3 Secrets to Loving What You Do (Part I)

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The Challenge: Many people feel frustrated with their job and it shows.
The Science: There are ways to boost both job satisfaction and productivity.
The Solution: Learn the 3 science-based secrets to loving what you do!
There’s a popular Twitter hashtag, #tgif. It means: Thank God it’s Friday.

It is odd how negatively people often relate to work. In addition to the preference for Fridays, the attitude is exemplified by this George Carlin quote I once saw written on a wall in a bar:

Oh, you hate your job?
Why didn’t you say so?
There’s a support group for that.
It’s called EVERYBODY
and they meet at the bar.

Granted, work is not always all that fun. But work does take about half of your adult waking hours. The idea of investing half of your most vital years into paying the rent just doesn’t make any sense.

Flow and Work

Flow is the optimal experience of really getting carried away with action. As professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues, it is one of the most pleasant human experiences. While work is often discussed in negative terms, it is also, as Csikszentmihalyi found out, the most typical place where we experience flow.

In addition, work can also be one of the most meaningful parts of a life. To get to meaningful work, we need to build a sustainable process where your passion feeds to your skills in the service of a greater good.

We must create work where your passion meets the needs of the world.

The Psychological Needs

It is interesting to find that many researchers have ended up with three quite similar key factors to well-being.

Most prominently, the motivational psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci talk about basic psychological needs we all aim to satisfy. The needs are autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Autonomy means the sense of oneself as a sovereign individual. Competence means the capacity to get things done. And relatedness means high quality authentic human relationships. If these needs are satisfied, we thrive. If they are thwarted, we languish.

Good Work and Mass Flourishing

Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon have, in turn, identified three key factors to what they call good work. These are engagement, excellence and ethics. Engagement means that you are really into what you do. Excellence means that you do it well. And ethics means that whatever you do produces more good than adversity.

Then there is the Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps’ idea of mass flourishing. Phelps argues that in order for an economy to flourish, its individuals, on a grassroot level, should be capable of self-expression, personal growth and experiencing meaningfulness.

Freedom, Flow and Fulfillment

These three divisions each follow a roughly similar pattern.

1) The emphasis is on the individual. Autonomy, engagement and self-expression concern primarily the individual’s capacity to action.

2) The emphasis is shifted to the activity of the individual. Competence, excellence and personal growth all concern what we get done.

3) We need to take into account the sense of meaningfulness that arises from a contribution towards a greater good: the society and the ecology. In other words, the world we live in.

It’s not enough that we experience fun and progress in our work. In order to build a sustainable process, the work must also contribute and create value for others.

These divisions can be expressed as composite concepts freedom, flow and fulfillment. Freedom means the capacity to act. Flow means the action itself. And fulfillment means action in service of the well-being of others. These are the three keys to meaningful work.

These three factors also form a positive spiral.

Freedom enables experimentation and self-exploration which contribute to the discovery of one’s passions. Flow, the optimal experience of really putting yourself into the action, in turn arises from the passions and contributes to efficient and productive work.

If the goals are chosen in the service of others, the activity leads to what Michael Porter and Mark Kramer called creating shared value. In creating shared value in a market economy we build a market dynamic that provides the valuable member of the society with greater resources, either in terms of money or time.

This increases freedom, leading to more flow, leading to more fulfillment. And so on.

This is the dynamic of meaningful work.

Understanding the dynamic of meaningful work is, however, not enough. The principles must also be put to work. This is best done by job crafting, to which I will return in the second part of this post.

-Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance. New York: Harper Perennial.
-Gardner, H., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Damon, W. (2001). Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet. New York: Basic Books.
-Phelps, E. (2013). Mass Flourishing. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
-Porter, M. E., & Kramer, M. R. (2011). Creating Shared Value. Harvard Business Review, Jan 2011.
-Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.

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Lauri Jarvilehto
Lauri Järvilehto, Ph.D., is an endlessly curious builder of Lego starships, a metaphysical explorer and a Sherlock Holmes fan. His mission is to figure things out to make people’s lives better. Lauri is the founder of the Academy of Philosophy in Helsinki where he builds bridges between academia and businesses.
Lauri Jarvilehto

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