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Happiness: how to enjoy work

When a musician's playing, a writer's writing or an artist's painting, they seem to enter another world. They achieve levels of concentration that make them seem to lose contact with reality and experience real happiness. If you've experienced that 'flow' for yourself, you'll know how rewarding it is.

Maybe it's one of the reasons why creative people love what they do.

The great thing is that any of us can experience that flow. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who spent twenty years researching some of the secrets of happiness, there are a set of keys you can use to unlock your own treasure trove.

Find out why the things you like doing make you happy, and do them more often.

When you're absorbed in an activity, you focus so hard on what you're doing that you forget everything else. Sometimes we pride ourselves on our ability to multi-task, but it's hard to get much satisfaction from doing several jobs at the same time, probably not very well. Can you really achieve a high performance when you're thinking about more than one thing?

Give yourself time to concentrate on doing the important things really well. Whether it's talking to your child, writing a report at work or practising your golf swing, you'll do it better and enjoy it more if you make time to give it your full concentration.

Using your skills
It's important to give yourself enough of a challenge so that you really make use of what you can do, and you don't get bored. If you're playing tennis, it's far more exciting to play against someone at your own level or slightly better. You've got to use all your ability, and you don't have space to wonder whether you left the front door open, or decide on your next holiday.

At the same time, you won't enjoy the game if the person you play is way out of your league. It's no fun to lose by a mile, and it's hard to keep trying when you know you won't succeed.

At work, be willing to do the difficult things. Your work will be more rewarding when you feel challenged.

Set goals for yourself that you can just about achieve if you do your best work. Remember your favourite subject at school? Wasn't it great to be given a piece of work that you knew you could do well?

When you're planning your work, set yourself a series of goals that make you work hard and that take you towards your final outcome. Make sure that the goals are small enough so that you can see quickly how well you're doing.

For example, if your job is to check pages of data, instead of simply ploughing through until you get to the end, you could give yourself a goal of reaching page five within ten minutes, with no errors. Check how well you've done, and set the next goal accordingly, so that it's just achievable.

Seeing results without having to wait too long can spur you on to the next step.

Feeling in charge
You need to feel you're in control of yourself to really appreciate your work. A goal you set for yourself will always be more interesting than one set by someone else. So when you're doing a task for your boss, try to find ways to do it how you want to, within their limits. That could be agreeing the deadline, and then setting your own goal to get it on your boss's desk half an hour earlier.

Find opportunities for doing things your way. Why not volunteer to organise the office Christmas party, or write your department's newsletter?

Losing yourself
Once you've found an activity that's at the right skill level, that you can do well, and that you feel some ownership for, you're likely to find that you lose all contact with the outside world, because you'll be so wrapped up in what you're doing. That's a great feeling.

Forgetting time
Once you're really feeling the flow, or 'in the zone' as it's sometimes called, you'll find it hard to keep track of time. You may find that hours have gone by and you've missed your lunch or that you've achieved something far more quickly than you could ever have imagined. How many times have you forgotten to drink your coffee when you've been absorbed in something?

It's wonderful when you find activities that meet all these requirements. But just a word of warning: make sure that you keep a foot in the real world, even if it means setting a timer before you start your painting, practising your Spanish, or writing that poem.

If you don't, you may find yourself spending so long in your own world that you lose track of things that are important, like doctor's appointments and picking the children up from school.

Why not find the things you love to work at, make sure there is plenty of time for them in your life and see how much more you'll enjoy yourself.