01 Mar “Work Organizes Life”: Considering the Importance of Meaningful Work, and Reflecting on the Importance of “Flow” in our Working Lives

Posted at 1:13 pm in Individual Therapy by jlbworks

By Philip Chanin, Ed.D., ABPP, CGP
Board Certified Clinical Psychologist
Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Vanderbilt University Medical Center

“It’s important to be productive.  It’s important to pay taxes.  Work organizes life.  I plan on working until the day I die, because work is fun, work is interesting, work is important…You only have limited time, and I believe in making the most of it.”  (from an interview with U.S. Representative Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) in the Nashville Scene, February 10, 2022, page 7)

“Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.  Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.” (from Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann, 1921)

“Sigmund Freud was once asked what people need in order to be able to live a full and happy life.  His reply was three words: ‘Lieben und arbeiten.’  Love and work.  Work is one of the most defining, overarching aspects of our lives.  It molds and establishes nearly everything about our everyday existence; it is something we do practically every day and will do practically every day for most of our lives.  When someone asks you, ‘What do you do?’ what they are really asking is, ‘What is your work?  What is your career?’” (Jeff Olson in ­The Slight Edge)

The pandemic has led millions of Americans to reevaluate their work lives—according to news reports, 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs during November, 2021.  According to an article in Business Insider by Juliana Kaplan and Madison Hoff (12/2/2021), “Over 90% of job switchers said they quit because the pandemic made them feel like ‘life is too short to stay in a job they weren’t passionate about.”

As psychotherapists, we talk with many patients about their work lives.  Some patients specifically seek out psychotherapy because they are stressed out and depleted by their work.

Sometimes they are dealing with demanding and even narcissistic bosses or managers.  I’m thinking of a 30-year-old male patient whose work in an advertising firm was so stressful that he was having recurrent panic attacks.  These went away as soon as he quit his job.  I’m remembering a 60-year-old female patient who came to see me because her narcissistic female boss was so demanding and critical that the patient’s health was being affected.  I encouraged this patient to leave her job and apply for short term disability.

One of the books that I have recommended to probably hundreds of patients over the years is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  The flow state is the experience we have when we are so engaged in an activity that we are not aware that time is passing.  The preconditions for the flow experience are that the activity is sufficiently complex and also that it engages a sufficiently large amount of our ability.  Csikszentmihalyi states that we need to spend as much of our day as possible engaged in flow activities.  If we are unable to do this, he writes, then “psychic entropy” sets in, and we feel bored, lethargic, and even depressed.

In describing the flow state, Csikszentmihalyi states, “The self becomes more differentiated as a result of flow because overcoming a challenge inevitably leaves a person feeling more capable, more skilled…After each episode of flow a person becomes more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills…people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing…we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person to a new reality.  It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness.  In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex.  In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.” (pp. 41, 53, & 74)

Another source that I have recommended to many patients over the years is an article entitled “Work and Serenity” by Ralph G.H Siu, Ph.D.  In this article, Siu discusses the idea that every individual in a work organization needs to put a priority on his or her mental health.  He writes, “When an organization speaks of occupational mental health, getting the job done comes first.  Getting it done more efficiently comes next.  Mental health comes third as part of the calculations on efficiency.  The individual should therefore conduct himself at work, almost in self-protection as it were against the natural propensities of organizations in his attempts to preserve the primacy of his own mental health as of the highest priority rather than the lowest.”

Siu adds, “From Buddha’s standpoint, the minimizing of suffering rather than the maximizing of happiness constitutes the good of living.  If work is to have the best meanings for living, it must contribute to decreasing misery, grief, anguish, and pain…the Taoist first senses the kind of continuum which is necessary for serenity over his lifespan.  This continuum must not be broken by work.  If a person’s behavior at work disrupts this continuum of feeling, then one will not be able to retain his sense of wholeness and tranquility when he retires from work.”

(pp. 3-4)

I wrote an earlier article, available on my website, entitled “The Relevance of Buddhist Teachings for Modern Day Psychotherapy:  The Noble Eightfold Path and The Karmic Law of Cause and Effect.”  In this article I quote from S.N Goenka in An Introduction to The Buddha and his Teachings.  One element of the Eightfold Path is “Right Livelihood.”  As Goenka writes, “We meet our obligations to society by the work we do, serving our fellows in different ways.  In return for this, we receive our livelihood…Whatever remuneration we are given in return for our work is to be used for the support of ourselves and our dependents.  If there is any excess, at least a portion of it should be returned to society, given to be used for the good of others.” (p. 101).  As psychotherapists, we can stress to our patients the importance of right livelihood for one’s overall well-being.

I have often said to patients, “One of the challenges of adult life is to keep redesigning our work lives so that they bring us sufficient challenge.”  As psychotherapists, we have the good fortune to practice a career in which we continue to grow in our abilities to help our patients as we get older.  In a conversation with psychiatrist Thomas Campbell, MD, he once said to me, “It would be a shame not to continue to work in our elder years in order to help patients by utilizing what we have learned over decades of doing psychotherapy.”

Contact Dr. Phil Chanin, a Psychologist for Aging Issues and Career Issues in Nashville, TN.