Have you ever had an activity that you became totally lost in - where time either flashed by in an instant or seemed to stand still - your entire concentration was on that task at hand and the rest of the world just kind of faded away temporarily?
Well, then you have experienced the "State of Flow". Some people call it different weird things, such as "In The Zone" or "In The Moment" - but I think that "Flow" sums it up the best.
It could be anything, it could be painting, photography, gardening, whatever it is that really makes your brain come alive and completely DEVOUR the task at hand. This is the kind of activity that makes you think, challenges you, and makes you thrive at the same time. Its the challenge portion that I always enjoy - you can't enter that state by doing easy tasks. It has to be just challenging enough to both be do-able AND be difficult at the same time, as paradoxical (is that a word?) as it may sound.
The key to long term happiness is finding something that consistently does this for you. If you can actually make a living doing that "Flow task" then that's pretty much the Holy Grail right there.
Currently, I make my living as a programmer (by "living" I mean it pays the bills - it doesn't make me "live" or come "alive" by any stretch of the imagination).
To be completely honest, I used to love it (or I at least THOUGHT that I did at the time), and even today when presented with a small project that has a lot of problem solving and intricate detail in it - I almost always enter a state of Flow for a period of time. It has to be something complicated but not huge and unwieldy - and also something that can be knocked off in a day or two that requires no other person to work on it except for me (waiting for other idiots to do their jobs properly is a huge "Flow Breaker" for me).
So that's awesome, right? I've won - since I get flow at my day job?
Nope, Not at all.
After being in this business for 13 years now, I've come to realize that most of what was so novel and intriguing to me in the late 90s (when I came on board in this industry as a young pup) is now just mundane regurgitated bullshit. Not only that, but my little islands of "Flow" that I DO manage to get these days probably only really happen 10% of the time - the other 90% is pretty excruciating (project meetings, arguing about specs, team infighting, political state-related policy changes, the utter stagnation of the IT department heads, etc).
It makes me think that the last industry I left (being an auto mechanic for a well-known local Volkswagen dealership) actually had more 'happiness merit' than my much higher paying IT jobs that followed it (Systems Integrator, System / Network Admin, Senior Programmer, Consultant). I was able to achieve Flow there too, but it had to be on something interesting and unknown that required a good amount of digging and testing - and yes, that job had a good deal of the mundane and menial tasks as well.
What are similarities? They are both rooted in problem solving for (mostly cause and effect based) complicated systems.
So if you can find a generalized idea like that - how do we extract it and apply it to something that we WANT to do AND can get paid for?
Its a good question, and one I'm currently chewing on over the past month or so.
I think we have to go back to the beginning and try to re-discover our passions in life. It sounds pretty corny, but its true. If your job is just "paying the bills" and you aren't happy, maybe its worth a shot. Think back to when you were little - kids have this awesome ability to just list things that they "love" to do. Adults tend to over-think it and come up with answers that are much less honest...
Try it - ask the little kid inside you, "What do you love to do?" - Write them down and give them a try, you might be surprised.
What can you re-discover?
It might just change your outlook on your CURRENT life.
(image from mr_fairuz's Flickr)