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The Balance

Finding happiness in doing work, not escaping it.
February 18, 2023
The Balance

Corporations, it seems, are suddenly attuned to work/life balance.

Whether concerned about pandemic-associated burnout or quiet quitting, companies are now discouraging weekend emails, holding wellness workshops, and urging managers to set good examples by conspicuously utilizing their vacation days rather than pushing through them. “Personal time off” out-of-office messages have replaced “I can be reached at” notifications as the new flex.

The message to employees is unmistakable: happiness is something you find when you step away from work.

I get it. Most of us work because we need to, not necessarily because we want to. There’s food to buy and homes to heat—not to mention orthodontists to pay and colleges to finance. Plus, work is often experienced as a slog. We deliver deliverables, pursue metrics, file TPS reports. We love Fridays, dread Mondays, and appreciate shutting out the office in between. Many of us are grateful for a clear, sanctified demarcation between the time we spend dutifully working for someone else and the time we get to ourselves, to enjoy living.

But the sense that work and wellness counterbalance one another—that happiness can be obtained only when you escape the office—has never completely resonated with me. (Even though I’ve had my share of jobs where the weekend couldn’t come soon enough.)

The dream, it seems to me, is getting paid for something you love to do, and engaging in a professional pursuit that has the capacity to completely absorb you and that you find meaning in doing.

You know the old saw: Do a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

In practice, of course, even the most exquisite job comes with its fair share of gruntwork and tedium. Yet, the folk wisdom still resonates—and there’s now some science behind it.

The father of positive psychology, University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman, developed a framework for fulfillment that explicitly recognizes the intrinsic value of both engagement and achievement, represented by the “E” and “A” in his “PERMA” model.

A foundational insight of Seligman’s positive psychology work was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s observation that we feel best when we enter a state of complete absorption, which Csikszentmihalyi termed “flow.” We are most likely to experience a state of flow when we are fully utilizing our core strengths, engaged in work that challenges us, but that is also within our grasp.

I’ve seen the fulfillment of flow firsthand in the careers of my parents, academic physician-scientists who are as absorbed by the work in their eighties as they were in their forties—and all while remaining exceptionally loving and highly engaged parents. Growing up, my brothers and I thought the intellectual and emotional involvement our parents brought to their work was not just inspiring (all three of us grew up to become physicians), but also normal. I remember when I first saw a friend’s father, a successful businessman, watching golf on a Sunday. I thought to myself: When does he write his research grants?

Flow may also explain why, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2021, entrepreneurs tend to be happier than wage-earning employees—even though entrepreneurs on average work longer, make less, and are more stressed.

“All of those problems do take away from entrepreneurs’ happiness, of course,” the Journal acknowledged, “but the positives of running a business are so strong that they outweigh the negatives.”

The point isn’t that the guaranteed path to happiness and life fulfillment is to become either an academic or an entrepreneur—or even that there is “a path” to happiness.

Likewise, this doesn’t mean that we should work constantly. The veneration of constant work and performative busy-ness are bad ideas whose time has (thankfully) passed. Abundant data emphasize that we’re healthier when we recharge, prioritize connection with family, friends, and community, and spend time in nature.

But as more companies embrace health and wellness as a corporate value, it’s important to recognize the diverse range of ways these goals can be pursued. In particular, we should not foreclose the possibility that work itself might be a source of happiness and we should strive to cultivate this possibility.

If you’re fortunate, fulfillment comes not from escaping work but from enjoying it. Weekends become a chance to recharge, not escape, and Mondays arrive as an opportunity, not a chore. But also consider an even more radical possibility: your most deeply fulfilling weekends could be the ones you’re too absorbed in your work to notice.

David Shaywitz

David Shaywitz is a physician-scientist at a biopharmaceutical company, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a lecturer in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School.