Number 7: Find Happiness in What You Do

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Humans do things. This is an obvious observation, but an important one. We never just sit idle — even when it appears we are doing nothing. We breathe, think, move around, look at things, listen to things, work, play, talk, etc. We are always doing something. The challenge is to find happiness in what you do, no matter what it is.

The challenge is to find happiness in what you do, no matter what it is.

What you do in life cannot make you lastingly happy. Such happiness is natural to you, and you only need to allow yourself to experience it. However, too often what we do in life negatively affects our ability to be open to happiness. Our reactions to what we do can be so overwhelming that they can get in the way of finding happiness. This is so even if we practice all of the ways of learning to be happy that I talk about in this book.

If what you do in life does not suit your skills, inclinations, likes, and emotional responses, your happiness and emotional health can suffer. So, you need to carefully choose what you do. What you do in life should make space for happiness and should not fill your mind-body with so much stress and worry that it prevents you from ever being happy.

If what you do does not suit you, and you cannot overcome your negative reactions to it, you should make a change. A fanciful, but interesting illustration of work that had to change comes from the television series, “Doc Martin.” In this BBC program, a successful London surgeon suddenly could not stand the sight of blood. He could not be a surgeon when he was sick at the sight of blood, so he left London to become a general practitioner, serving patients in a sleepy seaside town.

You cannot change what you do in an hour. Finding things to do that truly suit you can take time. However, if what you do prevents you from being happy, you need to start the process of changing what you do, or at least the way you do it.

Let’s consider school and work, two things that occupy most of our time. The following are some of the criteria you might want to consider when you go looking for what to do. What you choose need not meet all of these criteria, but it should meet as many as possible.

  • The work/schooling does not harm anyone, least of all you.
  • The work/schooling meets three basic psychological needs: the need to feel competent in what you do; the need to build relationships with the people around you; and the need to feel autonomous — meaning having choice and control of what you do.
  • The work/schooling focuses on goals that are intrinsically meaningful to you.
  • The work/schooling enables you to serve other people well.
  • The work/schooling facilitates flow experiences (I will get to flow shortly).

Also, if you really love to do something, or you feel called to do something, then you should take this into account in choosing work or school. You cannot just say to yourself, “I love (feel called) to do this, but it is impractical. I need to do something else.” Doing one thing while you yearn or feel called to do something else can be a happiness killer.

Inevitably, parts of what you end up doing may not meet anyone’s criteria for what is enjoyable. In addition, even if a job will eventually suit all of your requirements, there may be periods (such as an apprenticeship) during which your work/school is not much fun. As long as it does not make you miserable it is possible to approach what you do in such a way that you can still experience happiness doing it.

Regardless of whether the work is inherently enjoyable or dull, if you can you should approach what you do in a way that makes it a flow experience. A flow experience is a state of mind in which you enter completely into a task, forgetting about everything but the task. This getting-lost-in-the-work is usually very enjoyable. If you can find flow in what you do, you can be happy doing it, whatever it is.

For example, in the seminal book on flow experiences, titled Flow, [1]  the author talked about an individual who worked on an assembly line. All day, every day, the person attached the same part to the item being built on the line. This could be a miserable experience for some people. However, the way this person approached the job made this into a flow experience. He reported enjoying his work, even after years of doing the same thing over and over.

To understand why a seemingly dull job could be an enjoyable flow experience, we have to understand the way such an experience is created. The four requirements for any activity to be a flow experience are:

  • The activity should require skill;
  • The activity should be challenging, but doable;
  • The environment in which the activity is performed should allow you to focus all of your attention on the task; and
  • The results (feedback) from what you do should be clear and immediate.

What the assembly worker did was record the amount of time he took to perform his task, and then each day devised ways to do it a little faster. This, for him, was a challenge that kept him engaged, and it created a flow experience. In many ways, this is not much different from the way a marathon runner approaches a race. The runner takes an extremely repetitive task, and fine tunes it so that he/she can go the fastest with the least amount of effort, for the longest time.

Many of us could say that what we do is just as repetitive and dull as what the assembly worker was doing.  The same old grind, day after day, year after year – with little to show for it, other than making money. It is worthwhile to turn this sort of work into a flow experience.

What does a flow experience feel like when you enter into one? Let me illustrate from my own experience. Years ago a friend and I used to spend afternoons playing the ancient game of Go. The basic rules of the game are simple. However, it is a difficult game to master. We were evenly matched and challenged each other. Sometimes I won and sometimes he won. All of the elements of a flow experience were there when we played. The game was challenging, but I went into each game knowing I had the skill to win. We were both free to concentrate fully on the game. The goals of the game were clear, and there was always a clear winner, so we both had immediate feedback.

When we sat down to play, we both easily entered into a flow experience. I recall the feeling of moving my pieces effortlessly, and always feeling that I was in control of my game. We both forgot about everything except the game, and time did not exist for us. I remember many times we would put a pot of coffee on the stove, and the next thing we knew all of the water from the pot had evaporated and the pot was starting to smoke. We were happy. I look back with great fondness on those games.

Like my friend and I, many people play games that allow them to experience flow. For some, these are their only flow experiences, but others, like the assembly worker, are able to make work or school into such an experience.

Another way in which any kind of work or school can be enjoyable involves acceptance. True happiness exists here and now, and you only have to be present to experience it. In other words, your attention has to be in the present. If you can accept what you do emotionally, regardless of what it is, then you can be present. If you cannot accept it, then your attention will be somewhere else and happiness will elude you.

For example, assume a young girl has a weekend job bagging groceries. What she wants to be doing, however, is sitting at her computer logged into social media sites. If she does not emotionally accept what she does, she may be unhappy, or at best bored, until she gets off work. On the other hand, she might emotionally accept what she does, and challenge herself to do the best job possible. If she does this, she may happily breeze through the day, and when it comes time to be with her friends she will be in a good mood.

To emotionally accept something is to accept it exactly the way it is, with no emotional resistance. You can still plan to change what you do or how you do it. I do not recommend passivity or fatalism. But, when you emotionally accept what you do right now you make space for happiness to enter into your life.

If you cannot emotionally accept what you do, and you are emotionally attached to desiring something else, you are stuck. You are stuck in the idea that your happiness depends on what you do. It doesn’t. Your power to be happy is always available to you.

If you cannot emotionally accept what you do, and you are emotionally attached to desiring something else, you are stuck. You are stuck in the idea that your happiness depends on what you do. It doesn’t. Your power to be happy is always available to you.

What to do

So, what can you do, right now, to be happier in your work or school? If you are unhappy right now, coming up with a plan for a change will definitely make you happier. The change may involve different work or schooling, or it may involve changing the way you approach what you do.

As you sit reading this book, think about what you do. Does what you do make it impossible for you to be happy? For example, do you react so negatively to what you do that you have to spend your leisure time recovering from its effects? (e.g., Do you have to anesthetize yourself with alcohol or drugs?) If so, start looking for something else to do.

If what you do does not make it impossible to be happy, then think about what you will be doing tomorrow and the next day. Can you change the way you approach what you do, so that you can create a flow experience for yourself? If so, figure out how to do that. Figure out how to challenge yourself to doing a better and better job of whatever it is.

Is there a way that you can emotionally accept what you do? For many of us this is difficult because we spend much of our time wishing we were somewhere else, doing something else. The following exercise may help you find acceptance. This exercise involves work, but you can use it for school as well.

Here is the acceptance exercise:

Think about something you do at work that you would rather not be doing. Picture it in your mind, and try to bring up the feelings and sensations you experience while doing it.

Now, bring to mind what you would rather be doing instead of working. Once again, picture it in your mind and try to experience the feelings and sensations that go with it.

Now, go back to the work activity and tell yourself “I accept doing this, and I am willing to be happy doing this.” As you say this to yourself, do so with will and intention. Try to make yourself feel happy about doing whatever it is.

If, as you do this exercise, you feel even a little of the happiness you are trying to attribute to the activity you have taken a big step. The truth is, as long as your reaction to the activity is not so negative that you cannot cope with it emotionally, you can be happy doing anything. It is your emotional resistance that prevents you from experiencing this happiness. This exercise attempts to break down that resistance.

Ultimately, this exercise asks you to consider the following question: do you want to be happy, or do you want to keep resisting what you do because it is not what you would rather be doing?

Posted by D.E. Hardesty

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For more, see

Finding Your Power to Be Happy.

finding your power to be happy

Be Happier in One Hour

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[1] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008). Flow (P.S.). HarperCollins.

7 thoughts on “Number 7: Find Happiness in What You Do

  1. Well said! 🙂 great read! Thankyou needed this as sometimes even though i am doing something i love i am still having this thought in the back of my head about how i am supposed to be doing something else and not waste my time over a mere hobby.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Number 7: Find Happiness in What You Do | How to Be Happy

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