The Anatomy of Meaningful Work [Infographic]

This week, I stumbled upon a fascinating article in the MIT Sloan Management Review written by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden. They interviewed 135 people from 10 different walks of life in order to find out what makes their work especially meaningful – and also, what destroys their job-related sense of meaningfulness. While I´ve read other articles that provide valuable syntheses of meaning in work in the past (see here, here, and here), this one is especially rich in context, providing in-depth personal accounts of peoples´ experiences. This makes the findings especially palpable.

Here are some takeaways:

  • Meaningfulness is not dependent on the type of work. A garbage collector can experience the same amount of meaning in work as a nurse or a doctor.
  • Bosses (and specific leadership behaviors) are typically not perceived as a source of meaningfulness. Yet, they can easily destroy the perception of meaning in work.
  • More generalized, the creation of meaning in work is an individual endeavor, while its dismantling is caused by others, or the organizational system as a whole.

Moreover, the researchers describe several crucial components of meaningful work. They´ve inspired me to create this infographic based on their findings. Share and enjoy!

Anatomy_Meaning_Work.png

Additionally, Bailey and Madden describe the “seven deadly sins” leaders can commit to destroy meaningfulness. I´ll share those in the upcoming post.

Two new Articles by Dr. Nico Rose on Positive Psychology in the Workplace

Dr. Nico RoseFor my German-speaking readers: I’ve recently published two articles in Positive Psychology in the workplace.

The first one covers the antecedents and consequences of Flow at work. It was published online by the German psychology magazine EMOTION.

The second one is an overview of several concepts in the realm of Positive Psychology in business and features the work of Martin Seligman, Barbara Fredrickson, Jane Dutton, Roy Baumeister, and Shawn Achor.

Share and enjoy!

33 ½ Science-backed Methods to Boost Your Mood and Be Happier | Part II

Want to lead a happier life in 2016 (and beyond)?

This list includes valuable tips, exercises and “hacks” to be happier and lead a more meaningful life. All of these recommendations are backed by psychological science. In case you are interested to learn more, I´ve included links to some research articles that have examined the corresponding topic. No. 12 – 22 are listed here, No. 23 – 33 ½ will be published soon. The pieces of advice are ordered (roughly) by difficulty/level of effort etc. Share and enjoy!

12) Sing when you´re winning

Just like dancing, singing seems to be a natural anti-depressant. Singing is enjoyable and a very healthy kind of physical activity. It doesn´t matter if you sing in the shower, the car, or for an audience. And it surely doesn’t matter if your singing is good or bad. An especially beneficial way seems to be joining a choir. In doing so, people additional profit from the social support such an environment entails.

13) Remember the good Times

Good things that have happened in the past can be a powerful mood (and meaning) booster for the present. It could be our fondest childhood memories, our wedding day, or that beautiful sunset from our last vacation: Actively remembering these events can turn today into a brighter day. Accordingly, it´s helpful to create what positive psychologists like to call a positive portfolio. This is a box or a folder (these days, probably a digital one) where you keep especially uplifting memories, such as the wedding video, the first photo of your kid, your favorite piece of music etc.

14) Buy that Concert Ticket, not the Dress

Conventional wisdom holds that money cannot buy happiness. And while the best things in life are really (more or less free), most things do cost some money. Now, a sizeable body of research shows that investing our money in experiences such as concerts and vacations will be more beneficial for our long-term happiness than buying “stuff”. First, those events are typically shared experiences, second they can be re-lived in memory (see No.13), and third, especially memorable experiences seem to become parts of our selves, an integral part of “our story” – whereas the “stuff” will mostly be gone at some point in the future.

15) Spend Money on thy Neighbor

If you´re neither into concerts nor vacations (see No. 14), and you don´t like to buy stuff, it could be a great idea to spend your dough on other people. There´s abundant empirical evidence for the notion that giving money to others (e.g., via charity) can be a veritable happiness booster. Some studies find that spending your bucks on others is much more beneficial for our emotional wellbeing than keeping it for ourselves. If you don´t know where to start: Mashable provides a great overview of online funding sites.

16) Practice realistic Optimism

Truth is: the world is a much better place than we think it is. Our senses and our brains are gauged to pay attention to and process negative information much more thoroughly than positive stimuli (see this post for more info). News editors are well aware of this fact and select their stories accordingly. When these two mechanisms join forces, our perspective on the state of the world can become pretty gloomy and depressive. At this point, it could be helpful to practice what Positive Psychologists like to call realistic optimism. It´s not based on seeing everything through rose-colored glasses, but rather on thorough investigation of facts and probabilities. A good way to start this is to learn how to fight off unwarranted negative thoughts. For information on how to do this, please visit this post on Positive Psychology News Daily.

17) Go with the Flow

Flow (as described by eminent Positive Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi) is a state in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of pursuing a specific activity. It´s a surefire way to satisfaction and personal growth. The experience of Flow is dependent on a set of internal and external conditions, among them, focusing on a single goal and shutting of any distractions (see Wikipedia for an overview). There´s a great article on Fast Company about companies that try to enable better conditions for Flow at work.

Nico - Fun18) Strong. Stronger. Signature Strengths

One of the hallmarks of Positive Psychology is a taxonomy of 24 character strengths. You can find out what your top attributes are (so-called signature strengths) for free when visiting the website of the VIA Institute on Character (mine are: curiosity, zest, and love of leaning). There, you´ll also find tons of information on how to use that knowledge in order to lead a more satisfying life. Generally speaking, the more we use our most pronounced strengths (e.g., in our occupation), the happier we are.

19) Be a Do-Gooder

Recommendation No. 15 already touched the beneficial effects of pro-social spending for our own happiness. The same can be said pertaining to pro-social behavior, e.g., volunteering and committing random acts of kindness. There seem to be positive short-term consequences for our mood (so-called helpers high) but also long-term effects. When we help others, our life becomes more meaningful – and that´s a source of happiness in its own right.

20) The Pen is mightier than your bad Moods

Writing is one of the most potent methods for “getting a grip” on life. It can help us to focus our attention on the goods things (see No. 11) or, alternatively, to come to terms with bad events, especially as a way of creating mental and emotional distance. If you´re not sure how to start, you’ll find advice in this article on Psychology Today.

Mika Samu21) Get a furry Companion

It has been shown that humans have lived together with domesticated animals for at least 500.000 years. Pets can be a valuable source of comfort, amusement, and distraction. As such, research shows that living with pets has several beneficial long-term effects for our psychological and physiological health, especially for children. Just a word of advice: Before you bring Lassie home, please make sure that you and your family are prepared and willing to take on the responsibility of owning a pet (hint: cats are much more low-maintenance than dogs).

22) Friends with Happiness Benefits

Typically, our social network (the non-virtual one, a.k.a. family and friends) is one of the most important sources of comfort and satisfaction in our lives. Now, the interesting thing is: almost everything can spread through these networks by means of social contagion. E.g., if of most of your friends are fitness freaks, your risk for obesity is considerably lower than when most of them are a little on the chubby side. The same goes for things like smoking, and even activities such as getting married. And this mechanism also holds true for emotions such as happiness (as well as depression). Bottom line: if your posse is a really cheerful bunch of people, this will positively influence your own emotional wellbeing in the long run (at least statistically). Conversely, this also means it could be beneficial to rid yourself of some “forms of energy” in your life.

Epictetus_Good_Company

Please note

Science shows that you do not have to practice all of these things (at once) to be happier. Rather, you should find out which of these activities best fit your personality and current way of life – so you´ll find it easy to sustain them. Please refer to: To each his own well-being boosting intervention: using preference to guide selection.

Job, Career, or Calling? It´s the Attitude, Stupid!

The other day, for a German news outlet I regularly blog for, I wrote something on Amy Wrzesniewski´s research on our orientations towards work – so why not do it here as well.

Conventional wisdom tells us that there are more meaningful (e.g., nurse) and less meaningful (e.g., cleaner) jobs out there. Yet, Wrzesniewski and her colleagues found that the level of meaning (or purpose) we can derive from our work is only partly dependent on the type of job per se. The way we think (or feel) about what we do seems to have more importance in this matter. The researchers describe three separate (but not mutually exclusive) orientations that people can take on vis-à-vis their occupation: a) job; b) career; c) work.

Work Orientation: Job

People in this category tend to perceive their work as a means to an end. They work for the paycheck/benefits to support their life outside of work. Accordingly, they prefer jobs which do not interfere with their personal lives and typically do not have a strong connection to the workplace or their job duties.

Work Orientation: Career

Individuals displaying a “career” orientation are more likely to focus on job attributes related to prestige and success. They will be foremost interested in opportunites for upward movement, e.g., receiving raises and titles, and the social standing that come along with that.

Work Orientation: Calling

Employees with a “calling” orientation typically describe their work as an integral part of their lives and their identities. Accordingly, they feel that their careers are a form of self-expression and fulfillment.

The crucial point is: Wrzesniewski and her colleagues found that individuals displaying a “calling” orientation are more likely to be highly engaged – and satisfied with their work and their lives in general. And while there are types of jobs that indeed yield a higher percentage of employees displaying this attitude, the researchers were able to show that each orientation frequently appears within all walks of life.

Typically, this involves being able to “see the big picture” (and thus, leadership comes into play). E.g., a cleaner in a hospital setting might say that she helps to “save lives” (instead of, e.g., cleaning the beds) because she knows that she helps to kill off bacteria that otherwise might infect and kill the patients.

Now, I don’t know how the people displayed in the following video view their work – but they´ve surely turned it into something extraordinary – even though most of them seem to work in rather ordinary jobs. Enjoy!

#NotJustSad: Why we desperately need Positive Reinforcement and Flow to be Happy

Over the last couple of days, the hashtag #NotJustSad has been a trending topic on the German Twitter feed. It was created by a journalist in order to raise awareness for depression and was quickly picked up by mainstream media. The goal was to counter the popular notion that people with depression just need to “get their act together” in order to be “normal” again.

Quite obviously, there are different types of depression – or rather, different ways for depression to “arise”. Some types are clearly endogenous, a sickness of the body, e.g., as a by-product of a strong and continuous imbalance with regard to certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.

Yet, over the last days, I was also strikingly reminded of how our everyday behavior may either promote or act as a buffer against bouts of (minor) depressive episodes. Today, I was in a very bad mood all day long. I suffered from what typically is called cabin fever. For the last seven days, I had to stay at home because of “hand, foot and mouth disease”, a pretty harmless but highly contagious and annoying children´s malady I acquired from the Little Guru. When it hits you hard, you´re basically unable to walk for a couple of days, and in addition, you´re mostly incapable of using your hands thanks to painful blisters. As a consequence, I ended up watching TV for most of the time, I managed to get through three seasons of “The Walking Dead” and some other enthralling stuff.

So you could say I was pretty amused most of the time. But still my mood declined from day to day, culminating in today´s bout of huffishness. So I finally went out for a coffee and thought about my situation. Seen through the lens of Positive Psychology, I guess this is what happened: over the last days, I suffered from…

For me, this is a strong reminder of how “intentional activity” is crucially important for our (psychological) well-being. Watching TV can generate a feeling of flow, but it is a fake kind of flow. Yes, I was excited and had fun. Yes, I (sort of) met new people (and a lot of zombies…). I might have learned a bit, and I even accomplished something (getting to the end of season three…). But beware – none of that is the real deal.

As I´ve also mentioned in my recent TEDx talk, we have to go out and meet other people. We need to get stuff done in the real world, and the real world has to provide us with feedback. This is not to say that all of us can fight off any kind of depressive episode at all times. But we should all be aware that a stitch in time saves nine…

 

Nico Rose - Flow

On Music and Well-Being – or: The Garden of our Lord is Vast and Plentiful…

MAPP is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (…who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

Happy Metal

The sentence displayed in the title is a well-known proverb in Germany. I could not find a passage with that exact meaning directly in the Bible. Therefore, it seems to be more of a piece of folk wisdom. Mostly, one is inclined to use it situations where one is subjected to, by way of example, a piece (or genre) of music that one does not like – but that is highly appreciated by other people. It is a way of acknowledging that people have different tastes in just about anything – and that one “is fine” with that.*

In that sense, it has some shared meaning with the English figure of speech “different strokes for different folks”. While I am writing these sentences, there´s a portrait of Michael Wendler on TV, a leading protagonist of German “Schlagermusik”, a particularly corny, banal, uniform, and (to my ears) horrible style of pop music that sells really well and is played at most parties at some point or the other. For the most part of my life, I have enjoyed music that is often considered to be at the opposite end of the musical spectrum: heavy metal. In this essay, I would like to muse about this phenomenon: Why are people drawn to different kinds of music (and art in general) – and what does this phenomenon have to say about human well-being?

The question of how to lead a good life is a very old one. Religious leaders, philosophers, authors and laymen alike have tried to find answers to this mystery. At earlier stages of this quest, it was mostly put into question that feeling happy and experiencing positive emotions is an essential part of a life well-lived. Yet, with the appearance of the Enlightenment (at the latest), the pursuit of happiness can be seen as a central element of this overall endeavor (McMahon, 2008). Nowadays, there is convincing scientific evidence for the link between positive emotions and (psychological) well-being (Fredrickson, 2001).

For at least as long as people have pondered on the meaning of human life – and the question if (and how) the pursuit of happiness can play a role in finding the right answers – they have immersed themselves in art. Primitive forms of musical instruments, paintings, and pieces of stoneware have appeared at least 30,000 years before our time. Nowadays, due to its easy and ubiquitous availability, music may be the most widespread form of art (at least it seems to be most widely used). In a study using experiencing sampling, a method where subjects are to record what they do in their lives at certain intervals, it was found that music was present in 37% percent of the samples; and that this music influenced the emotional state of the listeners in 67% of these events (Juslin, Liljeström, Västfjäll, Barradas, & Silva, 2008).

The last-mentioned number hints to a possible explanation for the immense pervasiveness of music: it is a potent means for regulating affect. Listening to music can lift our mood, alleviate psychological stress as well as physical pain, and contribute to our overall well-being (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012). This may be a consequence of the uplifting effect of listening to music, but could also be a byproduct of its social aspect, since it is often performed and listened to in the presence of other human beings (MacDonald, Kreutz, & Mitchell, 2012). Additionally, making and listening to music is able to induce flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). For all these reasons, it is also used in a wide array of psychotherapeutic settings (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012).

The introductory paragraph of this essay alludes to the fact that different people like to listen to different styles of music. Therefore, what brings pleasure, uplift, and well-being to one person may result in anger and unpleasantness for another. This may be a consequence of learning and a kind of “cultural conditioning”, but could also be explained by more basic psychological (even psycho-physiological) phenomena. Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig (2012) list several aspects that could account for music´s propensity to be a medium of mood control. Among them are

  • brain stem reflexes (e.g., reactions to loudness and speed);
  • rhythmic entrainment (reactions to the recurring metrical quality);
  • and visual imagery evoked by a piece of music.

Since different people obviously have different nervous systems (e.g., in terms of responsivity and sensibility) it seems self-evident that they should react more or less favorably to varying styles of music. Maybe, it is not even a choice that we make consciously.

Can we really choose what style(s) of music we are attracted to?

One of my favorite movies of all time is Gerry Marshall´s “Pretty Woman” (1990). There is a scene where the male main protagonist, successful businessman Edward Lewis (played by Richard Gere), invites the female mail protagonist, prostitute Vivian Ward (played by Julia Roberts), to the San Francisco Opera to see a premier of “La Traviata”. When Vivian is very moved by the music, Edward says:

People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.

From my own experience, I feel that I know very well what Edward is talking about. Only, in my case, it wasn´t opera but heavy metal. I was exposed to this style of music for the first time at age 14, specifically a song by the German metal band Helloween. They are considered to have established their own sub-genre in 1985 which can be characterized by the following attributes:

  • exceptionally high tempo;
  • frequent use of double-bass drum technique;
  • frequent use of double (harmonic) lead guitars;
  • distinctly high-pitched male singers;
  • lyrics that are oftentimes based fantasy and sci-fi topoi.

I remember my parents saying that heavy metal would be a “phase” I was going through – but so far, time has proved them wrong. I still love it and probably will do so until the end of this life. Of course I do listen to other music. I went to an opera premier of “Don Giovanni” in March of 2013, and I also enjoyed listening to Tschaikowski and other Russian composers when we went to an evening at the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the MAPP program in January 2014 – but honestly speaking, classical music will (most likely) never captured my heart the way that heavy metal has done. I know that one can learn to appreciate classical music in the same way that one has to learn how to appreciate good wine – but to me, that´s not the same as “falling in love” with a particular style of music.

There is not much official (psychological) research on heavy metal. Yet, because of the above-mentioned attributes, it is oftentimes described as the most aggressive style of music. Following that notion, most of the few studies that do exist typically deal with supposed negative consequences (or correlates) of listening to heavy metal, such as aggressive behavior, suicidal risk, drug abuse, and low self-esteem (e.g., King, 1998; Arnett, 1992; Scheel & Westefeld, 1999). I am trying hard not to be lopsided here – but to me there seems to be something wrong about these studies. Heavy metal is – for the most part – aggressive music, agreed. But this does not automatically imply heavy metal fans are aggressive people. I have been to hundreds of concerts in my lifetime. From these experiences, I can say that heavy metal concerts are distinctly peaceful and non-violent places. My observation is echoed by one of those rarer studies that finds metal fans are just regular people that happen to feel good while listening to high-intensity music (Gowensmith & Bloom, 1997). The study concludes by stating that the

[…] most widely accepted conclusion is that heavy metal fans are in general angrier, more agitated, and more aroused than fans of other musical styles. The results of this study do not support this speculation. No […] differences were found among subjects’ levels of state arousal, state anger, or trait anger. (p. 41)

Instead, the researchers were able to detect an interaction effect. In fact, there were people in their sample that got overly aroused and even aggressive when listening to heavy metal: precisely, persons that stated they do not like heavy metal (especially fans of country music). For fans of metal music, listening to their favorite music did not result in elevated levels of arousal or negative emotion – quite the contrary. This finding is mirrored in an article on the internet site of the magazine “The Atlantic” by the name of Finding Happiness in Angry Music (Sottile, 2013). The author concludes that potentially there is “something cleansing about engaging with emotions we might not usually let ourselves feel”. Hence, music does not necessarily have to be happy in order to make us happy – and foster our well-being. It all comes down to “different strokes for different folks” again. In their review article on the connection of music and well-being, Västfjäll, Juslin, and Hartig (2012) draw a similar conclusion when making the point that music as a stimulus cannot be the same for all listeners:

Thus, there are no “pure” effects of music that will invariably occur regardless of the specific listener or situation. The response will depend on factors such as the listener´s music preferences and previous experiences, as well as on the specific circumstances of the context. (p. 408)

As a consequence, I feel we should be careful to make (too) strong judgments about other people´s taste in music (and art in general). Ever so often, many ways lead to Rome. I oppose to the distinction that is often made between “serious music” (sometimes called “art music”) and the more “popular” styles of music that also comprise heavy metal. The aspect of seriousness is inherent in the listener, not the music itself. One can listen to Mozart carelessly – while savoring heavy metal and thereby displaying a great amount of mindfulness.

The garden of the Lord is vast and plentiful. In order to find happiness, I believe, we must find our personal parcel of land in that garden – and then start to cultivate it.

References

Arnett, J. (1992). The Soundtrack of Recklessness Musical Preferences and Reckless Behavior among Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 7(3), 313-331.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihály (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

Gowensmith, W. N., & Bloom, L. J. (1997). The effects of heavy metal music on arousal and anger. Journal of Music Therapy, 34, 33-45.

Juslin, P. N., Liljeström, S., Västfjäll, D., Barradas, G., & Silva, A. (2008). An experience sampling study of emotional reactions to music: listener, music, and situation. Emotion, 8(5), 668-683.

King, P. (1988). Heavy metal music and drug abuse in adolescents. Postgraduate Medicine, 83(5), 295-301.

MacDonald, R., Kreutz, G., Mitchell, L. (2012). What is music, health, and wellbeing and why is it important? In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 3-11). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marshall, G. (1990): Pretty Woman [Film]. Los Angeles, Touchstone Pictures.

McMahon, D. M. (2008). The pursuit of happiness in history. In M. Eid & R. J. Larsen (Eds), The science of subjective well-being (pp. 80-93). New York: Guilford Press.

Scheel, K. R., & Westefeld, J. S. (1999). Heavy metal music and adolescent suicidality: An empirical investigation. Adolescence, 34, 253–273.

Sottile, Leah (2013). Finding happiness in angry music.

Västfjäll, D., Juslin, P. N, Hartig, T. (2012). Music, subjective wellbeing, and health: The role of everyday emotions. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 405–423). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

* Mostly though, the phrase will be accompanied by an incredulous shake of the head, thereby signifying that, at the end of the day, one´s own taste is to be valued higher.

Picture Source