every broken piece of machinery, from giant mechanical cranes to the smallest electronic screens. But what amazed everyone the most was that Joe was not only able to do these tasks, but he actually enjoyed his work when asked to do it. When asked how he learned how to handle complex engines and equipment without any formal training, Joe gave an answer that shattered all doubts. From childhood, he was fascinated with different types of machines. He was particularly drawn to anything that didn't work properly: "Like when my mom's toaster oven needed repairs, I asked myself, 'If I were that toaster oven and I wasn't working, what was happening to me?'" Then he disassembled the oven, found it broken, and repaired it. Since then, he has used this empathic assimilation method to understand and restore increasingly complex mechanical systems. And his passion for discovery has never been lost on him; Now approaching retirement age, Joe still enjoys his job every day.

Joe has never been a workaholic, or depended entirely on factory challenges to feel good about himself. What he does at home is perhaps even more special than switching from a routine, brainstorm-free task to a complex activity that produces a state of flow. Joe and his wife live in a modest one-story bungalow on the outskirts of the city. Over the years, they bought two more vacant lots on either side of the house. Joe built an elaborate rock garden on these lots, with steps, paths, and hundreds of flowers and shrubs. When installing the underground fountains, Joe came up with an idea: What if he turned them into a rainbow? He had found nozzles that could produce a mist thick enough for this purpose, but none satisfied him; So he designed one himself and built it with a lathe in his basement. Now, after work, he can sit on the back porch, touch a toggle switch and activate a dozen jets of water into small rainbows.

But there's a problem with Joe's little "Eden's garden." Because he worked throughout the day, by the time he returned home, the sun had often set too far off the horizon to reflect, giving color to these jets. So Joe went back to his drawing board and came out with an admirable solution. He found headlights that contained enough of the sun's spectrum to make a rainbow and installed them around the fountains discreetly. Now he was ready. Even in the middle of the night, with the touch of two switches, he can envelop his house with fans, light and color.

Joe is a rare example of what it means to have a "self-purpose personality," or the ability to create flow experiences in the most barren environment — a cutthroat workplace, a weedy neighborhood. Throughout the railroad plant, Joe appears as the only person with a vision who seizes challenging action opportunities. The remaining welders we interviewed saw their work as a burden that they wanted to escape as quickly as possible each afternoon, and as soon as the work was over, they put everything aside for the strategically located taverns at every third intersection of roads around the factory. to forget all the sluggishness of the day with beer and friends. Then go home to have a few more bottles in front of the television, argue with your wife, and the day — in every respect like the days before that — has passed.

One could argue that the assertion that Joe's lifestyle is superior to that of his fellow workers is the kind of "elitist" that deserves criticism. After all, the people in the pub still have a good time and who would say that toiling as a rainbow in the backyard is a better way to spend time? Of course, according to the teachings of cultural relativism, criticism is justified. But when we understand that pleasure depends on increasing complexity, we can no longer take fundamental relativity that seriously. The quality of the experiences of those who play with and transform the opportunities around them, as Joe did, is clearly more developed, and at the same time more enjoyable than the experiences of those who give up on themselves to live within the constraints of a fierce reality that they feel cannot be changed.

The view that work is done as a flow activity is the best way to fulfill human potential has been proposed frequently in the past, by various religious and philosophical systems. For those imbued with the worldview of medieval Christianity it is quite reasonable to say that peeling potatoes is just as important as building a cathedral, as long as they are all done for the greater glory of God. As for Karl Marx, both men and women built their essence through productive activities; He believed that there is no "human nature" except those that we create through work. The work is not only changing the environment by building bridges over rivers and depositing silt for barren plains; It also changes the worker from an instinctively guided animal to a skilled, goal-oriented, and conscious person.

One of the most interesting examples of the phenomenon of flow appearing to earlier sages is the concept of Yu (or Du) mentioned about 2300 years ago in the writings of Zhuang Tzu, a student of Taoism. Du means to follow the Tao: It translates into English as "wandering"; like "go without touching the ground"; or like "swimming", "flying" and "drifting". Zhuang Tzu believes that this is the right way to live—to live without regard for external rewards, to follow nature, with total devotion—in other words, as a purely purposeful experience in itself.

As an example of how to live by Du — or live with the flow — Zhuang Tzu tells an allegory about a humble laborer in the main chapters of the work that brought his name to us. This character is a commoner, a chef tasked with slaughtering meat at King Wenhui's palace. Students in Hong Kong and Taiwan still vividly remember Zhuang Tzu's descriptions: "A chef of King Wenhui pecked a cow, his hands holding the animal, Stretch out your shoulders to nudge it, then your legs press against the ground, your knees pinning it. He ran the blade of the knife around, playing the same rhythmic sounds as the 'mourning' song and the 'meridian' music[1]55".

King Wenhui was fascinated by the many flow states (or Yu) that his cook found in his work and for that reason he praised the chef for his great skills. But the cook denied that it was only a matter of skill: "God relies on the Tao, which goes beyond skill [2]." Then he tells how he came up with his peak performance: something mystical, an intuitive insight into the art of dissecting the cow, is what helps him tear the cow into pieces with elegant movements as if taking place unconsciously: "Now I use my spirit rather than my eyes. Senses stop, only the mind is active [3]".

The chef's explanation probably implies that Du and the flow are both the result of different processes. In fact, some critics have emphasized the difference: While the flow state is the consequence of a conscious attempt to master challenges, the Du state occurs when an individual relinquishes mastery of consciousness. In this sense, they see flow as an example of "Western" research on optimal experience, which they say is based on changing objective conditions (by facing challenges through skills), while Du is an example of an "Eastern" approach. completely ignoring objective conditions in favor of spiritual playfulness and transcendence of reality.

But how does an individual have to achieve a transcendent experience and mental playfulness? In the same parable above, Zhuang Tzu offers a valid conception to answer this question, one that has given rise to diametrically opposed interpretations. It reads as follows: "Every joint has interstitial joints, and the blades are thin. Knowing how to put those thin tongues in those crevices feels as easy as putting them in nothing. So, for nineteen years, my blade is still as sharp as freshly sharpened. Every time he encountered a joint, he found it difficult, he held his breath, looked carefully, slowly brought the blade lightly, the joint came apart easily like mud falling to the ground. Then he took the knife, lifted his head, looked at the four sides, took pleasure, wiped the knife, put it in the sheath[4]."

At the time, some early scholars used this passage to refer to the working methods of a mediocre butcher who did not know how to reach Du. More recent scholars, such as Watson and Graham, believe that it refers to the chef's own method of working. Based on my knowledge of flow experience, I believe the latter is the right one. It demonstrates that, even after mastering all these skill levels and tricks, Du still depends on the discovery of new challenges ("joints", or when "finding it difficult" in the quote above) and on the development of new skills ("hold your breath, Look carefully, slowly bring the blade lightly").

In other words, we cannot reach the mysterious peak of Du state with a few superhuman quantum leaps, but simply by focusing our attention on opportunities to act in one's own environment, which will lead to skill perfection that over time becomes completely automatic as if spontaneous and it seems miraculous. The performances of a great violinist or a great mathematician may seem equally mystical, although they can be explained by the increased process of honing challenges and skills. If my interpretation is correct, then in the flow (or Du) experience, the East and the West have met: In both cultures, the state of ecstasy comes from the same point. Van Hui Vuong's chef is a prime example of how one can find a state of flow in the most unlikely places, in the lowest tasks in daily life. And it is noteworthy that more than twenty-three centuries ago, the motivation of this experience was widely known.

An old Alpine farmer, a welder in southern Chicago, and a cook from ancient China, all have something in common: their work is strenuous and unattractive, and most people would find it boring, repetitive and meaningless. Yet, these individuals have transformed the work they had to do into complex activities. They do so by recognizing opportunities to take action while others don't, by developing skills, by focusing on the activity at hand, and by allowing themselves to get lost in the interaction so that their egos can emerge stronger later. Being so transformed, work becomes enjoyable, and as a result of a personal mental energy investment, work also feels as if it's a liberating choice.


Serafina, Joe, and the other chef are examples of people who have developed a purposeful personality. Despite the strict limitations of their environment, they are able to transform constraints into opportunities for free and creative expression. Their method symbolizes a way for us to enjoy work while making it richer. Another way is to change the work itself, until its conditions lead to a state of flow, even for those who lack purposeful personalities. The more inherently a job resembles a game — with varied, relevant and flexible challenges, clear goals, and quick responses — the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the level of employee development.

For example, hunting is a good example of "work" whose essence contains all the characteristics of flow. Because this centuries-old chase game is the main production activity that humanity has always been attached to. Hunting has proven to be very enjoyable as there are still many people pursuing it as a hobby, after all the practical needs from this activity are gone. And the same is true for fishing. The grassland mode of survival also has some free structure and resembles the flow of the first type of "employment". Many contemporary young Navajos in Arizona claimed that riding on horseback following their flocks of sheep across table mountains was the most fun thing they ever did. Compared to hunting or herding, farming is harder to enjoy. It is a more stable and repetitive operation and takes longer to get results. Seeds sown in spring take months to bear fruit. To enjoy farming, one must operate for a longer time frame than hunting: while the hunter can choose his prey and how to attack several times per day, the farmer decides what crops, where and in what quantities, only a few times a year. To succeed, farmers need to prepare longer and endure precarious periods in a state of helplessness waiting for the cooperation of the weather. It is not surprising to learn that nomads or hunters, when forced to become farmers, have shown that it is better to die than to resign themselves to that boring existence. However, many farmers have finally learned to enjoy the more subtle opportunities of their work.

The pre-eighteenth-century crafts and cottage crafts, which occupied most of the spare time left from farming, were reasonably designed in terms of creating flow. For example, British weavers have looms that weave fabric at home and they work together with their entire families at a self-set schedule. They set their own production goals and adjust them based on what they think can be accomplished. If the weather is good, they will stop weaving so that they can work in orchards or vegetable gardens. When inspired, they would sing some love songs and when a piece of cloth was finished, they would all celebrate with a drink.

This organization still operates in some parts of the world that maintain a more humane pace of production, despite the benefits of modernization. For example, Prof. Massimini and his team interviewed weavers in the province of Biella in northern Italy, who had similar patterns of working with English weavers told in legends from more than two centuries ago. Each family here owns two to ten mechanical looms that only one person can supervise the operation. The father might watch the loom weave in the morning, then let the son take over while he went to search for mushrooms in the woods or stop by the creek to fish for trout. The son runs the machine until he gets bored and at this point the mother takes turns.

In interviews, every member of the family described weaving as the most enjoyable activity they do—more than traveling, more than frequenting the disco, more than fishing, and certainly more than watching television. The reason working is so fun is because it's relentlessly challenging. Family members designed their own weaving patterns and when they had made enough of one, they moved on to another. Each family decides which fabric to weave, where to buy the material, how much it is produced, and where to sell. Some families have customers as far away as Japan and Australia. Family members always visit production centers to keep up with new technological developments, or to buy necessary equipment as cheaply as possible.

But throughout much of the Western world, such cozy arrangements conducive to a flow experience were ruthlessly disrupted by the invention of the first energy-powered loom and the centralized factory system with which these machines were born. In the mid-eighteenth century, home crafts in England were generally unable to compete with mass-produced processes. Families broke up, workers had to leave their thatched roofs and move into ugly, unhealthy factories and endure a rigid work schedule that lasted from dawn to dusk. Children as young as seven have had to work to exhaustion among strangers who are indifferent or just exploitative. If the joy of work gained any credibility earlier, it has now been radically ruined in the early frenzy of industrialization.

We have now entered a new post-industrial age and once again, employment is seen as benign: the typical worker now sits in front of piles of dials, monitoring a computer screen in a comfortable control room, While a crew of robots skillfully performs from start to finish any "real" work that needs to be completed. In fact, most people don't participate in production anymore; They work in so-called "service sectors," jobs that just a few generations ago would have appeared to farmers and factory workers as a leisure time to pamper themselves. Above them are managers and professionals who have plenty of time in creating whatever they want for their work.

So, work can be intense and boring, but it can also be enjoyable and exciting. In just a few decades, average working conditions can change from relatively pleasant to a nightmare, as happened in England in the 1740s. Technological innovations such as hydraulic turbines, excavators, steam engines, electricity, or silicon chips can make a huge difference regardless of whether the job is interesting or not. Laws governing land ownership, the abolition of forms of slavery, or, the forty-hour week work regime and the minimum wage could also have a major impact. The sooner we realize that the quality of our work experience can be transformed, if we want to, the faster we can improve this critically important aspect of our lives. But the vast majority of people still believe that permanent work is destined to inherit "Adam's curse."

In theory, any career can be changed to become more interesting by following the principles of the flow model. At present, however, whether or not employment is interesting ranks relatively low in the concerns of those who are able to impact the nature of a given occupation. Management must first care about productivity and union bosses must put safety, security and compensation at the forefront of their minds. For the foreseeable future, these priorities will likely be quite at odds with the conditions that create flow. This is quite unfortunate, because if workers truly enjoy their jobs, they will not only benefit personally, but they will almost certainly be more productive sooner or later and reach all the other goals that are currently prioritized.

At the same time, it would be a big mistake to think that when all jobs are built like games, people will love them. Even the most favorable external conditions do not guarantee that people will be in a state of flow. Because optimal experience depends on a subjective evaluation of one's own ability to act and one's own abilities, it is quite often the case that an individual is dissatisfied with a great, potential job.

Let's take the surgical profession as an example. Very few careers involve too much responsibility, or place too much status on practitioners. Of course, if challenge and skill are key factors, surgeons must find their work exhilarating. And in fact, many surgeons say they're addicted to their jobs, that in terms of enjoyment there's nothing else in their lives that compares to work, that anything takes them away from the hospital — a vacation to the Caribbean, A night at the opera house is also a waste of time.

But not every surgeon is passionate about his work. Some people get so depressed that they start drinking, gambling, or following a hustle and bustle lifestyle to forget about the drudgery. How can there be so different views on the same profession? One reason is that surgeons work steadily for good pay but repetitive routine tasks soon make them start to feel burdened. There are surgeons who specialize only in removing the appendix, or tonsils; A few even specialize in ear piercings. Such specialization can be lucrative, but it makes it harder to love the job. At the other extreme, there are highly competitive surgeons who go the other way completely out of control, constantly demanding new challenges, constantly wanting to perform major surgeries that attract the public's attention, until they end up unable to live up to the expectations they set for themselves. The pioneers of surgery became exhausted by the opposing argument of the routine specialist: they had done the impossible once, but they had yet to find a way to do it again.

Surgeons who love their jobs often practice in hospitals that allow for a variety or perform some experiments with the most advanced methods and that makes research and teaching part of this profession. Surgeons who love what they do see money, prestige and saving lives as important to them, but they also insist that their greatest enthusiasm is for the intrinsic aspects of the profession. What makes surgery special to them is the feeling they get from the operation itself. And the way they describe this emotion, almost every detail resembles the flow experiences narrated by athletes, artists, or chefs who butcher for Wen Huiwang.

The reason for this is that the surgical process has all the characteristics that a flow operation should have. For example, surgeons mentioned how clearly they defined their goals. An internist must deal with less specific and localized problems, while a psychologist must deal with more vague, ephemeral symptoms and solutions. In contrast, the surgeon's task is clear: to remove tumors, join bones, or remove certain internal organs. Once that task is completed, he can stitch up the incision and move on to the next patient with the impression that he has done a good job.

Similarly, surgery provides constant and immediate feedback. If there is no blood in the operating cavity, then the surgery is going well; then the diseased tissue is removed, or the bone is reattached; The stitches are stitched up (or not, if that is the case), but through the procedure a person knows exactly how successful the operation was and if not, then why not. With this argument alone, most surgeons believe that what they are doing is more interesting than any branch of medicine or anything else on earth.

On another level, there is no shortage of challenges in surgery. In the words of one surgeon: "I derive pleasure from using my mind – like chess players or academicians studying toothpicks in ancient Mesopotamia. Craftsmanship is fun, carpentry is fun... The satisfaction of taking on an extremely difficult task and you get it done." Another surgeon said: "It's satisfying and if it's a little difficult, it still gets you excited. It's good to make things work again, to put things in their place so that they look original, fit and neat. This is very pleasant, especially when a team works together smoothly and efficiently: then the aesthetics of the whole process are clearly perceived."

This second quote points out that the challenges of an operation are not limited to what a surgeon has to do as an individual, but also include coordinating an event involving several accompanying people. Many surgeons have talked about how excited they are to be part of a team that is well-trained to work smoothly and efficiently. And of course there is always the ability to do things better, the ability to improve one's skills. An eye surgeon said, "You use good and accurate tools. It's an exercise in art. It all depends on how precise and artistic you operate on." Another surgeon said: "It's quite important to be careful about details, neatness and technical efficiency. I don't like to waste movement and so I try to proceed with the surgery as planned and thought out as possible. I'm particularly strict about how to hold the needle, where the stitches are placed, the type of stitch, etc. — things that should be done best and seem easy."

The way in which the surgery is conducted helps prevent distractions and focus all of the individual's attention on the process. The operating room is truly like a stage, with the spotlight illuminating the action and the actors. Before an operation, surgeons must take steps to prepare, sterilize and wear special clothing — like pre-competition athletes, or pre-ceremonial monks. These rituals have a practical purpose, but they also aim to separate the priest presiding over the eucharist from the concerns of daily life and help them focus their minds on the event at hand. Some surgeons share that on the mornings before a major surgery, they put themselves into the "autopilot system" by eating the same breakfast, wearing the same clothes and driving to the hospital on the same route. They do so not out of superstition, but because they think that these habitual behaviors will make it easier for them to fully focus on the challenge ahead.

The surgeons were quite lucky. Not only are they well paid, but they are immersed in admiration and admiration, and they also have a job built according to the blueprint of flow operations. And yet, despite all these vantages, there are surgeons who are deranged either because of discouragement, or because they are chasing untouchable fame and power. What this shows is just as important as the structure of a job; the work itself alone cannot determine whether the worker will find joy in it. Job satisfaction will also depend on whether the employee has a self-purpose character or not. Welder Joe is happy with tasks that can be seen as few opportunities to create flow. At the same time, there are surgeons who hate a job that seems to have been created with the intention of providing enjoyment.

To improve the quality of life through work, there are two additional strategies needed. On the one should be redesigned so that they resemble flow activities as much as possible – such as hunting, weaving and surgery. Work also needs to help people develop self-purpose traits like those of Serafina, Joe or Van Hui's chef, by training them to recognize action opportunities, hone their skills, and set achievable goals. None of these strategies on their own can make work more enjoyable; But in collaboration with each other, they will contribute their best to the optimal experience.


It's easier to understand how work affects quality of life when we look at it in the long range and compare ourselves to people of other cultures and eras. But ultimately, we have to look closer at what's going on now, here. Ancient Chinese chefs, Alpine farmers, surgeons and welders helped unravel the potential inherent in work, but after all, they were not the typical kind of careers most of us do today. So for today's ordinary Americans, what's the job for them?

In our research, we often encounter strange mental contradictions in how people relate to the way they earn a living. On the one hand, our study subjects often reported that they had some of the most positive experiences while working. From this feedback, it can be inferred that they must be eager to work, that their motivation at work will be high. Instead, even when they feel good, people in general say they prefer not to work and that their motivation for work is low. On the flip side, it was this: when they should have been enjoying the hours of their hard-earned leisure, it was often reported that they were in a surprisingly bad mood; Yet they kept wishing for more breaks.

For example, in one study, we used the Experience Sampling Method to answer the question: Do people report examples of flow states at work more or during more leisure hours? The respondents, over a hundred men and women working full-time in various occupations, wore an electronic pager for a week and whenever the pager beeped according to signals sent randomly eight times per day for a week, They will fill out two pages of a small notebook to record what they are doing and how they feel at the moment they receive the signal. Besides, they were asked on a ten-point scale to determine the level of challenge they saw at that moment, as well as the skill level they felt they were using.

A person is counted as being in a flow state every time they score the challenge and the level of above-average skills for each week. In this particular study, more than four thousand eight hundred responses were collected—an average of about forty-four responses per person a week. In terms of the standards we applied, 33% of these responses were "in a flow state" – that is, above the weekly average of individual challenges and skills. Of course, this method of determining the flow state is quite generous. If one only wishes to be in extremely complex flow experiences — for example, those with the highest levels of challenge and skill — then perhaps less than 1% of responses qualify as flow. The methodological convention applied here to determine the functions of flow is somewhat like a microscope: depending on the degree of amplification used, details that are too different will appear.

As expected, in a week, the more time a person spends in a flow state, the better the overall quality of his or her recorded experience. People who are constantly in a particular state of flow are likely to feel "strong," "active," "creative," "focused," and "motivated." What was unexpected, however, was how often people recorded flow states at work and in how little spare time was recorded.

When people receive signals while they are actually doing their work (which only happens about three-quarters of the time, because actually, the other quarter of the time, these ordinary workers are just talking, daydreaming or doing personal things), the proportion of feedback is in a fairly high flow state, about 54%. In other words, about half of the time people work, they feel challenged above average and using above-average skills. In contrast, when doing leisure activities such as reading, watching TV, inviting friends to the house for a gathering, or going to a restaurant, only 18% of respondents remained in a state of flow. Typical leisure feedback falls within what we call apathy, characterized by below-average levels of challenge and skill. In this condition, people tend to say that they feel passive, weak, dull and dissatisfied. When they were at work, 16% of responses were measured by apathy; When they were free, more than half (52%).

As predicted, managers or supervisors were significantly more likely to be in a flow state while working (64%) than white-collar workers (51%) and manual workers (47%). Manual workers reported being in a state of flow while resting (20%) more than those who worked in offices (16%) and managers (15%). But even assembly line workers reported twice as much as they reached the flow state at work than when they were free (47% vs. 20%). In contrast, lethargy while at work was reported more by manual workers than managers (23% vs. 11%) and lethargy during free time was reported more by managers than manual workers (61% vs. 46%).

Whenever people are in a flow state, whether at work or at rest, they report it as a more positive experience than a time when they are not in a flow state. When challenges and skills are high, they feel happier, happier, stronger, more proactive; they are more focused; They feel more creative and fulfilled. All of these differences in the quality of the experience were statistically significant, and they were more or less the same for every type of worker.

There is only one exception to this general trend. One of the questions in the survey questionnaire asked participants to give their answers, again on a ten-point scale from no to yes, to the following question: "Have you ever wished you would do something else?" The degree to which a person answers this question as "no" is generally a reliable indicator of how motivated the person is at the time of receiving the signal. The results showed that the odds of people wishing they were doing something unusual were much higher when they were working than when they were resting, and this had little to do with whether they were in a flow state. In other words, even if the work provides a flow experience, the motivation to work can still be low, and during the rest period, even if the quality of the experience is low, that motivation can still be high.

That's why we have this paradoxical situation: At work, people feel skilled and challenged, so they feel happier, stronger, more creative, and more satisfied. In their spare time, they generally feel like they don't have much to do and their skills are not being used, so they tend to feel more sad, weak, sluggish and dissatisfied. But they want to work less and spend more time resting.

So what does this contradictory paradigm mean? There are a few possible explanations, but one conclusion seems obvious: When it comes to work, people don't pay attention to evidence from their senses. They downplay the quality of the immediate experience, instead basing their motivation on a deep-rooted cultural stereotype of what work should be like. They think of work as an imposition, a constraint, an infringement on their freedom and something that should be avoided as far as possible.

It could also be argued that while the flow of work is exciting, humans can't handle high levels of challenge all the time. They need to recover at home, they need to be lazy and sluggish for a few hours a day even if they don't enjoy it. But comparative examples seem to contradict this argument. For example, farmers in the village of Pont Trentaz work harder and longer hours than ordinary Americans, and the challenges they face in their daily lives require at least a high level of concentration and attention. But they don't wish they did something else, and then, instead of relaxing, they fill their free time with complex leisure activities.

As these findings show, the apathy of many people around us is not due to physical or mental exhaustion. The problem seems to lie more in the modern worker's relationship to his work, as well as with how he sees his goals in relation to his work.

When we feel that we are investing our focus on a task contrary to our will, it is as if our mental energy is being wasted. Instead of helping us reach our goals, it asks us to make someone else's dreams come true. The time we spend on such a task is understood as time subtracted from the total amount of time we have in our lives. Many people think that work is something they are forced to do, a burden to bear from outside, an effort that takes life away from the ledger of life. So even though the momentary experience at work can be positive, they tend to downplay it because it doesn't contribute to their long-term goals.

However, it should be emphasized that "discontent" is a relative term. According to large-scale national surveys conducted between 1972 and 1978, only 3 percent of American workers say they are very dissatisfied with their jobs, while 52 percent say they are very satisfied—one of the highest rankings in industrialized nations. But one can love one's job and still get upset with some aspects of it and try to improve on what isn't perfect. In our studies, we've found that American workers tend to mention three main reasons for their dissatisfaction with their jobs, and they all relate to the typical quality of experience — although, as we just mentioned, Their work experience still tends to be better than at home. (Contrary to popular belief, wages and other material concerns are generally not among their most pressing concerns.) The first and perhaps most important complaint relates to the lack of diversity and challenge. This can be a problem for everyone, but especially for someone who is following low-level jobs in which repetitive activities play a major role. The second reason is related to conflicts with colleagues, especially with bosses. The third reason is burnout: too much pressure, too much stress, too little time to think about yourself and no time to spend with your family. This is particularly troubling for higher levels of personnel, such as executives and managers.

Such complaints are quite genuine, because they refer to objective conditions, but they can also be referred to by subjective changes in one's consciousness. For example, diversity and challenges are an inherent peculiarity of work, but they also depend on how people perceive opportunities. Our chefs, Serafina and Joe, see challenges in jobs that most people would find dull and meaningless. Whether a job is diverse or not, in the end, depends more on people's approach to it than on actual working conditions.

The other causes of discontent are similar. Getting along with colleagues and supervisors can be difficult, but it's usually possible if one tried. Conflict at work often comes from people's defenses against the fear of losing face. To prove himself, he sets specific goals about how others should treat him and then rigidly expects that others will meet those expectations. This rarely happens as planned because others also have things to do to achieve their own rigid goals. Perhaps the best way to avoid getting into this impasse is to take on the challenge of achieving your goals while helping your superiors and colleagues achieve their goals; This is less direct and more time-consuming than just moving forward to satisfy one's own interests, no matter what happens to others, but in the long run it rarely leads to failure.

Finally, stress and pressure are obviously the most subjective aspects of a job and therefore the ones that should be most subject to conscious control. Stress exists only when we experience it; And it is directly caused by the most severe objective conditions. With the same level of pressure but it is both frustrating for one person while also being a welcome challenge with another. There are hundreds of ways to relieve stress, some based on organization, better assignment of responsibilities, better communication with colleagues and supervisors; Others are based on factors outside of work, such as improving life at home, entertainment, or forms of inner discipline such as TMornamental meditation.

These piecemeal solutions can be helpful, but the only genuine answer to facing stress from work is to see it as part of an overall strategy to improve the overall quality of the experience. Of course it's easier said than done. To do so, we need to mobilize our mental energy and keep it focused on our personal goals, despite the inevitable distractions. Other ways to deal with external stress are discussed later, in chapter nine. Now, it might be more helpful to consider how spending your free time contributes to—or can't contribute—to the overall quality of life.


As we've seen, although people generally long to leave the workplace and go home, ready to make the most of their hard-earned free time, they often have no idea what to do during that time. Ironically, work is easier to enjoy than free time, because just like flow activities, work shapes goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which motivate people to immerse themselves in their work. to concentrate and forget yourself in it. Free time, on the other hand, isn't clearly structured and doesn't require much effort to shape something that can be enjoyed. Skillful hobbies, goal-setting habits, personal interests, and especially inner training make free time an opportunity for reinvention, as it is. But in general, people lose the opportunity to enjoy free time even more thoroughly when they are during work hours. More than sixty years ago, the great American sociologist Robert Park noted that "I think it is in our unforeseen use that the greatest waste of American life takes place."

The huge entertainment industry that has emerged over the past few generations has been designed to help fill free time with pleasurable experiences. However, instead of using those mental and physical resources to experience the flow, most of us spend more of our weeks watching famous athletes compete in the giant stadium. Instead of composing our own music, we listen to platinum songs composed by millionaire composers. Instead of creating art, we go to admire the paintings with the highest bids at the latest auctions. We don't risk acting on our own beliefs but spend hours a day watching actors pretend to take risks, engaging in meaningful pretend acts.

This indirect involvement can hide, at least temporarily, the potential emptiness of wasted time. But it is an extremely bland substitute for attention invested in real challenges. Experiencing flow comes from using skills that lead to growth; Passive methods of entertainment get us nowhere. Combined, we are wasting every year at the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness. Energy that can be used to focus on complex goals, to provide for exciting growth, has been wasted on stimulating models that only mimic reality. Popular entertainment, popular culture, and even high culture, where we participate only passively and for external reasons—such as the desire to flaunt our status—are parasites of the mind. They absorb mental energy without generating real power in response. They make us even more exhausted, more depressed than before.

Unless people are responsible for taking care of them, both work and free time are likely to disappoint us. Most jobs and many leisure activities — especially those that involve passive consumption of mass media — are not built to make us happy and strong. Their purpose is to make money for others. With our permission, they can destroy the core of our lives and leave only a weak, worthless exterior. But as with everything else, work and leisure can be compatible with our needs. People who learn to enjoy their work, who do not waste their free time, feel that their whole lives become more worthwhile. C. K. Brightbill wrote that "The future belongs not only to the educated, but also to those who learn to use their free time rationally."

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