Seeking True Enjoyment

Why do we often feel as though we are stuck in rut? Why does it feel as though the joy that we once found in our work is lost and we are merely trudging along with life – just because we have to? Why does one feel, that despite being creatively active, boredom swoops in and takes a hold of the mind?

Flow (1990), by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, explores the reasons we feel a lack of enjoyment in our work. It delves into why people become too focused on other’s opinions and external rewards, and lose touch with their relationships with work and the meaning of their lives. With examples from ancient wisdom, modern psychology, and philosophy, it is a groundbreaking, empirical work of research that shows how one can truly focus on intrinsic rewards – where one can purely focus on their interests without letting the external rewards and others’ opinions hinder them in doing their best at work and leading truly contented lives.

Religion And Luxury Lead To Indifference And Meaninglessness

Religion helps us cope with feelings of unhappiness and lack of fulfillment. This comfort in organized religion stems from the fact that these religions have set rules within which society runs its basic faculties and finds meaning within them. Nevertheless, discovering the predicament of the universe has shown us that the principles of religion are wrong. Yet, people have time and again turned to religion, and still do. For example, at the peak of their power, the Romans thought that they had conquered their fates, until their empires collapsed, breaking their bubbles of comfort.

People often turn to external rewards such as fame and wealth to seek comfort too. Today, the luxuries of modern life make people believe and struggle for the comforts they offer, without realizing that these don’t bring happiness either. It is a fact that the wealthiest man won’t be truly free from unhappiness. Yet in order to derive meaning, people show off their wealth or seek positions of power to change their environment to sustain happiness.

This is the reason why a closer look at our lives shows us how unhappy we really are, as compared to viewing it from a distance.

Genes Push Us Towards Basic Pleasures

True enjoyment in life is difficult to attain. Moreover, the attention span of humans is limited and we prefer to seek instant gratification from the simpler pleasures rather than pursue the ‘hard-to-attain fruits of true enjoyment. We are simply genetically bound to seeking the restorative order of basic pleasures. For example, our bodies have evolved to feel hungry when our blood sugar dips low.

True enjoyment, on the other hand, requires one to concentrate and use their skills and to stretch their limits and go beyond the confines of one’s genes, pushing one to focus and control their attention towards attaining their goals. For example, when a person tries to make a complicated dish, he uses all his patience and skill, as well as the understanding of a sophisticated palate, in order to be able to enjoy every bit of the final dish.

Even then, the person seeks pleasure rather than enjoyment.

Take for example, when people wind down on the weekend after a particularly difficult week, they prefer to sit with a drink, or even indulge in recreational drugs. While these provide relaxation, they often deplete our ability to concentrate and make us lose control. These are forms of external rewards that do not need one to exert their skills or focus on goals.

Thus, pleasures take us down the path of distraction and least resistance.

Flow (1990) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow (1990) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The Elements Of Enjoyment

Enjoyment can be defined as a feeling experienced when one has a clear goal, engages in an activity to reach that goal which has a balance of challenges and skills and receives immediate feedback. Yet, people experience enjoyment in different unique ways and use different terms to express what they feel.

For example, surgeons get immediate visual feedback of how well they are performing an operation when they are seeing less blood in an incision or extract a diseased organ successfully. On the other hand, doctors who practice internal medicine, do not get an immediate visual of their success, even though they have clear goals as well.  They need to set different goals for enjoyment – such as being able to correctly identify an illness and treat it successfully with the right medicine.

Truly enjoying the task at hand, or getting ‘in the zone’ involves having a feeling of being in control with awareness and action. Rock climbers, for example, have to devote their complete attention to successfully assessing the dangers in the task at hand. Their enjoyment lies in quelling their fears by using their expertise.

The complete concentration and immersion we see in surgeons or rock climbers is powerful enough to take a person away from self-consciousness and anxiety. Such concentration can make a person lose track of time, enabling them to truly enjoy what they do.

Personal Rewards Incite Skill Development

Once, a US tourist walked into an antique store in Naples, looking to buy a sculpture. The owner of the store quoted a very steep price on the sculpture. When the tourist agreed to pay the quoted price, the owner said that the sculpture wasn’t available for sale.

Here, the owner changed his stance not to exploit the tourist, but because he enjoyed bargaining and the sharpening of his mental dexterity and selling skills. People tend to try to achieve more and expand their personal limits when a task is neither difficult nor easy. A tennis player, for example, will simply enjoy getting the ball across the net as a beginner. With practice, as the task isn’t challenging anymore, the player will set his sights on something more difficult – like practicing the perfect serve or playing against another skilled player.

If the player finds a highly skillful opponent, he may feel out of depth and even give up because the challenge is too difficult. However, if the opponent is just a notch above the player’s skill level, he could actually have a chance at improving his skills at tennis. However, for skill improvement, it is essential that the player’s skills be aligned with his personal goals, remain unaffected by external rewards, or threats of punishment. 

Eva Zeisel was a ceramist who was imprisoned by Stalin’s Police. In order to maintain her sanity while in prison, she would play chess with herself in her mind, did gymnastics, and even memorized her own poetry. Her personal goal kept her motivated to improve her skills and control her consciousness at a time when there was little else that could motivate her.

Discipline Can Lead to A Heightened State Of Awareness

Consider walking. It is a mundane, routine activity that we never pay attention to. However, paying attention to the surroundings, the sights, smells, people, architecture, etc., one can even transform this mundane activity into a source of inspiration.

Mindfulness and awareness of one’s surroundings can lead to creating a meaningful connection with the surroundings, and the mind can be trained to perceive more than what one’s automated responses to the surroundings allow.

Today, we have an unlimited choice of music available at the click of a button. Yet, we do not enjoy it in its full complexity. If we are mindful enough, we will be able to understand this complexity and enjoy the music for its true sensory meaning, where the body is able to respond to its rhythm, to its analogic meaning that conjures up images while listening to the music, and the analytical meaning, where we can analyze it and compare it with other pieces of music, different composers, etc.

Such mindfulness comes from a strong sense of self-control, which can be sought through the ancient Eastern wisdom of yoga practice. Yoga believes in the practices of obedience, cleanliness, non-violence, and above all discipline. It uses the acknowledgment of a higher power to gain self-control and to steer one’s attention to a positive goal, which is aligned with a specific personal goal. It is a method that encourages one to free the self from ego and exercise mind-control by using the body.

Focus On Ideas Rather Than Flaws

Sport and exercise require focussed attention. People engaged in such activities seek enjoyment from the concentration and attention required to reach fitness goals. Humans have the capability to use their minds to seek similar enjoyment too. Such a ‘state of flow’ of enjoyment also comes when one engages in exercises and games of language or memory. 

For example, by simply solving a crossword, one merely attains an external reward. Instead, one can create one’s own crosswords puzzles to sharpen language skills thereby attaining intrinsic rewards. Memory skills can be sharpened by absorbing everything about any particular subject of interest, such as the works of a particular poet or events of World War I, etc. Such activities can help one get ‘into the flow’.

Bertrand Russell, in order to make himself happy, focussed on the external world, rather than dwell on his flaws. Focussing on the external world, on people who one admires, fields of knowledge and interest rather than one’s own flaws can help one connect with the ‘flow state.

Many scientists such as Isaac Newton focused on improving their scientific skills simply because they enjoyed the act of improvement. Even Einstein focussed on using his free time to work on his famous theories.

Treat Work Like A Game

Dissatisfaction in life often stems from the fact that people are unhappy with their daily routines – mostly their jobs. Additionally, they spend their leisure time trying to recover from their dissatisfaction. It is, however, possible to derive enjoyment from work by turning ‘work’ into a challenge that requires one to focus their attention to achieve a goal and reduce anxiety.

In a small hamlet in the Italian Alps, the elderly residents of the community would begin their day at five in the morning, milk and feed their cows after carrying bales of hay for miles, tend their orchards, and cook. However, when they were asked what would they change about their lives if they were wealthy, they said that wouldn’t want to change anything. This was because they didn’t distinguish between tier work and their leisure time. 

Similarly, there are many people who find enjoyment in their work than while they aren’t working. These people also report an increase in their creative capabilities and concentration. Setting intrinsic goals for oneself that are not motivated by the extrinsic factors of wealth or fame, and trying to exceed one’s own levels of learning or performance is a great way to get into the ‘state of flow’.

For example, a railroad car welder was known among his colleagues because he had learned all the jobs in his assembly line and enjoyed doing all of them. He would refuse promotions and enjoyed turning various manual tasks into a challenge. He pursued gardening in his free time. He never felt the need to escape the drudgery of routine.

It is thus essential to cultivate challenges in work and try to learn all there is about the work in one’s own organization. This helps one escape the drudgery of simply clocking in and out.

Engage With Friends And Family

While spending quality time alone is essential, it can also lead to boredom. Moreover, daily routines, the hustle, and the bustle of daily travel can sap away one’s individuality and freedom. This is when one turns to their social circle of neighbors, friends, and family.

Family is an important social construct that can give an individual unconditional acceptance and honest feedback. Moreover, happy and supportive families can be both, differentiated – where everyone accepts each family member for their differences, distinct skills, and traits; and integrated as well, where they can be downright honest, fair in judgments, and inclusive of all members in the family.

For example, the children of parents who engage in challenging tasks and hobbies try to emulate these habits, than if they were passive and indulging in TV-viewing and drinking in their free time.

Similarly, having good friendships can help sharpen and strengthen one’s creative side. Humans have instrumental skills – like professional skills or survival skills – and expressive skills – skills that enable us to express and communicate our personalities. Spending time with friends can hone these expressive skills than being alone, producing higher levels of motivation, strength, happiness, and self-esteem.

Family and friends are also intrinsic to growth and novelty in life. For example, Canadian Indian tribes create permanent settlements in areas that are rich in food resources. However, with every next generation, they uproot themselves and move to a different area, starting from scratch. They search for new ways of finding and harvesting food. This process shocks them out of routine to learn new skills.

The Pros Of Focussed Attention

We have seen earlier how focussing our attention can help gain new perspectives, reduce anxiety, and help one find new ways to grow. In order to do this successfully, one can employ the following strategies.

  • Letting go of the ego – We feel frustrated when things out of our control disrupt schedules or put a halt in our work. When such situations come in direct conflict with intentions, trusting and putting faith in their own abilities to manage situations as they arise is essential. For example, when the computer stops working for no reason right in the middle of some important work, we should put aside our ego and frustration and understand that there are higher laws that govern things and that everything isn’t always within our control.
  • Practice being mindful of our environment – Charles Lindbergh, the first person to cross the Atlantic in a plane all alone, knew that his endeavor was a risky one. Rather than focus on his fear, he chose to be more mindful of his surroundings. He concentrated on the levers, knobs, and the welding marks inside the cockpit. This cleared his anxiety.
  • Do not give up – Everyone faces difficult situations at some point. Rather than giving up when a task seems too difficult, one should the difficulty to find new solutions. For example, if your boss’ camaraderie with another colleague thwarts your chances of being promoted, you can either try to win the boss’ favor by fawning over him like the colleague does, or find a new career altogether. While neither of these solutions might be good decisions per se, the latter choice can prove to be a novel way of finding and pursuing new challenges in life.

Remember, there is always another option where one can channel and focus their attention to a new challenge. It is simply a matter of choice.

Putting Unified Goals Into Action

Everyone has his or her own purpose or goal in life. One only has to discover it. This can be done by focusing on that purpose or goal and by choosing to create meaning in life. It is important to remember that the end result of the pursuit isn’t as important as the journey, especially if one is completely immersed in the challenges that the pursuit brings forth.

Once the goal or purpose is established, one should put them into action with strong resolutions and intentions. For example, Antonio Gramsci was a vociferous political activist who spoke against Fascism, and who grew up living in poverty and illness through his childhood. His greatness as one of Fascism’s strongest opponents was a result of the strength in his resolve to fight against the social conditions that challenged his family.

One’s goals and purpose should have a life theme and the resolutions one has should be harmonious. Malcolm X started his life in poverty too. He went to jail for dealing drugs. However, while in jail, he gained self-knowledge by reading and by reflecting on his actions. His focussed attention on civil rights drove him to become an activist and improve the lives of others.


True enjoyment comes when one focuses on the intrinsic rewards in life. The opinions of others, fame, and wealth are just external rewards that can divert one’s focus from truly enjoying their work.

In order to get into the ‘flow-state that leads to true enjoyment, it is essential to focus one’s attention, completely immerse oneself in the task at hand, set clear personal goals, and work towards cultivating new challenges. Moreover, one should put these goals into action with strong resolutions and intentions. 

Additionally, having a disciplined outlook, being mindful of one’s environment, and most importantly, treating work as a game can bring true contentment and enjoyment in work.