Since the nature of work is so universal and yet so varied, it makes a huge difference knowing the level of one’s overall contentment and whether what one does for a living is enjoyable, pleasure-inducing or not.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychologist, once said: “Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it… For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”
The elusive goal towards the pursuit of happiness in modern times identifies itself to be in an insatiable, culminating need for material acquisition and consumption of things, as the path to achieving well-being. Principles of economics, aimed at maximising pleasure (using a utilitarian calculus), stay embedded in explaining the relationship of variables like aggregate production, consumption, returns, income accumulation and the like in shaping the potential of a person’s well-being and quality of life.
An economic analysis emphasising on such materialised pursuit of human nature often discounts the real aspects affecting human happiness and well-being. These real aspects often include the experience derived from the nature of our work and social relationships, shaping the degree of our optimal experience in maintaining a higher quality of life or being happy in a conscious, existential space. I discuss the behavioural essence attached in studying the value and nature of work here.
As Thomas Carlyle said, “Blessed is her who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness”. Psychologists, sociologists and other social scientists studying the psychological basis of well-being often attach great value to people’s experiences from their work and their social relationships. Work and love, according to Sigmund Freud, qualify as the ultimate recipes for one’s happiness. In today’s global society, where the state of the economy and governing dynamics of the market are identified as foundational basis of social organisation, the value of work remains measured (quantifiably) or derived by the amount of income earned and levels of profits maximised.
In a previous article, I emphasised how in the case of GDP computation – identified as one of the most important measures of a society’s growth – it is difficult to measure the value of work beyond the number of hours put in to work and the total income earned. A human being’s productivity too, unfortunately, remains directly linked today with her/his yield of work (i.e. total output produced) given the hours put in to work. However, the value we give to our work and our attitude towards it can hardly be measured in such a limited quantifiable capacity.
Measuring the value of work and the level of happiness derived from it warrants an approach that is more experientially related and studied, i.e. on how a person identifies her/his experience of work. Because the nature of work is so universal and yet so varied – being an integral part of our daily existence – it makes a huge difference knowing the level of one’s overall contentment and whether what one does for a living is enjoyable, pleasure-inducing or not.
Valuing work in a behavioural sense
What we define today as work can only partially be understood as a time-involving process that is key to our survival needs or just as a means to accumulate basic material functionings (such as food, clothing, shelter) for livelihood purposes. A mathematician or scientist working on a numerical problem for hours and days may be driven by his passion for science or mathematics pushing him to seek more in his area of work. Similarly, an assembly line worker who enjoys working on machines may enjoy her/his work on a daily basis (while challenging himself to make most of the time spent working on the machine).
Rarely do economists make a conscious effort to understand this behavioural aspect of our experience attached in the value of work attributed by people from different walks of life living in a society. One reason for not doing so is that individual perceptions assigned by one person towards her/his work are considered independent from the other’s perceptions (owing to independent mental attributes and skills); however, studies from social psychologists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (through his concept of the ‘flow experience’) offer immense possibilities for economists to revisit and redefine the variables for assessing the behavioural value of work and the experience derived from it.
So, what do we understand by the concept of flow experience in work behaviour? The concept of flow, in academic jargon, is defined as a phenomenological model of consciousness based on the robustness of using information through experiences. More simply put, our ability to maximise our happiness or achieve a constant state of optimised well-being from work remains dependent on our mental abilities to deal directly with events (i.e. phenomena) as we experience and interpret them (i.e. while working) beyond the optics of a particular discipline or preconceived reactions (i.e. on how that particular work needs to be done). This behavioural concept, regardless of one’s nature of work, help us understand what makes a person derive maximum pleasure from her/his work.
Conditions for flow
In his work, Csikszentmihalyi observes how people who can consciously weave their personality and the experience of their work can maximise their happiness and quality of life by developing ‘autotelic personalities’ even in the most adverse conditions of work (or in an almost inhuman workplace). For developing autotelic personalities, at the time of work, a person needs to be less sensitive to the external conditions (of work) and be more conscious in understanding the strength of her/his skills to use them in a goal-directed way with all his concentration and intensity.
As an example, we can see how at times of playing a sport, solving puzzles (like crossword), listening to a stand-up comedian or while watching a good film etc., we are most aware (or in the moment) and tend to derive most pleasure out of the experience of doing an activity. If a person can train her/his mind in the same way (putting all his concentration) while working, maximum pleasure could be derived to increase the value of our work.
For any individual or group of people working in a company, the blueprint of being part of the flow experience will involve – paying close attention to the minutest details of their environment (via intense concentration); discovering hidden opportunities for action that matches their skill-set, capabilities in the given circumstance and setting goals that are appropriate in the given situation and closely monitor their progress through the informational feedback received by the mind.
The view that work undertaken as part of a flow activity (as per the above blueprint) is the most optimal way to fulfil and realise human potential, capabilities has often been proposed in the past (since ancient times) by various religious and philosophical systems. In Chinese philosophy, the concept of flow was taught in ancient times as the phenomena of Yu (referred in the writings of Taoist scholar Chuang Tzu), where Yu was considered to be the proper way to live-without being concerned for external rewards in a spontaneous manner with total commitment (i.e. by developing an autotelic personality). In India, the Yogic philosophy often emphasises on a similar conscious-driven approach to work and life.
Given a choice, most people today prefer maximising time for leisure in activities like sports, reading, traveling etc. (inducing a pleasant experience) and minimising time at a given location of work (inducing a less pleasant experience). Unless a person takes charge and applies the conditions of flow, the experiences from both work and leisure shall remain disappointing (having no relationship with the income earned or the output produced). The practical application inferred from the dynamics of flow experiences (based on thousands of sampled responses from people collected by social psychologists) offer great insights on redefining the value of work as a key constituent to human happiness (and well-being). As C.K. Brightbill once wrote, “The future will belong not only to the educated man, but to the man who is educated to use his leisure wisely”.
Deepanshu Mohan is assistant professor of economics at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Global Jindal University.