Positive well-being: Work to your strengths and find your flow

Work becomes really meaningful when it expresses your strengths, inspires your passion and is aligned with your values

"Love and work . . . work and love, that's all there is."
– Sigmund Freud

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, saw his job as helping his patients achieve two things. Therapy was complete when they could form satisfying love relationships in their families and also engage in meaningful work in society.

In many ways, his proposal remains a good yardstick for measuring well-being and psychological health. In the previous article in this series, we looked at how important relationships were in people's lives, now in this article we look at the contribution of meaningful work.

In considering the importance of work we are not just considering a person’s career or their paid employment, but rather how in the totality of their lives they contribute to society. Their work can include volunteering in a charity, getting involved in community projects as well as creating music or art to entertain and inspire others. While many people are engaged in meaningful work through their jobs, for others their main source of meaning comes from other projects and commitments in other areas of their lives.


What makes work meaningful?

Work becomes really meaningful when it expresses your strengths, inspires your passion and is aligned with your values. Once your strengths, passions and values are present, work becomes deeply satisfying, personally fulfilling and fully energising – something you would engage in whether you were paid or not.

Expressing your strengths

Work feels frustrating when it is not your area of strength or when your talents do not fit what is expected of you. At this point you feel like a square peg in a round hole. In my clinical practice, I see so many teenagers who are made miserable as they are forced through the narrow academic focus on the Leaving Cert which does not match their area of talent and strength. Rather than being academic writers or mathematicians, their main strengths might be in other arenas such as music, social skills, crafts, or art, talents which aren’t valued in formal exams. The key to well-being is to finds areas in your life where you can explore and express your strengths.

Inspiring your passion

People are at their happiest when they are fully engaged in life and experience passion and enjoyment in the activities that fill their daily lives. The psychologist Csikszentmihaly introduced the concept of “flow” to explain this high level of harmonious engagement in activities. Flow happens when you become totally absorbed in what you are doing and  experience intense concentration so that you almost lose track of time. During flow, your strengths are utilised so that you experience such a sense of mastery that the activity becomes  completely engrossing and enjoyable. Finding work that inspires your passion and allows you to be in flow ( at least some of the time) is key to well-being.

Aligning with your values

Most importantly, meaningful work is aligned with your personal values. It expresses your deepest sense of what you to be in the world and how you want to live. The famous business coach, Stephen Covey, believed that writing a mission that articulated unique values was the single most important thing an organisation could do to transform its effectiveness. In a similar way, have a clear sense of your own values and personal mission in your work can be personally transformational.

For many people their deepest values reflect their strongly held religious or philosophical beliefs and for others they are practical principles for how they want to live. These can include wanting to make a positive difference in society, being kind and loving,  being creative and making beautiful things or focusing on learning and teaching others, or inspiring others in art and music, or caring for nature and animals. What matters is taking time to understand what is most important to you and then making sure your life work aligns with this.

Finding work you love and loving the work you do

While the ideal is to seek out employment that matches your strengths, passions and values, in many situations it is case of bring these strengths passions and values to the employment you are in.

In a recent documentary on the happiest people, the authors presented the example of a motorway toll booth operator as someone who was very happy in her work. To do this, she did not just see her job as just a toll booth operator, instead she saw her job as sharing a bit of happiness with the drivers she met daily. She noticed that many of the drivers she encountered were often stressed, depressed and grumpy as they drove through the booth. She made it her personal mission to chat to each of them and to try and put a smile on their faces as they passed through. She transformed her work by bringing her values (helping people) her strengths ( social skills) and passions (conversation with others).

In addition, many people get their greatest sense of satisfaction in their roles outside of the “day job” whether this is being a coach in a children’s football team, or working in local politics, or exhibiting their art or performing theatre or whatever else expresses their passions, strengths and values.

Tips for going forward

Using a journal draw out three overlapping circles and fill them with things that engage:
1) My Strengths – what are you good at? What talents do you have?
2) My Passions – what things do you really enjoy? What activities do you get completely absorbed in?
3) My Values – What matters most to you? What would you most like your life to be about? In the journal consider, what work, either paid or voluntary, are you engaged in that allows you express some of the strengths, passions and values above? Think how you can bring these more into your current work or employment.

– Dr John Sharry is co-founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology.

The central role of purpose in a healthy outlook on life
2) The importance of self-compassion and self-acceptance
3) The importance of relationships and belonging
4) Work to your strengths and find your flow
5) Health, rest and fitness
6) Half-full or half-empty?