Since God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden and forced them to toil, we’ve understood work as a terrible burden rather than a source of pleasure. The common conception is labor is an onerous responsibility, a wearisome obligation to get over and done. But philosophers throughout the ages have recognized that—despite prevailing belief— work is crucial to happiness. “Work,” astute philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell once noted, “is desirable, first and foremost, as a preventive of boredom.” Not only is work an antidote to ennui— it’s humanity’s most profound source of satisfaction.
This vital link between labor and happiness is what ground-breaking positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi examines in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a brilliant culmination of years of scientific research that today stands as his crowning achievement. Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as an exalted state of consciousness where you’re so completely absorbed by the task at hand that you experience the pure bliss of doing something for its own sake. The poet who reveres language and spends hours choosing the word that precisely conveys his meaning, the painter who looks at the clock only to realize a whole day has passed since he first began at the easel, the scientist who— so engrossed in a problem— forgets to eat his regular meals: all know this magical state.
Often called a “man obsessed by happiness,” Csikszentmihalyi and his team devoted years to uncovering what, exactly, brings about this entrancing euphoria. What Csikszentmihalyi found was that most people experience flow while working. Though participants surveyed reported far higher rates of engagement while working than while relaxing in leisure, most nevertheless disclosed they’d rather be “somewhere else.” Csikszentmihalyi observed the opposite phenomenon when participants reported their feelings during leisure. Despite the fact that they were often the least captivated while say, watching television or reading for pleasure, respondents claimed they felt most motivated while liberated from the drudgery of work.
But why is this? Csikszentmihalyi attributes the paradox to our cultural attitudes toward work:
“When it comes to work,” he explains, “people do not heed the evidence of their senses. They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly rooted cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like. They think of it as an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of their freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible.”
However, it is just the nature of work—its goal-direction, its confinement to rules, its immediate feedback— that make it so conducive to flow. Though work provides us with more opportunities for challenge and, thus, genuine gratification, the sad reality is most of us count the minutes until we can leave the office and engage in “real” pleasure.
This, I think, is why free time is so often unsatisfying, why a hard won vacation or sabbatical usually disappoints. Unstructured time is just that: unstructured. In order to feel fully engrossed in the moment, to feel enthralled by living, we must be engaged in the pursuit of a goal— a few leisurely hours after work offer nothing to strive for. Yet at work we have countless things for which to aim: the doctor, to cure his patient, the teacher, to explain a difficult math problem. Without an end in mind, life becomes pointless— we need something to direct our energies. As New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean notes in her poetically understated prose:
“The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”
If the natural state of the mind is entropy, then from a purely psychological, scientific point-of-view, life is chaos. As Orlean so beautifully articulates, work— a passion, a dream, an obsession— shrinks the world to a more “manageable” scope. It is passion that brings law to anarchy, order to chaos. Imagine a dazed, humid summer afternoon. If you passed these hours unhurriedly reading whatever was at hand, I doubt the afternoon would hold any meaning for you. But if you used your “unstructured” hours for some purpose, say, to read the great romantic poets or study Italian or read philosophy or learn French, those hours would be both more absorbing and more memorable.
“Contrary to what we usually believe,” Csikszentmihalyi defends, “the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”