Tag Archives: Flow

Today’s Labour Day. What do good jobs and happy companies look like?

Happiness at work. For some workers it is a contradiction in terms or a mirage, for other an aspiration or even reality. As today is Labour Day, it’s a good moment to answer a few questions how happiness at work can be pursued.

Happiness at work has been a powerful trend in recent years. Many companies have jumped on the bandwagon, rethinking how personnel find purpose in their work or recruiting happiness officers to organise fun activities and provide entertainment.

But what makes a happy company?

Characteristics of good jobs

As happiness at work is studied more seriously, there are more and more ideas and knowledge about what is needed to make us thrive in the work-place. The UK Business, Industry and Skills Department surveyed how employee wellbeing affects workplace performance. The survey’s 11 main takeaways on what makes a good job were summarised in the visual below by the What Works Wellbeing Center.

A lot of these elements are common sense: ownership and responsibility, variety in tasks, open communication, positive relations, learning, and a good balance between life and work. Implementation is step two, though. It requires a good company structure and the right culture to make sure they’re adequately implemented and not mere window-dressing.

Elements of good jobs. Source: What Works Wellbeing, https://whatworkswellbeing.org/blog/what-we-know-good-work/
Elements of good jobs. Source: What Works Wellbeing, https://whatworkswellbeing.org/blog/what-we-know-good-work/

 

The business of happiness at work

Some firms endow their HR department or another function, or even a dedicated Chief Happiness Officer, to bring happiness to the work place. Others work with external consultants specialising in the science of happiness at work and implementing changes at a project basis.

One such organisation in my current base of Warsaw, is the Employer Branding Institute (EBI). Apart from assisting firms is creating happier work places, it also runs a project called Pracuję bo lubię (I work because I like it). The project aims to raise the number of employees that are happy at work. There certainly is work to do: one Gallup study found that about 87% are unhappy or unengaged at work.

Health, atmosphere, purpose and flow

I sat down with Aleksandra Grabska of EBI, who rans the project and co-wrote the report, to ask her how they evaluate happiness at work. She explained me that they broke down happiness in four dimensions:

  • Health: a working culture that helps employees to live healthily. A job should not lead to too much stress, and employees should have the possibility to eat healthily. Even having a few good lunch options close to the office can contribute to happiness.
  • Atmosphere: humans are social animals, and the interaction with our colleagues – with whom we spend more time than with our partners! – is important. Thus, good employers invest in team dynamics. Hence all the Chief Happiness Officers organising champaign parties – and good managers focusing on open communication in their teams.
  • Purpose: ultimately, apart from basic needs and fun we also want to feel we are achieving something worthwhile. According to Aleksandra, this especially requires a bit of effort for bigger firms whose purpose is more abstract. These should make sure that employees with more technical or administrative tasks see how their support helps the firm achieves its mission. For instance, admin staff in an accountancy firm facilitate the work that accountants do in reviewing clients performance, and thus also support that those clients are well run and stable.
  • Flow: a final part of the picture is how we feel those 8 hours at work. Good jobs are those that create flow, or activities that can absorb employee who are  passionate about what they do.

And what about me?

But what, you might wonder, can I do to pursue happiness at work? There are a few thinks you can do. First of all, it helps to have a job in a company where you feel comfortable in the work environment and the sector. In some cases, that means simply packing up your things and leaving elsewhere.

A tool Aleksandra told me about is ‘job crafting‘, or slightly reshaping your job to match your ambitions. In many corporations, not all the content of the job is fully fixed. There will always be tasks that you can will have to take on, but many bosses are flexible enough to allow some degree of pro-activity and creativity. Volunteer to take on new projects, and try to carve out some time within your working week to do what gives you flow.

Good luck with the pursuit of happiness at work back in the office tomorrow!

Runner’s high

A man possesses nothing certainly save a brief loan of his own body, yet the body of man is capable of much curious pleasure.

James Branch Cabell, American author, 1879-1958

As I’ve written here before, ‘flow’ is one of my favourite experiences. ‘Flow’ or ‘optimal experience’ is a term used by positive psychologist Mihaly Csiskszentmihalyi, the most boring hero I have. With the concept, he describes the feeling you have when you’re so engaged in an activity that you lose track of time and place. Concentration is intense. Your activity challenges all your skills. Your self-consciousness disappears.

Very briefly, I experience such a feeling of flow when I was running the 20 kilometers of Brussels yesterday. It was close to the half-way point in the Bois de la Cambre. I had trained in this park before, and exactly knew where the curves of the road would take me. On a bridge above the street, a DJ was playing music. I didn’t actively notice which song it was, but it fitted the rhythm of my steps. And though I already had suffered the heat before – and would still suffer it a lot more afterwards – at this point close to the 10k mark, I entered my flow and ran effortless. A large smile appeared on my face. I was euphoric.

I experienced, I like to think, a runner’s high.

A runner’s high, tells Wikipedia, occurs when people exercise so strenuously that their bodies reach a certain threshold. A switch is turned, flow is achieved. In chemical terms, it’s created by the release of endorphins during intense workouts. Endorphins reduce the sensation of anxiety and pain and cause feelings of euphoria.

Running 20k on a warm day, like yesterday, is not fun. With a temperature above 20 degrees and a burning sun, I had to take regular breaks to get my body temperature  down (I had gotten sun burnt the day before, and still felt a bit light in my head). But when I crossed the finish line after 2 hours, 12 minutes and 19 seconds, nothing of this mattered. All suffering disappeared. I was proud. I was happy.

The body of man, Cabell said, is capable of much ‘curious pleasure’.

Crossing the finish (to the left side, in a Dutch orange shirt). Screenshot taken from a video from the site of the 20k of Brussels.

Crossing the finish (to the left side, in a Dutch orange shirt). Screenshot taken from a video from the site of the 20k of Brussels.

Csikszentmihalyi, for a flow of happiness

This post was first published on the blog of TEDxAmsterdam. TED’s library contains about fifty talks on happiness. In a new monthly series under the title TED & Happiness, I’ll be sharing the insights of TED speakers about happiness.

When are we happy? TED speaker Csikszentmihalyi has a surprising answer. According to his research, maybe we do better to find pleasure in difficulties activities, even hard work, than those activities that seem relaxing in themselves.

Of all the TED and TEDx talks on happiness, my favourite is the one by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow. His talk is not spectacular. Do not expect flying robots, emotive music or a call for revolution here. But behind his old-fashioned slides (a no fear for using a graph), Csikszentmihalyi shows his passion for passions. In his talk, the psychologist explores where our moments of happiness lie. His examples show that we experiences happiness when we are fully absorbed by an activity that challenges all our skills.

Mountain climbing

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the challenges we face and the skills we can use are the key to flow. Think of a mountain climber that is using all his forces to get around a challenging rock in a difficult climb. He is high on a mountain, fully concentrated and using all his energy to get grip. This is clearly not a relaxing or pleasing activity. The climber does not enjoy the cold wind or the difficulty of the situation he is facing.

Yet, when the climb is going well, it’s likely that he’ll experience flow. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow, or ‘optimal experience’, as an intense moment of concentration where you are fully focused on your present activity. Your self-consciousness disappears. Sense of time becomes distorted. Your hands and feet automatically find their path over the cold rocks. And when you make it to the top, there is a great sense of achievement. All these experiences are so gratifying that you want to climb the rock even if it’s difficult, dangerous, or without a real purpose.

The flow of music, sex… and work!

Thus it is moments of flow, or optimal experience, where happiness lies. The pretext is that if we want to be happy, it is not about being relaxed, but bored, for instance when we are watching TV. Instead, flow-inducing activities are those that require us to be active and to use our skills. Flow can be achieved by sports, by creative activities like music or writing, by sex… and even by work!

The interesting thing is that flow is something different for everybody. Even if I can’t climb mountains or compose music, I can experience it in another way. For me writing is such an area. Sometimes writing my blog articles is a pain. At times, I don’t know exactly what I want to say about the topic I choose. I might be anxious that my ideas aren’t original. But when I get in a good flow, my hands fly over the keyboard. Sentences appear magically on the screen, as if they wrote themselves. And I have the gratifying feeling of having created something that didn’t exist before.

The model of flow - and all other emotions experienced at various combinations of challenge and skill. Image: Wikipedia.

The model of flow – and all other emotions experienced at various combinations of challenge and skill. Image: Wikipedia.

Challenge your skills

The lesson from Csikszentmihalyi is simple. Be active. Work on your passion. Keep discovering and developing your talents. Challenge your skills. That is how you create the conditions that foster your flow.

The magic of TEDxAmsterdam: Humour, flow, wit, passion and power

There is something magical about TEDx events. Two weeks ago, TEDxBrussels kicked off my TEDx autumn. And last Wednesday, TEDxAmsterdam was something truly special. I don’t want to say too much about all the talks here – all my articles are on the TEDxAmsterdam site, and my fellow blogger Bibi Veth made an amazing visual storyboard.

Photo: Peter Clausman/TEDxAmsterdam

This year’s theme was ‘Connected Consequences’. Photo: Peter Clausman/TEDxAmsterdam

Instead, I’d like to share a couple of videos that show the humour, flow, wit and power of our speakers. TEDx speakers are people with amazing stories and know how to package a good idea in a captivating talk. As a listener, you can only stay silent in awe during the rollercoaster of ideas, energy and surprises.

Humour: Fons Trompenaars

Fons Trompenaars clearly is a gifted public speaker and applies a healthy dose of ironic remarks, often aimed at himself in his speech. It certainly works with a Dutch audience. In addition, the cultural differences and prejudices he refers to make a good laugh.

Flow: Benno Naaijkens

Every year, TEDxAmsterdam organises the TEDxAmsterdam Award to use its platform to bring great ideas closer to reality. This year’s winner is Benno Naaijkens. He delivered his speech seconds after he heard he had win, and is evidently extremely nervous (it has been cut out from the video, but he started with a nervous “Can you imagine… oh, fuck!”). Yet, during his speech, he forgets about the polished lines he had rehearsed, gets into his flow, and makes his call for support in a very authentic fashion.

Wit: Floris Kaayk

Floris Kaayk is an artist. He has a natural sense of creativity over him. In a brilliant, witty talk talk, he talks about a even more brilliant project by Jarno Smeets, an ordinary Dutchman with one dream: to fly with birdwings.

Passion: Jimmy Nelson

Photographer Jimmy Nelson’s wants to conserve the traditions of human civilisations all over the globe. In his book ‘Before they pass away’, he documents the lives of isolated tribes. Thanks to the personal stories he tells and the amazing pictures he shows, as a viewer you can personally feel his passion.

Power: Mona Eltahawy

Bam! Mona Eltahawy’s talk is like a storm, blowing you away with her energy and persuasion in her mission to bring sexual freedom to Arab women.