What happened to us ?
Long time ago our ancestors used not more than five hours a day on what we now call “work”: gathering food, building houses, making clothes and tools. The rest of the day was spent talking, resting and dancing. What a contrast compared to the 19th century factory-worker who worked six days a week and twelve hours a day!
“Il lavoro nobilitia l’uomo, e le rende simile alle bestie”: “Work can lift a man up but also makes an animal of him”, is the translation of this Italian proverb. The doctor in the new hospital and the slave carrying a heavy load are both working. But the doctor can learn everyday something new, he realises that he has things under control and is able to accomplish difficult tasks. The slave has to do the same tiring work again and again. How do we feel in our jobs, like the doctor or the slave ?
Work as a curse
Adam was punished by God with the curse ” cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life…by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food” (Genesis 3:17-19). Most cultures consider work (just like the Bible story) as a curse to be avoided as much as possible!
There is something strange about work. If we wouldn´t care about luxury, cars and beautiful houses there would be no much need for hard work. But the more we put our energy into material goals, the harder it is to realise them. To meet our climbing expectations, we must work harder, physically and mentally and use more and more natural resources.
Work as pleasure
Still work does not need to be unpleasant. Working can be tough or at least tougher than doing nothing but people can enjoy their work and it can be the best part of their life.
Scientists in Italy have studied traditional communities living in the Alps. These mountain people are happy people. Why ? Because they don’t make the difference between work and spare-time. Although life is not easy living in these mountains, the people in these villages do not experience their heavy work as a burden. They feel free, free in their work, they can do what they want, they don’t have a boss telling them what to do.
If your work is in a dark and dirty factory, even then you can enjoy your work. How ? By trying to manipulate and transform the opportunities even the simplest job offers. That is the difference between happy and unhappy people in their jobs. You can stay within the boundaries of the given reality and become unhappy. Or you can try to pass these boundaries and become happy. Even is your work is dull, give yourself new goals, make your work a game, more complex than it is. During World War II many Jews practised this mental technique in prison. In order to avoid madness they start counting the bricks in their cells or start asking questions. What was this brick made of, who made it, where did this man live etc. ? They made the killing dullness into a game. They looked behind their boundaries.
If you use your mental energy to achieve this you will find out that you too are able to lose yourself in your job (you feel part of a flow, you forget time) and you will see your work as a result of a free choice.
The paradox of spare-time
Work has the potential to give people the feeling that they are competent, it gives them challenges. This make you feel happy, strong, creative and satisfied. In spare-time many people feel sad, weak, listless and dissatisfied. But whoever you ask, people will always say that they want to work less and have more spare-time !
What does this mean ? During work people give little attention to their senses. They neglect the quality of the immediate experience their job offers them and base their motivation on the cultural biased stereotype of what work ought to be for them. They consider work as a burden, an obligation, an enemy of their freedom. So therefore work should be avoided as much as possible.
But many people do not know what to do in their spare-time. Ironically work can make you easier happy than spare-time because work has goals, feedback, rules and challenges which stimulate you to commit yourself to your job, to concentrate and forget yourself.
Spare-time on the other hand is unstructured and asks for a much bigger effort to be enjoyed. Hobbies which ask for a certain skills and inner discipline can make spare-time into what it is really meant for: re-creation. Most people let the change go by to enjoy spare-time more than their work.
The false promise of the entertainment industry
The entertainment industry tries to help people to enjoy their spare-time. But in stead of using our physical or mental abilities, many people spent every weekend hours in a stadium, looking at famous sportsmen and sportswomen. In stead of making music themselves, we listen to music of rich musicians. In stead of making art we admire the paintings in the museum. In stead of acting on our beliefs, we prefer to watch actors who pretend to be in adventures and who seem to live exciting lives. In stead of making our own webpages we only use our computer to visit other webpages we didn’t make…
Using your own skills leads to personal growth. Being passively entertained leads to nothing. We waste our energy for nothing, even more it tires us and discourages us.
Work and spare-time can both be disappointing unless you take control. Many jobs and leisure activities are not made to make us happy and strong. They are only there to make another person rich. If we do not resist this, it will use up all our life-energy. But work and spare-time can also contribute to our needs. You can learn to enjoy your work and use your spare-time fruitful.
The future belongs not only to the learned women or men who enjoy their work, but also to the one who has learned to use the spare-time useful.
(This article is an extraction and revision based on the book: Flow: psychologie van de optimale ervaring. by M. Csikszentmihalyi. Amsterdam: Boom 1999)