Euphoric Work: The Science of Flow
The Intersection of Positive Psychology, Creativity, and the Workplace
Ecstasy, as a concept, is usually tied to experiences with food, sexual activity, and even recreational drug use. So the idea of finding ecstasy in your workplace is probably a foreign concept. But what would it look like to actually work within an ecstatic or euphoric state? It would look like flow.
Let's start by understanding what flow actually is: the euphoric feeling we all experience when we’re completely connected with work or activities that we love. Flow is a state in which our mental and physical experience is inextricable; time often feels like it’s at a standstill. We’ve all witnessed moments of flow via athletic brilliance. Those moments are brought about when an athlete finds ‘the zone’ (or, flow), and freely expresses their talents to the fullest extent of their ability. It truly is a sight to behold.
As an example, think of flow as an Olympic ice skater: their ideal moment combines their music, limbs, partner, and the arena into a singular extension of their athletic expression. The result? A flawless performance. These moments are technically precise, intellectually exciting, and incredibly fun to watch.
But what does that all have to do with your 9 to 5? Surprisingly, quite a lot. Each and every athlete we see is the purest expression of flow in the workplace. On a daily basis, athletes strive to improve upon the work they love. And make no mistake, they are working diligently. One does not reach the highest peaks without putting in an incredible amount of work.
“Pushing paper” is ALSO grueling work. It often feels tedious. Making time for another 10 a.m. meeting to discuss the upcoming 3 p.m. meeting is a complete drag. It engenders apathy. I get it. You get it. We’ve all been there. We aren’t athletes, and that monthly report isn’t an expression of the things we truly love. So how do we get there?
As outlined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow occurs when we are:
- Completely involved in what we are doing: focused, concentrated
- Experiencing a sense of ecstasy: being outside everyday reality
- Feeling greater inner clarity: knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing it
- Understanding the activity is doable: that our skills are adequate to the task
- Feeling a sense of serenity: no worries about oneself, growing beyond the ego
- Experiencing timelessness: thoroughly focused on the present, hours pass like minutes
- Intrinsically Motivated: whatever produces flow becomes its own reward
All you need to do now is apply that knowledge to your working life, and you’ll experience flow. Simple, no? Great! Now let's get real: how can you get in the flow, when your job seems to be the antithesis of it?
That question is an important place to start because if you absolutely loathe your work, you aren’t likely to experience flow there. Plain and simple. But before you drop your head in despair, you might ask yourself why you’re unhappy in your work. Are there things you can do to improve your attitude toward it? Are you intrinsically unhappy there, or do you dislike aspects of it? What can you change to make your days better?
If you have given an honest look and still can’t find enjoyment in your career, I would suggest moving on. Explore your passions, and find ways in which to bring those into your work. Express yourself meaningfully, and make a career of it. Whether that means further schooling, a certification, or an artists retreat - you will thank yourself later.
But if you do enjoy aspects of your work, and you want to achieve flow in those spaces, I suggest challenging yourself. Flex those mental muscles, push your boundaries, and really try to bring about a positive change with the work you choose. As outlined in the diagram below, flow is most commonly achieved when our challenges are higher than average, and our skills are higher than average.
How often do you challenge yourself at work? How often do you really climb the mountain? Have you let apathy and boredom rule your working day? Break that cycle NOW! If I can be so bold as to offer some simple advice...
Expand your knowledge. Go to the library, check out a book that really makes you think. It doesn’t have to be about your specific career - it just has to make you think differently.
Change your space. Work from home, or in common space in your office, or in your car, or standing up. Whatever you need to do to move away from the sense of apathy created by doing the same task, in the same position for years on end.
Get out of your comfort zone! When we get too comfortable, we become bored. And when we’re bored, we aren’t doing our best work. So ask meaningful questions in that next meeting, or share the idea you’ve been sitting on for too long. Ask a respected colleague to go out for lunch so you can pick their brain. Whatever it takes to make you just uncomfortable enough to break you out of the rut.
Believe in your vision. When we are thinking creatively, the human race can solve damn near any problem. As Anita Roddick famously said, “If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” As she implies, our cynicism (see: self-doubt) often gets in the way of doing work we can truly be proud of. So push beyond your cynicism, push yourself to your limits, and I promise you that flow will follow.