What is the best way to find joy at work? We have asked tens of thousands of people over 30 years why they go to work. When asked this question, people give us a large variety of answers. Without fail there will be a subset of people who answer with things like: “I work because of the joy I get from work.” Or, “I work because I enjoy what I do.”
These answers, and others similar to them, all point to same underlying aspiration in people; the aspiration for a sense of joy and fulfillment at work. Every person alive wants to feel fulfilled. The drive for fulfillment motivates all of us. This is why people take up hobbies and want jobs that they enjoy. It is a lucky person who is able to get this from their work lives.
Looking for joy in the wrong way, not the wrong place
Unfortunately, we often look for it in the wrong way. The real problem is not that we look for joy in the wrong things, because joy can be enabled by any number of things and be produced by any activity. The problem is that we often approach the things we have and the lives we lead in a way that undermines our joy.
A good way to make sense of this is to think about the different kinds of joyful states there are. There are actually two sorts of joyful states that have an important difference between one another. The easiest joys to experience are produced by satisfying a desire, but these are unfortunately the least stable. This means that you will have these pleasant experiences when you want something, and then that want gets satisfied. When you are thirsty for example, drinking cool-drink is pleasant. When you want the admiration of others, applause after a speech will be pleasant.
The problem with these kinds of joyful states is that they are always very short in duration. What is there to enjoy once you have gotten what you want? That joy only lasts for so long, before it is yet again replaced by something else that you want.
These experiences actually depend on having a desire that is unsatisfied. For you to enjoy drinking cooldrink, you must be thirsty.
Chasing outcomes requires a feeling of emptiness
Being thirsty however is not itself a pleasant experience. Wanting something that you do not have is, in itself, an unpleasant feeling. If you spend your life chasing things that you want in order to be happy and have a life that is full of joy, what you are actually doing is choosing a life that is filled with wanting things; intermittently punctuated with a few joyful experiences now and then as one of those wants gets satisfied, but only to be replaced by another.
As Etsko Schuitema says, this life is best described as an “emptiness that seeks to be filled”. The feeling of wanting something is a feeling of emptiness. If you want something, this clearly means that you do not have the thing that you want. This means that wanting something is itself an unpleasant/painful experience. It is the experience of having a criterion unsatisfied, or a condition unmet. And it really is. I remember the pain of wanting love as an adolescent. It was an agonising yearning, and it is one that almost everyone would be familiar with.
Too much of our lives is made up by chasing outcomes. This is something we need to be very careful of in our work lives. If you go to work only to earn a salary, you will suffer every work day of the month for the very short-lived joy of a topped up bank account.
So, what is the best way to find joy at work?
There is a second kind of joyful state however that is not so problematic and will show us what is the best way to find joy at work. This type of joyful state is not the product of satisfying a desire. It is not the product of getting what you want. It is rather the product of not wanting anything. This is the feeling of being at peace in your current condition, without the sense that there isn’t anything missing. Imagine this sort of life. A life that does not have the constant nagging experience that there is something missing.
All of human churning and agonising is the product of the constant nagging in our chests that there is something missing. If this is your life, it will grind your human spirit for the sake of an outcome, that is immediately replaced by another outcome.
Living a life that is free from want is possible only if we are able to give up our wants. This is in fact the real measure of a person. How easily can the person give up something they want? How lightly does the person hold his/her “wants”? Of course, giving up all your wants immediately is close to impossible for a normal human being.
Shift from outcome to process in the moment that you are in
What is very doable, no matter who you are, is to give up a want momentarily. This is easy to achieve when you clearly recognise the difference between outcome and process. At any given moment, each of us has the ability to suspend our attachment to an outcome in order to give attention to process. This switch is immediately possible for each of us in every single moment that we are in.
For the vast majority of us, our wants and desires are directed at outcomes. We are focused on and give attention to the pay-check at the end of the month, the successful business at the end of the hard grind, the house at the end of sacrifice, the degree at the end of the boredom.
But life is not an outcome, life is a process. An outcome is only a single point on the entire continuum of your life. All outcomes in your life are followed by other outcomes until they are eventually swallowed up by the rest of your. The only outcome that is final for us is our death. This is the only outcome that will truly define our lives because it is the only true outcome, it has no instances following it.
And this outcome is equal to all human beings. Each one of us alike are going to face the same end. In outcome there is very little to tell our stories apart, they will all equally come to an end. The great and the wretched will all have stories that end. Those stories will themselves be swallowed up in the vastness of human history. Human history is still further dwarfed by the overwhelming vastness of the rest of existence. This is the futility of outcomes.
Find comfort in process
But in this we can find great comfort. We have the right to let go of outcomes to focus our attention on the process of our lives. All lives have the same end, but not all experience the same quality in process. We must embrace a sense of purpose and strive for the outcomes we hope to have come to life. But we must readily set these aside because they are not the real end. You must use outcomes should to facilitate process.
We all succeed in moments to give keen attention to living our lives well. In those moments we experience the fullness of a life free of nagging concerns about outcomes that sit some distance in the future. This is the joy of being present in our lives. This is the gratitude of being contented with what we have now and the lives we are living in this very moment. And this is a choice we can ongoingly make. It is one we must strive to do as make as possible.
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