Why do you, I and so many people around the world hate working so much? As you’d expect there’s a bunch of articles already written about why you hate working with the usual rationale; you hate your boss, not enough pay, long hours, stress etc, etc. While all these reasons are valid, it’s minutiae and misses the big picture.
If you read much non-fiction then you may have seen references to books written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the topic flow.
Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “optimal experience”. During flow, the self dissolves, you typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. Csikszentmihalyi didn’t invent flow, more so gave it a name, what many before would have referred to as “being in the zone”.
Fundamentally Csikszentmihalyi’s books are about happiness. Aristotle was quoted as saying that happiness is the meaning and purpose of life. I find this hard to argue with but how do you get happy?
Csikszentmihalyi helps answer this. You need to spend more of your life in activities that enable flow. Flow makes happiness. Csikszentmihalyi says “[flow] at work, is linked to productivity, motivation and company loyalty”. Unfortunately, most of the work we do today doesn’t enable flow, although it once did.
Work as foragers
In Flow Csikszentmihalyi describes in the extract below how before the Agricultural Revolution, our work was an activity that was highly flow-like. It wouldn’t have felt like work in the modern sense.
Hunting, for instance, is a good example of “work” that by its very nature had all the characteristics of flow. For hundreds of thousands of years chasing down game was the main productive activity in which humans were involved. Yet hunting has proven to be so enjoyable that many people are still doing it as a hobby, after all practical need for it has disappeared. The same is true of fishing. The pastoral mode of existence also has some of the freedom and flowlike structure of earliest “work.”
[Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi]
In the early Stone Age before farming and land ownership, it was arguably the most equal society has ever been with nearly everyone having the same “job”. Many of the activities we undertook as foragers are now considered leisure activities by today’s standards.
Boring, back-breaking work with long hours first came in as part of the Agricultural Revolution. Prior to farming, we were unlikely to be dreading Monday morning because we had to go hunting, gathering or fishing.
Feel good nonsense
Feel good memes tell you to “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. The problem with this is it ignores reality. Take a look on your local job posting website and find something that a) looks enjoyable and b) you stand a chance of getting. Even if you find a job posting that looks enjoyable, would it still be enjoyable after a few months?
A common trap some fall into after corporate-world-burn-out is to find work with purpose and go work for a charity, only to realise after a few months that it’s the SSDD but with less pay.
I don’t envy the generations that worked in cotton mills, coal mines or steel factories, however, today’s offices and the service sector are still factories from a psychological perspective.
Back to flow
As Csikszentmihalyi put it “human beings feel best in flow, when they are fully involved in meeting a challenge, solving a problem, discovering something new”. But we both know that most jobs don’t support this. I’m rarely solving new problems or discovering anything new. My days are filled with replying to emails and joining pointless Zoom calls.
None of this is to say that it’s impossible to find work that enables flow. We all know there are people out there that genuinely enjoy their jobs. Quite often it’s the creatives, the work that traditionally doesn’t pay that well — artists, painters and musicians.
How to stop hating work so much
I’m a sceptic. If we believe what we’re told, we should love our work. The problem with this advice is that it normally comes from outliers, uber-achievers. We are comparing ourselves like never before, for most of human existence there wasn’t any media, now media has become our lives. We feel like failures if we don’t live up to the standards set by self-help gurus and social media influencers.
A different approach and one you’re unlikely to hear is to accept defeat. Embrace the fact that work isn’t fun, it’s just a fact of life, throughout history the overwhelming proportion of the population wouldn’t have enjoyed work. Just be grateful that the work you’re doing today is an improvement on being in a cotton mill or working on a farm.
That doesn’t stop you hating work though.
One solution I see to stop hating work so much is to have a clear means to an end. And by that, I don’t mean “I work to pay the bills”. The below extract from Finding Flow gives examples of how people work to feed their passions. In this situation, you’re more appreciative of what you’re doing regardless of how dull it may be as it’s paying for an overseas adventure, a new pair of boxing gloves or a guitar.
There are well-trained engineers who leave their jobs and wash dishes in restaurants during the winter so they can afford to do rock climbing all summer. There are colonies of surfers on all the beaches with good waves who live hand-to-mouth so they can cram in as much flow as possible on their boards.
[Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi]
So why do you hate working so much? In summary, you probably have a job that doesn’t engage in flow and in part because of too much media consumption that fuels unhealthy comparison.
As I see it, there are two solution:
- Do work you’re passionate about (that enables flow)
- Accept that work isn’t meant to be fun but counterbalance this with pastimes that enable flow
Take your pick based on your personality and what opportunities are realistically available. Although we should always strive for improvement we also need to be pragmatic.