Mihály Csikszentmihályi has a theory about something called Flow, a state of, essentially, absorption in a particular task, where the mind is focused and intent. In this state, we don’t really feel time. As when doing something we enjoy, our mind is so focused on the present that everything else falls away. With jobs and tasks we don’t enjoy, or can’t ‘flow’ with, we are constantly counting the moments until we can stop doing whatever we’re doing. We aren’t performing the task for its intrinsic value, but to get it over with.
Theoretically, we can flow with almost anything. Basically, it’s practicing mindfulness, as in Buddhism, being in the present moment without feeling attached to what has passed or what will come – essentially freeing oneself from worry, anxiety, or guilt.
This takes practice, and a suspension of judgment – in high-stress jobs, we anticipate deadlines or negative repercussions of mistakes. With dull jobs, we judge ourselves for the lack of effort or mental energy required, or simply for the menial nature of the work – deeming it less worthy of our time that other things and therefore feel ourselves to be guilty of wasting our time and talents, judging our work to be inferior, however well executed.
The jobs that make us happy, then, are those in which we perform activities where we naturally flow. At present, I absolutely love my job. I do primarily research, at the moment, hunting down answers and organizing information. Essentially, solving puzzles. This is ideal for me, and, helpfully, is research on something I find intrinsically valuable; both stress and negative self-judgment are then largely eliminated (though not entirely – there is a deadline, but the mild pressure I find helpful motivation).
I know that this particular phase of my job is unlikely to continue for more that a couple of months, but I am really relishing it. What it’s given me is the knowledge that I can love this kind of work (or any kind work – I was starting to despair). There are other things I find absorbing (writing, for example), but as yet I’ve not found a way to make a living from them.
I suppose jobs are, in some ways, like relationships – even if they suck, you learn more about yourself, your taste, your needs, as time goes by.
The point I wanted to make, really, in what a relief it is to love your work, to feel satisfied and fulfilled by it – it is, after all, what we spend most of our time doing (with the possible exception of sleep, depending on your hours). Every job has the odd unpleasantness, but to be so content day-to-day is – well – I can only think of Maslowe’s hierarchy of needs – once food, shelter, health and a basic standard of living are established, one wants suitable mental stimulation and activity to feel self-actualized – that one is living in harmony with one’s aptitudes, feelings, and judgments.
This may not last. Nothing does. Having experienced a real love of my occupation, I can make a concerted effort, from an informed opinion, to keep what I love in my job description. I have also, happily, learned that, as I quite enjoy research, I would probably love grad school.