What is the difference between work engagement and flow?

What is the difference between work engagement and flow?

Work engagement has three aspects: vigor, dedication, and absorption.

Flow according to wikipedia "is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus".

What is the difference between the two concepts?

While there are some differences, the two concepts are closely related. Both flow and work engagement are "positive emotional states" (Schaufeli, Bakker and Van Rhenen, 2009, p. 898).

According to Schaufeli et al. (2009, p. 895) "recent research suggests that vigor and dedication constitute the core of engagement, whereas absorption seems to be related to the concept of flow" as defined by Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre (1989).

"However, typically, flow is a more complex concept that includes many aspects and refers to rather particular, short-term 'peak' experiences instead of a more pervasive and persistent state of mind, as is the case with engagement" (Schaufeli et al., 2002, p. 75). Moreover, work engagement refers specifically to "identification with one's work" (Schaufeli et al., 2009, p. 895).


Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(5), 815-822.

Schaufeli, W. B., Bakker, A. B., & Van Rhenen, W. (2009). How changes in job demands and resources predict burnout, work engagement, and sickness absenteeism. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(7), 893-917.

Schaufeli, W., Salanova, M., González-romá, V., & Bakker, A. (2002). The Measurement of Engagement and Burnout: A Two Sample Confirmatory Factor Analytic Approach. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3(1), 71-92.

Sanna J. Thompson, School of Social Work, University of Texas at Austin, 1717 W. 6th Street Suite 335, Austin, TX 78703, USA.

Kimberly Bender, School of Social Work, University of Texas at Austin, 1717 W. 6th Street Suite 335, Austin, TX 78703, USA.

Janet Lantry, School of Social Work, University of Texas at Austin, 1717 W. 6th Street Suite 335, Austin, TX 78703, USA.

Patrick M. Flynn, Institute of Behavioral Research, Texas Christian University, TCU Box 298740, Fort Worth, TX 76129, USA.

Authentic Happiness

When I started my work in Positive Psychology, my original view was closest to Aristotle's - that everything we do is done in order to make us happy - but I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science, or for any practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life. Moreover, the modern ear immediately hears "happy" to mean buoyant mood, merriment, good cheer, and smiling. "Happiness" historically is not closely tied to such hedonics - feeling cheerful or merry is a far cry from what Thomas Jefferson declared that we have the right to pursue - and it is an even further cry from my intentions for a positive psychology.

To understand what "happiness" is really about, the first step is to dissolve "happiness" into more workable terms. When I wrote Authentic Happiness a decade ago, I thought that happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. Positive emotion refers to what we feel: pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and other such emotions that contribute to the "pleasant life." Engagement is about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity, experiences which contribute to the "engaged life." The third element is meaning. I go into flow while playing bridge, but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am fidgeting until I die. Human beings, ineluctably, want the "meaningful life": belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than you are. Happiness and life satisfaction, I thought, could be increased by building positive emotion, engagement, and a sense of meaning in life.

I no longer think that positive psychology is about happiness, or about a quest for increasing life satisfaction through positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. It turns out that how much life satisfaction people report is itself determined by how good we feel at the very moment we are asked the question. Averaged over many people, the mood you are in determines more than 70 percent of how much life satisfaction you report. If positive psychology is to be more than a "happiology" of cheerful mood, we need to shift our focus to well-being. I believe the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing. Flourishing rests on five pillars, each of which we value for its own sake, not merely as a means to some other end. Positive emotion, engagement, and meaning are three of the pillars, but they cannot do the "heavy lifting" of supporting human flourishing by themselves.

Accomplishment (or achievement) is often pursued for its own sake, even when it brings no positive emotion, no meaning, and nothing in the way of positive relationships. Here is what ultimately convinced me: I play a lot of serious duplicate bridge. I have played with and against many of the greatest players. Some expert bridge players play to improve, to solve problems, to be in flow, or to experience outright joy. Other experts play only to win. For them, losing is devastating no matter how well they played. Some will even cheat to win. It does not seem that winning for them reduces to positive emotion (many of the stonier experts deny feeling anything at all when they win and quickly rush on to the next game), nor does the pursuit reduce to engagement, since defeat nullifies the experience so easily. Nor is it about meaning bridge is not about anything remotely larger than the self.

Winning only for winning's sake can also be seen in the pursuit of wealth. In contrast to philanthropic millionaires, there are "accumulators" who believe that the person who dies with the most toys wins. Their lives are built around winning, and they do not give away their toys except in the service of winning more toys. So well-being theory requires a third element: the "achieving life," dedicated to accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment.

Near the Portuguese island of Madeira, there lies a small island shaped like an enormous cylinder. At the top is a several-acre plateau on which are grown the most prized grapes that go into Madeira wine. On this plateau lives only one large animal: an ox whose job is to plow the field. There is only one way up to the top, a winding and narrow path. How in the world does a new ox get up there when the old ox dies? A baby ox is carried on the back of a worker up the mountain, where it spends the next forty years plowing the field alone. If you are moved by this story, ask yourself why.

Very little that is positive is solitary. When was the last time you laughed uproariously? The last time you felt indescribable joy? The last time you sensed profound meaning and purpose? The last time you felt enormously proud of an accomplishment? Even without knowing the particulars of these high points of your life, I know their form: all of them took place around other people. When asked what, in two words or fewer, positive psychology is about, Christopher Peterson, one of its founders, replies, "Other people." Other people is the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.

Recent streams of argument about human evolution point to the importance of positive relationships in their own right and for their own sake. Studies of the big social brain, the hive emotions, and group selection persuade me that positive relationships - key to "the connected life" - are a basic element of well-being.

Well-Being Theory: PERMA

In the new well-being theory, human flourishing rests on five pillars, denoted by the handy mnemonic PERMA:

Positive Emotion





These elements, which we choose for their own sake in our efforts to flourish, are the rock-bottom fundamentals to human well-being. What is the good life? It is pleasant, engaged, meaningful, achieving, and connected.

Work engagement

Work engagement is the "harnessing of organization member's selves to their work roles: in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, emotionally and mentally during role performances". [1] : 694 Three aspects of work motivation are cognitive, emotional and physical engagement. [2]

There are two schools of thought with regard to the definition of work engagement. On the one hand Maslach and Leiter assume that a continuum exists with burnout and engagement as two opposite poles. [3] The second school of thought operationalizes engagement in its own right as the positive antithesis of burnout. [4] According to this approach, work engagement is defined as a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption. [5] Vigor is characterized by high levels of energy and mental resilience while working, the willingness to invest effort in one's work, and persistence even in the face of difficulties dedication by being strongly involved in one's work, and experiencing a sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride, and challenge and absorption by being fully concentrated and happily engrossed in one's work, whereby time passes quickly and one has difficulties with detaching oneself from work. [6]

Organizations need energetic and dedicated employees: people who are engaged with their work. These organizations expect proactivity, initiative and responsibility for personal development from their employees. [7]

2. Stretching Your Skills Can Lead to a State of Flow

A slight stretching of your skills, or attempting something that is a little more advanced than your current abilities, can also foster a flow state.   For a dancer, this might involve attempting a move that presents a bit of a challenge. For a graphic designer, it might involve taking on a project that requires utilizing a new type of software.

Focus on adding new challenges on a regular basis. Not only will you become more skilled, you may find that the state of flow becomes much easier to achieve.

Employee engagement is an oft-used term that carries several meanings depending on the context in which it's used. Tracy laughed when I asked "What is associate engagement?"—because "engagement" is such an awkward term. In addition, employee engagement means different things to different organizations there's no agreement on one definition of "employee engagement," so organizations are developing it differently.

For our purposes here, the short-'n'-sweet of it is this: engagement is essentially a qualitative and quantitative understanding of the level of commitment between an employee and the organization or team with which they work. In fact, Tracy defines engagement as

"The extent to which associates feel PASSIONATE about their work, are INVESTED in an organization's purpose and values, and demonstrate creative effort in going "ABOVE AND BEYOND."

Many factors influence the commitment an associate might have to the organization and its goals, so "engagement" is really describing a set or a system of things that impact an employee. (At Red Hat, we call employees "associates" to honor the important creative role they play in the organization's overall performance. I'll use the terms interchangeably.) In addition, research on identity and inclusion suggests that individuals experience these impacts differently—so the "sets of things" can differ even within a team or organization.

In cases where engagement is high, associates:

  • Are excited and passionate
  • Use their discretionary attention to be more present and participate more, thereby increasing their creativity and performance
  • Experience more "creative flow" with their work, due to the intersection of intrinsic motivation and interest
  • Find their work meaningful and purposeful
  • Have the support of both manager and team
  • Work in a positive environment with support and psychological safety
  • Experience two-way, mutual trust—not only do they trust in leadership and their vision, mission, and purpose, but they are trusted by their managers and leaders.
  • Feel they have opportunities to grow
  • Experience increased resilience and holistic well-being (in work and in life)

But to truly understand engagement, we must also look at the inter-employee meaning of these indicators. While having a high degree of all these factors is great (many of us want these things in our work lives), they're not a direct measure of engagement. They contribute to what could be engagement. (Remember Tracy laughing at my question, "What is associate engagement?" Now we know why! It's complicated!)

Note that the items on this list are typical, day-to-day experiences—frequent and consistent ways employees experience their work and work environments. They aren't one-off techniques, like an annual engagement event or survey. They're part of the everyday relationships employees have with others (like managers) and their work, which means they're things organizational leaders (like managers) need to work on every day.

Go with the flow: engagement and concentration are key

Have you ever been so immersed in what you were doing that all distractions and background chatter just fell away? Nothing existed except the brush and your painting, your skis and the slope, your car and the road. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., calls that state of intense absorption “flow.”

For decades, he explored people’s satisfaction in their everyday activities, finding that people report the greatest satisfaction when they are totally immersed in and concentrating on what they are doing. In studies by Csikszentmihalyi and others, flow experiences led to positive emotions in the short term, and over the long term, people who more frequently experienced flow were generally happier. Researchers have also found that people vary in how much they value having flow experiences, and in how easy they find it to enter flow. No matter what your natural tendency, recognizing how flow occurs (or doesn’t) in your life and creating opportunities for more flow experiences can be a potent route to increased happiness.

What is flow?

As described in Positive Psychology, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, flow experiences have several common characteristics.

You lose awareness of time. You aren’t watching the clock, and hours can pass like minutes.

You aren’t thinking about yourself. Your awareness of yourself is only in relation to the activity itself, such as your fingers on a piano keyboard, or the way you position a knife to cut vegetables, or the balance of your body parts as you ski or surf.

You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts. Instead, you are completely focused on the activity—mastering or explaining a line of thinking in your work, creating tiers of beautiful icing for a cake, or visualizing your way out of a sticky chess situation.

You are active. Flow activities aren’t passive, and you have some control over what you are doing.

You work effortlessly. Although you may be working harder than usual, at flow moments everything is “clicking” and feels almost effortless.

You would like to repeat the experience.

Matching your skill level

The good news about flow and happiness is that you can increase the amount of flow experience in your life and reap the benefits, although it takes a certain amount of effort and comes more naturally to some people than others.

Flow experiences occur when there is a balance between the challenge of an activity and the skill you have in performing it (see “High skill + high challenge = flow”). When your skill is high but the challenge is low, boredom is the likely result. Set the challenge too high, though, by undertaking something that is way beyond your skill, and you’re out of the flow again.

Flow is more likely to happen when you’re playing a well-matched opponent, practicing a piano piece just a bit harder than the last one, or driving in unfamiliar terrain in a car you feel confident controlling. In one of Csikszentmihalyi’s studies on flow, people enjoyed a game of chess more if they played against someone who was slightly more skillful than they were, and that close games were more satisfying than blow-outs—even for the person who lost the match.

You can’t force flow, but you can invite it to occur more often, even in areas of life where it might seem unlikely.

Encouraging flow

In a landmark study Csikszentmihalyi carried out at the University of Chicago, flow-producing situations occurred more than three times as often when people were working as in their leisure time. The researchers didn’t just count extremely intense flow experiences, but also counted any time that participants scored above their personal average in both the challenge faced and skills being used at the time of sampling. Flow experiences at work occurred at all levels—among managers, clerical staff, and blue-collar workers.

When it comes to leisure time, people spend relatively little time “in flow.” In Csikszentmihalyi’s study, driving was the most uniformly positive flow experience, while watching TV was usually non-flow time.

Of course, flow isn’t guaranteed when you pick up your paintbrush, hockey stick, or flute. You can best fan the flames of flow by:

  • Aiming to surprise yourself and discovering new things about your abilities and the activity.
  • Choosing an activity that can provide you with new feelings, experiences, and insights, and allowing your feelings and awareness to flow without attempting to interfere.
  • Paying attention to your bodily sensations and posture.
  • Overcoming the urge to stop at every mistake. You are likely to be at your best when you focus on what you want to accomplish or experience and don’t allow mistakes to be distracting.
  • Accepting that physical symptoms of nervousness are normal and will naturally ease off once you get going.
  • Trying to work or play with others.
  • Maintaining your sense of humor.

High skill + high challenge = flow

“Flow” can happen during any activity when the level of challenge matches the level of skill. High challenge and low skill produce anxiety. Low challenge and high skill produce boredom.


In 1998, Seligman (the same person who conducted the learned helplessness experiments mentioned earlier), who was then president of the American Psychological Association, urged psychologists to focus more on understanding how to build human strength and psychological well-being. In deliberately setting out to create a new direction and new orientation for psychology, Seligman helped establish a growing movement and field of research called positive psychology (Compton, 2005). In a very general sense, positive psychology can be thought of as the science of happiness it is an area of study that seeks to identify and promote those qualities that lead to greater fulfillment in our lives. This field looks at people’s strengths and what helps individuals to lead happy, contented lives, and it moves away from focusing on people’s pathology, faults, and problems. According to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), positive psychology,

at the subjective level is about valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past) hope and optimism (for the future) and… happiness (in the present). At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom. (p. 5)

Some of the topics studied by positive psychologists include altruism and empathy, creativity, forgiveness and compassion, the importance of positive emotions, enhancement of immune system functioning, savoring the fleeting moments of life, and strengthening virtues as a way to increase authentic happiness (Compton, 2005). Recent efforts in the field of positive psychology have focused on extending its principles toward peace and well-being at the level of the global community. In a war-torn world in which conflict, hatred, and distrust are common, such an extended “positive peace psychology” could have important implications for understanding how to overcome oppression and work toward global peace (Cohrs, Christie, White, & Das, 2013).

On the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center conducts rigorous scientific research on healthy aspects of the mind, such as kindness, forgiveness, compassion, and mindfulness. Established in 2008 and led by renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson, the Center examines a wide range of ideas, including such things as a kindness curriculum in schools, neural correlates of prosocial behavior, psychological effects of Tai Chi training, digital games to foster prosocial behavior in children, and the effectiveness of yoga and breathing exercises in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to its website, the Center was founded after Dr. Davidson was challenged by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, “to apply the rigors of science to study positive qualities of mind” (Center for Investigating Health Minds, 2013). The Center continues to conduct scientific research with the aim of developing mental health training approaches that help people to live happier, healthier lives).

Conditions within the Flow model

Only during a big challenge or high skill the flow can develop itself. In the centre of the Flow model all frames of mind come together and the challenges and skills are of an average level. Depending on a number of factors, growth towards flow can be effected according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The three most important factors in this are:

  1. Formulating clear objectives in relation to the tasks and the activities.
  2. A good balance between the challenges of the activities and the understanding of one’s own skills.
  3. Good interim feedback (feedback loop) and after the tasks and activities have been carried out and (timely) adjustments if necessary.

What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless

New research offers insights into what gives work meaning &mdash as well as into common management mistakes that can leave employees feeling that their work is meaningless.


What to Read Next

Meaningful work is something we all want. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously described how the innate human quest for meaning is so strong that, even in the direst circumstances, people seek out their purpose in life.1 More recently, researchers have shown meaningfulness to be more important to employees than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion, or working conditions.2 Meaningful work can be highly motivational, leading to improved performance, commitment, and satisfaction.3 But, so far, surprisingly little research has explored where and how people find their work meaningful and the role that leaders can play in this process.4

We interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations and asked them to tell us stories about incidents or times when they found their work to be meaningful and, conversely, times when they asked themselves, &ldquoWhat’s the point of doing this job?&rdquo We expected to find that meaningfulness would be similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, in that it would arise purely in response to situations within the work environment. However, we found that, unlike these other attitudes, meaningfulness tended to be intensely personal and individual5 it was often revealed to employees as they reflected on their work and its wider contribution to society in ways that mattered to them as individuals. People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between work and the personal realm. We also expected meaningfulness to be a relatively enduring state of mind experienced by individuals toward their work instead, our interviewees talked of unplanned or unexpected moments during which they found their work deeply meaningful.

We were anticipating that our data would show that the meaningfulness experienced by employees in relation to their work was clearly associated with actions taken by managers, such that, for example, transformational leaders would have followers who found their work meaningful, whereas transactional leaders would not.6 Instead, our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work, but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.

We also expected to find a clear link between the factors that drove up levels of meaningfulness and those that eroded them. Instead, we found that meaningfulness appeared to be driven up and decreased by different factors. Whereas our interviewees tended to find meaningfulness for themselves rather than it being mandated by their managers, we discovered that if employers want to destroy that sense of meaningfulness, that was far more easily achieved. The feeling of &ldquoWhy am I bothering to do this?&rdquo strikes people the instant a meaningless moment arises, and it strikes people hard. If meaningfulness is a delicate flower that requires careful nurturing, think of someone trampling over that flower in a pair of steel-toed boots. Avoiding the destruction of meaning while nurturing an ecosystem generative of feelings of meaningfulness emerged as the key leadership challenge.

About the Research

Meaningful work is a topic that is receiving increased attention. However, relatively little empirical research investigates in depth what meaningful work actually means to individuals. To address this, we undertook an extensive review of the literature on meaningful work from various fields, including psychology, management studies, sociology, and ethics. Drawing on these findings, we defined meaningful work as arising &ldquowhen an individual perceives an authentic connection between work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.&rdquoi

To conduct our research, we wanted to garner insights from people in a wide range of work situations. We interviewed 135 individuals in 10 very different occupations and asked them about times when they found their work meaningful or meaningless. The occupational groups we studied were: retail assistants, priests from various denominations, artists (including musicians, writers, and actors), lawyers, academics from science disciplines, entrepreneurs who had started their own business, nurses in an acute care hospital, soldiers, conservation stonemasons who were working on the preservation of an ancient cathedral, and garbage collectors. All data were collected in the U.K. We transcribed the interviews and coded them by theme to uncover patterns in how people view their work.

The Five Qualities of Meaningful Work

Our research aimed to uncover how and why people find their work meaningful. (See &ldquoAbout the Research.&rdquo) For our interviewees, meaningfulness, perhaps unsurprisingly, was often associated with a sense of pride and achievement at a job well done, whether they were professionals or manual workers. Those who could see that they had fulfilled their potential, or who found their work creative, absorbing, and interesting, tended to perceive their work as more meaningful than others. Equally, receiving praise, recognition, or acknowledgment from others mattered a great deal.7 These factors alone were not enough to render work meaningful, however.8 Our study also revealed five unexpected features of meaningful work in these, we find clues that might explain the fragile and intangible nature of meaningfulness.

1. Self-Transcendent

Individuals tended to experience their work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves. In this way, meaningful work is self-transcendent. Although it is not a well-known fact, the famous motivation theorist Abraham Maslow positioned self-transcendence at the apex of his pyramid of human motivation, situating it beyond even self-actualization in importance.9 People did not just talk about themselves when they talked about meaningful work they talked about the impact or relevance their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment. For example, a garbage collector explained how he found his work meaningful at the &ldquotipping point&rdquo at the end of the day when refuse was sent to recycling. This was the time he could see how his work contributed to creating a clean environment for his grandchildren and for future generations. An academic described how she found her work meaningful when she saw her students graduate at the commencement ceremony, a tangible sign of how her own hard work had helped others succeed. A priest talked about the uplifting and inspiring experience of bringing an entire community together around the common goal of a church restoration project.

2. Poignant

The experience of meaningful work can be poignant rather than purely euphoric.10 People often found their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness. People often cried in our interviews when they talked about the times when they found their work meaningful. The current emphasis on positive psychology has led us to focus on trying to make employees happy, engaged, and enthused throughout the working day. Psychologist Barbara Held refers to the current pressure to &ldquoaccentuate the positive&rdquo as the &ldquotyranny of the positive attitude.&rdquo11 Traditionally, meaningfulness has been linked with such positive attributes.

Our research suggests that, contrary to what we may have thought, meaningfulness is not always a positive experience.12 In fact, those moments when people found their work meaningful tended to be far richer and more challenging than times when they felt simply motivated, engaged, or happy. The most vivid examples of this came from nurses who described moments of profound meaningfulness when they were able to use their professional skills and knowledge to ease the passing of patients at the end of their lives. Lawyers often talked about working hard for extended periods, sometimes years, for their clients and winning cases that led to life-changing outcomes. Participants in several of the occupational groups found moments of meaningfulness when they had triumphed in difficult circumstances or had solved a complex, intractable problem. The experience of coping with these challenging conditions led to a sense of meaningfulness far greater than they would have experienced dealing with straightforward, everyday situations.

3. Episodic

A sense of meaningfulness arose in an episodic rather than a sustained way. It seemed that no one could find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work was meaningful arose at peak times that were generative of strong experiences. For example, a university professor talked of the euphoric experience of feeling &ldquolike a rock star&rdquo at the end of a successful lecture. One actor we spoke to summed this feeling up well: &ldquoMy God, I’m actually doing what I dreamt I could do that’s kind of amazing.&rdquo Clearly, sentiments such as these are not sustainable over the course of even one single working day, let alone a longer period, but rather come and go over one’s working life, perhaps rarely arising. Nevertheless, these peak experiences have a profound effect on individuals, are highly memorable, and become part of their life narratives.

Meaningful moments such as these were not forced or managed. Only in a few instances did people tell us that an awareness of their work as meaningful arose directly through the actions of organizational leaders or managers. Conservation stonemasons talked of the significance of carving their &ldquobanker’s mark&rdquo or mason’s signature into the stone before it was placed into a cathedral structure, knowing that the stone might be uncovered hundreds of years in the future by another mason who would recognize the work as theirs. They felt they were &ldquopart of history.&rdquo One soldier described how he realized how meaningful his work was when he reflected on his quick thinking in setting off the warning sirens in a combat situation, ensuring that no one at the camp was injured in the ensuing rocket attack. Sales assistants talked about times when they were able to help others, such as an occasion when a customer passed out in one store and the clerk was able to support her until she regained consciousness. Memorable moments such as these contain high levels of emotion and personal relevance, and thus become redolent of the symbolic meaningfulness of work.

4. Reflective

In the instances cited above, it was often only when we asked the interviewees to recount a time when they found their work meaningful that they developed a conscious awareness of the significance of these experiences. Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.

One of the entrepreneurs we interviewed talked about the time when he was switching the lights out after his company’s Christmas party and paused to reflect back over the year on what he and his employees had achieved together. Garbage collectors explained how they were able to find their work meaningful when they finished cleaning a street and stopped to look back at their work. In doing this, they reflected on how the tangible work of street sweeping contributed to the cleanliness of the environment as a whole. One academic talked about research he had done for many years that seemed fairly meaningless at the time, but 20 years later provided the technological solution for touch-screen technology. The experience of meaningfulness is therefore often a thoughtful, retrospective act rather than just a spontaneous emotional response in the moment, although people may be aware of a rush of good feelings at the time. You are unlikely to witness someone talking about how meaningful they find their job during their working day. For most of the people we spoke to, the discussions we had about meaningful work were the first time they had ever talked about these experiences.

5. Personal

Other feelings about work, such as engagement or satisfaction, tend to be just that: feelings about work. Work that is meaningful, on the other hand, is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences. We found that managers and even organizations actually mattered relatively little at these times. One musician described his profound sense of meaningfulness when his father attended a performance of his for the first time and finally came to appreciate and understand the musician’s work. A priest was able to find a sense of meaning in her work when she could relate the harrowing personal experiences of a member of her congregation to her own life events, and used that understanding to help and support her congregant at a time of personal tragedy. An entrepreneur’s motivation to start his own business included the desire to make his grandfather proud of him. The customary dinner held to mark the end of a soldier’s service became imbued with meaning for one soldier because it was shared with family members who were there to hear her army stories. One lawyer described how she found her work meaningful when her services were recommended by friends and family and she felt trusted and valued in both spheres of her life. A garbage collector described the time when the community’s water supply became contaminated and he was asked to work on distributing water to local residents that was meaningful, as he could see how he was helping vulnerable neighbors.

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Moments of especially profound meaningfulness arose when these experiences coalesced with the sense of a job well done, one recognized and appreciated by others. One example of many came from a conservation stonemason who described how his work became most meaningful to him when the restoration of a section of the cathedral he had been working on for years was unveiled, the drapes and scaffolding withdrawn, and the work of the craftsmen celebrated. This event involved all the masons and other trades such as carpenters and glaziers, as well as the cathedral’s religious leaders, members of the public, and local dignitaries. &ldquoEveryone goes, ‘Doesn’t it look amazing?’&rdquo he said. &ldquoThat’s the moment you realize you’ve saved something and ensured its future you’ve given part of the cathedral back to the local community.&rdquo

These particular features of meaningful work suggest that the organizational task of helping people find meaning in their work is complex and profound, going far beyond the relative superficialities of satisfaction or engagement &mdash and almost never related to one’s employer or manager.

Meaninglessness: The Seven Deadly Sins

What factors serve to destroy the fragile sense of meaningfulness that individuals find in their work? Interestingly, the factors that seem to drive a sense of meaninglessness and futility around work were very different from those associated with meaningfulness. The experiences that actively led people to ask, &ldquoWhy am I doing this?&rdquo were generally a function of how people were treated by managers and leaders. Interviewees noted seven things that leaders did to create a feeling of meaninglessness (listed in order from most to least grievous).

1. Disconnect people from their values. Although individuals did not talk much about value congruence as a promoter of meaningfulness, they often talked about a disconnect between their own values and those of their employer or work group as the major cause of a sense of futility and meaninglessness.13 This issue was raised most frequently as a source of meaninglessness in work. A recurring theme was the tension between an organizational focus on the bottom line and the individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of work. One stonemason commented that he found the organization’s focus on cost &ldquodeeply depressing.&rdquo Academics spoke of their administrations being most interested in profits and the avoidance of litigation, instead of intellectual integrity and the provision of the best possible education. Nurses spoke despairingly of being forced to send patients home before they were ready in order to free up bed space. Lawyers talked of a focus on profits rather than on helping clients.

2. Take your employees for granted. Lack of recognition for hard work by organizational leaders was frequently cited as invoking a feeling of pointlessness. Academics talked about department heads who didn’t acknowledge their research or teaching successes sales assistants and priests talked of bosses who did not thank them for taking on additional work. A stonemason described the way managers would not even say &ldquogood morning&rdquo to him, and lawyers described how, despite putting in extremely long hours, they were still criticized for not moving through their work quickly enough. Feeling unrecognized, unacknowledged, and unappreciated by line or senior managers was often cited in the interviews as a major reason people found their work pointless.

3. Give people pointless work to do. We found that individuals had a strong sense of what their job should involve and how they should be spending their time, and that a feeling of meaninglessness arose when they were required to perform tasks that did not fit that sense. Nurses, academics, artists, and clergy all cited bureaucratic tasks and form filling not directly related to their core purpose as a source of futility and pointlessness. Stonemasons and retail assistants cited poorly planned projects where they were left to &ldquopick up the pieces&rdquo by senior managers. A retail assistant described the pointless task of changing the shop layout one week on instructions from the head office, only to be told to change it back again a week later.

4. Treat people unfairly. Unfairness and injustice can make work feel meaningless. Forms of unfairness ranged from distributive injustices, such as one stonemason who was told he could not have a pay raise for several years due to a shortage of money but saw his colleague being given a raise, to freelance musicians being asked to write a film score without payment. Procedural injustices included bullying and lack of opportunities for career progression.

5. Override people’s better judgment. Quite often, a sense of meaninglessness was connected with a feeling of disempowerment or disenfranchisement over how work was done. One nurse, for example, described how a senior colleague required her to perform a medical intervention that was not procedurally correct, and how she felt obliged to complete this even against her better judgment. Lawyers talked of being forced to cut corners to finish cases quickly. Stonemasons described how being forced to &ldquohurry up&rdquo using modern tools and techniques went against their sense of historic craft practices. One priest summed up the role of the manager by saying, &ldquoPeople can feel empowered or disempowered by the way you run things.&rdquo When people felt they were not being listened to, that their opinions and experience did not count, or that they could not have a voice, then they were more likely to find their work meaningless.

6. Disconnect people from supportive relationships. Feelings of isolation or marginalization at work were linked with meaninglessness. This could occur through deliberate ostracism on the part of managers, or just through feeling disconnected from coworkers and teams. Most interviewees talked of the importance of camaraderie and relations with coworkers for their sense of meaningfulness. Entrepreneurs talked about their sense of loneliness and meaninglessness during the startup phase of their business, and the growing sense of meaningfulness that arose as the business developed and involved more people with whom they could share the successes. Creative artists spoke of times when they were unable to reach out to an audience through their art as times of profound meaninglessness.

7. Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm. Many jobs entail physical or emotional risks, and those taking on this kind of work generally appreciate and understand the choices they have made. However, unnecessaryem> exposure to risk was associated with lost meaningfulness. Nurses cited feelings of vulnerability when left alone with aggressive patients garbage collectors talked of avoidable accidents they had experienced at work and soldiers described exposure to extreme weather conditions without the appropriate gear.

These seven destroyers emerged as highly damaging to an individual’s sense of his or her work as meaningful. When several of these factors were present, meaningfulness was considerably lower.

Cultivating an Ecosystem For Meaningfulness

In the 1960s, Frederick Herzberg showed that the factors that give rise to a sense of job satisfaction are not the same as those that lead to feelings of dissatisfaction.14 It seems that something similar is true for meaningfulness. Our research shows that meaningfulness is largely something that individuals find for themselves in their work,15 but meaninglessness is something that organizations and leaders can actively cause. Clearly, the first challenge to building a satisfied workforce is to avoid the seven deadly sins that drive up levels of meaninglessness.

Given that meaningfulness is such an intensely personal and individual experience that is interpreted by individuals in the context of their wider lives, can organizations create an environment that cultivates high levels of meaningfulness? The key to meaningful work is to create an ecosystem that encourages people to thrive. As other scholars have argued,16 efforts to control and proscribe the meaningfulness that individuals inherently find in their work can paradoxically lead to its loss.

Our interviews and a wider reading of the literature on meaningfulness point to four elements that organizations can address that will help foster an integrated sense of holistic meaningfulness for individual employees.17 (See &ldquoThe Elements of a Meaningfulness Ecosystem.&rdquo)

The Elements of a Meaningfulness Ecosystem

Individuals can derive meaning from their job, from particular tasks in their work, from interactions with others, or from the purpose of the organization. Although it is possible for someone to describe meaningfulness at work in terms of just one of the four elements, meaningfulness is enriched when more than one is present in a job, and these four elements can combine to enable a state of holistic meaningfulness.

1. Organizational Meaningfulness

At the macro level, meaningfulness is more likely to thrive when employees understand the broad purpose of the organization.18 This purpose should be formulated in such a way that it focuses on the positive contribution of the organization to the wider society or the environment. This involves articulating the following:

  • What does the organization aim to contribute? What is its &ldquocore business&rdquo?
  • How does the organization aspire to go about achieving this? What values underpin its way of doing business?

This needs to be done in a genuine and thoughtful way. People are highly adept at spotting hypocrisy, like the nurses who were told their hospital put patients first but were also told to discharge people as quickly as possible. The challenge lies not only in articulating and conveying a clear message about organizational purpose, but also in not undermining meaningfulness by generating a sense of artificiality and manipulation.19

Reaching employees in ways that make sense to them can be a challenge. A clue for addressing this comes from the garbage collectors we interviewed. One described to us how the workers used to be told by management that the waste they returned to the depot would be recycled, but this message came across as highly abstract. Then the company started putting pictures of the items that were made from recycled waste on the side of the garbage trucks. This led to a more tangible realization of what the waste was used for.20

2. Job Meaningfulness

The vast majority of interviewees found their work meaningful, whether they were musicians, sales assistants, lawyers, or garbage collectors. Studies have shown that meaning is so important to people that they actively go about recrafting their jobs to enhance their sense of meaningfulness.21 Often, this recrafting involves extending the impact or significance of their role for others. One example of this was sales assistants in a large retail store who listened to lonely elderly customers.

Organizations can encourage people to see their work as meaningful by demonstrating how jobs fit with the organization’s broader purpose or serve a wider, societal benefit. The priests we spoke to often explained how their ministry work in their local parishes contributed to the wider purpose of the church as a whole. In the same way, managers can be encouraged to show employees what their particular jobs contribute to the broader whole and how what they do will help others or create a lasting legacy.22

Alongside this, we need to challenge the notion that meaningfulness can only arise from positive work experiences. Challenging, problematic, sad, or poignant23 jobs have the potential to be richly generative of new insights and meaningfulness, and overlooking this risks upsetting the delicate balance of the meaningfulness ecosystem. Providing support to people at the end of their lives is a harrowing experience for nurses and clergy, yet they cited these times as among the most meaningful. The task for leaders is to acknowledge the problematic or negative side of some jobs and to provide appropriate support for employees doing them, yet to reveal in an honest way the benefits and broader contribution that such jobs make.24

3. Task Meaningfulness

Given that jobs typically comprise a wide range of tasks, it stands to reason that some of these tasks will constitute a greater source of meaningfulness than others.25 To illustrate, a priest will have responsibility for leading acts of worship, supporting sick and vulnerable individuals, developing community relations and activities, and probably a wide range of other tasks such as raising funds, managing assistants and volunteers, ensuring the upkeep of church buildings, and so on. In fact, the priests were the most hard-working group that we spoke to, with the majority working a seven-day week on a bewildering range of activities. Even much simpler jobs will involve several different tasks. One of the challenges facing organizations is to help people understand how the individual tasks they perform contribute to their job and to the organization as a whole.

When individuals described some of the sources of meaninglessness they faced in their work, they often talked about how to come to terms with the tedious, repetitive, or indeed purposeless work that is part of almost every job. For example, the stonemasons described how the first few months of their training involved learning to &ldquosquare the stone,&rdquo which involves chiseling a large block of stone into a perfectly formed square with just a few millimeters of tolerance on each plane. As soon as they finished one, they had to start another, repeating this over and over until the master mason was satisfied that they had perfected the task. Only then were they allowed to work on more interesting and intricate carvings. Several described their feelings of boredom and futility one said that he had taken 18 attempts to get the squaring of the stone correct. &ldquoIt feels like you are never ever going to get better,&rdquo he recalled. Many felt like giving up at this point, fearing that stonemasonry was not for them. It was only in later years, as they looked back on this period in their working lives, that they could see the point of this detailed level of training as the first step on their path to more challenging and rewarding work.

Filling out forms, cited earlier, is another good example of meaningless work. Individuals in a wide range of occupations all reported that what they perceived as &ldquomindless bureaucracy&rdquo sapped the meaningfulness from their work. For instance, most of the academics we spoke to were highly negative about the amount of form filling the job entailed. One said, &ldquoI was dropping spreadsheets into a huge black hole.&rdquo

Where organizations successfully managed the context within which these necessary but tedious tasks were undertaken, the tasks came to be perceived not exactly as meaningful, but equally as not meaningless. Another academic said, &ldquoI’m pretty good with tedious work, as long as it’s got a larger meaning.&rdquo

4. Interactional Meaningfulness

There is widespread agreement that people find their work meaningful in an interactional context in two ways:26 First, when they are in contact with others who benefit from their work and, second, in an environment of supportive interpersonal relationships.27 As we saw earlier, negative interactional experiences &mdash such as bullying by a manager, lack of respect or recognition, or forcing reduced contact with the beneficiaries of work &mdash all drive up a sense of meaninglessness, since the employee receives negative cues from others about the value they place on the employee’s work.28 The challenge here is for leaders to create a supportive, respectful, and inclusive work climate among colleagues, between employees and managers, and between organizational staff and work beneficiaries. It also involves recognizing the importance of creating space in the working day for meaningful interactions where employees are able to give and receive positive feedback, communicate a sense of shared values and belonging, and appreciate how their work has positive impacts on others.

Not surprisingly, the most striking examples of the impact of interactional meaningfulness on people came from the caring occupations included in our study: nurses and clergy. In these cases, there was very frequent contact between the individual and the direct beneficiaries of his or her work, most often in the context of supporting and healing people at times of great vulnerability in their lives. Witnessing firsthand, and hearing directly, about how their work had changed people’s lives created a work environment conducive to meaningfulness. Although prior research29 has similarly highlighted the importance of such direct contact for enhancing work’s meaningfulness, we also found that past or future generations, or imagined future beneficiaries, could play a role. This was the case for the stonemasons who felt connected to past and future generations of masons through their bankers’ marks on the back of the stones and for the garbage collectors who could envisage how their work contributed to the living environment for future generations.

Holistic Meaningfulness

The four elements of the meaningfulness ecosystem combine to enable a state of holistic meaningfulness, where the synergistic benefits of multiple sources of meaningfulness can be realized.30 Although it is possible for someone to describe meaningful moments in terms of any one of the subsystems, meaningfulness is enriched when more than one or all of these are present.31 A sales assistant, for example, described how she had been working with a team on the refurbishment of her store: &ldquoWe’d all been there until 2 a.m., working together moving stuff, everyone had contributed and stayed late and helped, it was a good time. We were exhausted but we still laughed and then the next morning we were all bright in our uniforms, it was a lovely feeling, just like a little family coming together. The day [the store] opened, it did bring tears to my eyes. We had a little gathering and a speech the managers said ‘thank you’ to everybody because everyone had contributed.&rdquo

Finding work meaningful is an experience that reaches beyond the workplace and into the realm of the individual’s wider personal life. It can be a very profound, moving, and even uncomfortable experience. It arises rarely and often in unexpected ways it gives people pause for thought &mdash not just concerning work but what life itself is all about. In experiencing work as meaningful, we cease to be workers or employees and relate as human beings, reaching out in a bond of common humanity to others. For organizations seeking to manage meaningfulness, the ethical and moral responsibility is great, since they are bridging the gap between work and personal life.

Yet the benefits for individuals and organizations that accrue from meaningful workplaces can be immense. Organizations that succeed in this are more likely to attract, retain, and motivate the employees they need to build sustainably for the future, and to create the kind of workplaces where human beings can thrive.

The Creative ɿlow': How to Enter That Mysterious State of Oneness

Flow -- the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task -- is a strong contributor to creativity. When in flow, the creator and the universe become one, outside distractions recede from consciousness and one's mind is fully open and attuned to the act of creating. There is very little self-awareness or critical self-judgement just intrinsic joy for the task. Since flow is so essential to creativity and well-being across many slices of life -- from sports to music to physics to religion to spirituality to sex -- it's important that we learn more about the characteristics associated with flow so that we may all learn how to tap into this precious mental resource.

But who enters flow? What are these lucky folks like? Recent research shows that people differ quite a bit from each other in the frequency and intensity of their flow experiences. These differences aren't just found in Western cultures. In a study conducted on Japanese students, those who reported experiencing flow more often in their daily lives engaged in more daily activities, and were more likely to have higher levels of self-esteem, Jujitsu-kan (a sense of fulfillment), life satisfaction, better coping strategies and lower anxiety.

In a hot-off-the-press paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience") and his colleagues in Sweden set out to investigate the associations between flow proneness, intelligence, and the major dimensions of personality. Across two samples of participants with a wide age range, they found some intriguing associations with flow. "Proneness to experience flow" was measured by having participants report how frequently they have flow experiences during three slices of life: work, maintenance (i.e., household chores) and leisure time. They then looked at relations with personality and cognitive ability.

Neurotic participants experienced less flow across multiple domains in their daily lives. The researchers offer some possible mechanisms that could account for this association. One possibility is that the negative emotions that come with high neuroticism interfere with the state of joy that occurs when in a flow state. Another possibility is that the fluctuations in emotion that come with neuroticism can also affect both the cognitive and emotional aspects of flow, causing a disruption in flow. A third possibility is that neuroticism impacts on flow indirectly, through the life choices those high in neuroticism make on a moment-to-moment basis. Research has shown that those high in neuroticism do tend to have less motivation to become involved in activities and experience a greater sense of futility in engaging fully in life.

The researchers also found an association between flow and conscientiousness. Those who were more dutiful and persevering also tended to report higher levels of flow in their daily lives. This association is probably due to the fact that conscientiousness is positively related to other variables that are also associated with flow, such as social problem solving, life satisfaction, subjective happiness, positive affect and intrinsic motivation. Conscientious individuals are also more likely to spend the time practicing to master challenging tasks, conditions which make flow more likely. As the researchers note, "It seems likely that high conscientiousness involves emotional and motivational mechanisms that make an individual engage in flow promoting activities."

The researchers didn't find significant relation with other factors of personality, which I found surprising. I expected them to find an association with Openness to Experience, as prior studies have found a positive link. Perhaps a reason for their lack of association with Openness may be that their Openness measure had quite a few items relating to a preference for intellectual engagement mixed in with items which are more strongly related to flow, such as an openness to aesthetics, feelings, and sensations. Indeed, there was only a very weak association between flow proneness and performance on an actual measure of intelligence, which required participants to find patterns. At first blush, it would seem as though intelligence would be related to flow. After all, intelligence is related to the ability to control attention.

But as the researchers note, the mental state of flow differs markedly from the mental state involved in solving problems on an IQ test. In a prior study conducted in Sweden led by Örjan de Manzano (who was a co-author of the study with Dr. Csikszentmihalyi), the researchers asked professional pianists to play a musical piece five times and rate their level of flow each time. The respiratory patterns and emotion-related activity of the facial muscles found in those entering flow more frequently suggested that they were experiencing an emotional state of enjoyment and a lack of mental effort. Contrast this with taking an IQ test, where it's difficult to bring your expertise to bear on the task. Instead, flow seems most likely to occur when a person engages in a task with a moderate level of challenge that is well matched in difficulty to a person's current skill level. Flow also shares some commonalities with the mental states of high concentration seen during meditation, which also seems to be a form of concentration uninhibited by our critical facilities when one is fully immersed in the moment. The researchers sum it up: "Flow may thus be a state of subjectively effortless attention that occurs during skilled performance and has different underlying mechanisms from attention during mental effort."

I'm excited to see that this is an active area of research. The finding that flow is more strongly related to personality than cognitive ability is fascinating and hopeful. Minor tweaks in your personality might make it more likely you will enter flow. The changes are well worth it.