"When I grow up, I want to dislike my job." - No one, ever.

Friends, I'm sure you would agree that no one wants to dislike their life’s work. Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves in exactly this situation. A 2014 Conference board survey found that roughly 40% of Americans don’t find their work interesting and a whopping 52.3% are just plain unhappy on the job. Philosophically we need to avoid this pitfall, but how can we find happiness, engagement and meaning at work?

Let’s consult the science!

Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the flow guy) interviewed over 100 highly generative science and creative types to see how they found their calling. The study revealed a consistent narrative, which researchers have termed “vital engagement.” It’s generally defined as “a relationship to the world that is characterized both by experiences of flow (enjoyed absorption) and by meaning (subjective significance).”

It already sounds like practical criterion, right? Well, let’s consider the nitty-gritty and a quick journaling activity that might shed some light on your life’s calling.

  1. Journal about “Flow Activities”

Researchers found that for most of these extraordinary people, their careers evolved organically from consistent and prolonged experiences of flow. These Flow Activities (Flowtivities?) led to deeper immersion in the culture and eventually a broad base of knowledge, skills, relationships and actions developed and become part of their personal identities.

Grab a piece of paper and answer the following (a stream of consciousness list will do):

  • Where have you consistently found that “in the zone” sensation of being so deeply immersed in an activity that you lost your sense of time and self?
  • Name an area (or more than one) where you have felt compelled to learn and actively challenge your skills.
  • Where have you felt a sense of absorbed enjoyment that drove you toward deeper involvement? For instance, many writers describe feeling “swept away by a project.” They feel driven to research topics, study the dictionary and talk to other writers about their work.
  • Where have you felt swept away? What topics have you researched on your own time?

So, what’s on your list? Science? Sports? Dance? Magic?

Whatever your answers, you now have a list of Flowtivities that can be used to narrow options and find your life’s calling.

  1. Journal about meaning and self-actualization

The interviews revealed a second, equally important aspect of “vital engagement”: meaning. Your list so far could include activities like ping-pong and video games, which are awesome, but generally aren’t considered fulfilling as a vocation. When we get older and look back on our lives, we’ll want to know it meant something. Studies suggest that we humans find meaning in altruism and dedicating ourselves to a cause. These are also the kinds of pursuits that strengthen our most valued personal traits and make us into our best possible selves.

Consider the following on the same piece of paper:

  • What sorts of activities make you feel as though you are living a good life?
  • If you were told that you have 24 hours to live, which long-term goals would you regret not attaining?
  • What would the best version of yourself be doing with his/her life?
  • What sorts of projects sharpen the qualities you most admire in yourself? For example, many nurses feel an abiding sense of purpose and life satisfaction. They feel like nursing cultivates their altruistic side; they feel like they are helping others and that their job is fulfilling.
  • Where do you find these things?
  1. The Venn diagram

Look at the two lists and take note of overlap. These are your sweet spots. The center of this Venn diagram combines the joy of engagement, your skills, the good life and self-actualization.

Maybe there are a few clear answers. Maybe these are fields you ought to explore. Or maybe writing more options for the two lists will help. But at the end of this exercise, there ought to some idea of how take the next step toward a job that excites you.

Finally, let me just say that I know pragmatism plays a role in life and we can’t all be acrobats in the circus. My advice is to be realistic, but be optimistically realistic. With hard work, we can accomplish far more than we think we can. I may not become the next Hemingway, but if I keep at this writing thing I can certainly make a living doing what I love. And that’s a big part of living well.

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Taylor Kreiss  is the founder of Oughtology, a movement focused on using positive psychology and philosophy to live The Good Life. For more articles like this one and to like Oughtology, go here.

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