The Paradox of Work

The Paradox of Work

“Monday blues”, “TGIF”, “Back to the grind” and “I hate work” are all common phrases that we have heard from time to time. Work is something we all need to do and something that most of us complain about. So why do we do it? Most people will talk about extrinsic motivators such as money, family and social pressures. Other factors also include mastery, learning, a sense of belonging, autonomy, curiosity and meaning. The latter factors are intrinsic motivators and they are stronger predictors of longer lasting behavioural commitments.

Intrinsic motivators also go hand in hand with the phenomenon of “Flow”. In a recent study by Engeser & Baumann (2016) they describe Flow being an absorbing state in which the individual feels in control of the action even under high demand (Csikszentmihalyi 1975; Rheinberg 2008). In a flow state the individual loses a sense of time, the activity seems to be guided by an inner logic and is not separated from the self, leading to a merging of self and activity and a loss of self-consciousness. In flow, each step of the activity is self-evident, contains no contradictory demands, and provides clear, unambiguous feedback on what to do next (Engeser and Schiepe-Tiska 2012). Thus, the flow experience is comprised of different aspects of experience referred to as the characteristic, dimensions, or components of flow (Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi 1999; Nakamura and Csikszentmiha´lyi 2009). Being in flow is rewarding in itself and it explains why people are highly committed to tasks even when lacking external rewards (Nakamura and Csikszentmiha´lyi 2009). The flow state has also a strong functional aspect. Individuals are in a state of high concentration while feeling optimally challenged and in control of the action. This explains why flow experience is often related to high performance (Engeser and Rheinberg 2008; Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi 1999) and is considered as an optimal experience. While the flow experience is rewarding, positive emotions like joy and happiness may not be felt during the flow experience. However, individuals often express positive affect at the end of a flow experience or when a flow experience is remembered (Nakamura and Csikszentmiha´lyi 2009).


Now the paradox of work comes into play. Csikszentmihalyi found that flow is most experienced at work compared to leisure activities, yet people were more likely at work to express the wish to do something else, indicating low intrinsic motivation. The paradox is that flow is a rewarding experience, we are more likely to experience flow at work, however, we are more likely to not want to be at work.

Engeser & Baumann (2016) discussed the paradox in their recent study stating, Flow is highest at work, and participants should enjoy activities in which they experience more flow and they should not indicate that they would like to do something else. Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre (1989) explained the paradox in such a way that social conventions led their participants to indicate that they would like to do something else. Additionally, they argued that participants were not able to structure leisure activities in order to experience more flow. We see merit in both explanations; however, we found clear evidence supporting the considerations offered by Schallberger and Pfister (2001) and in line with our expectation of the favourable affective experiences of active and passive leisure, these offer a credible explanation as to why participants favour leisure compared to work.

The key to enjoyment at work is flow and intrinsic motivations which are supported by extrinsic motivation. It is also clear that leisure activities need to be varied with certain planned events to support the development of flow and positive affect.



Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of Flow in consciousness. Cambridge: University Press.

 Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 815–822.

Engeser, S., & Baumann, N. (2016). Fluctuation of flow and affect in everyday life: A second look at the paradox of work. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(1), 105-124. Retrieved from

Engeser, S., & Schiepe-Tiska, A. (2012). Historical lines and overview of current research. In S. Engeser (Ed.), Advances in flow research (pp. 1–22). New York: Springer.

Engeser, S., & Rheinberg, F. (2008). Flow, performance and moderators of challenge-skill-balance. Motivation and Emotion, 32, 158–172.

Rheinberg, F. (2008). Intrinsic motivation and flow-experience. In H. Heckhausen & J. Heckhausen (Eds.), Motivation and action (pp. 323–348). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schallberger, U., & Pfister, R. (2001). Flow-Erleben in Arbeit und Freizeit. Eine Untersuchung zum Paradox der Arbeit mit der Experience Sampling Method [Flow experiences in work and leisure. An experience sampling study on the paradox of work]. Zeitschrift fu¨r Arbeits- und Organisationspsycholgie, 45, 176–187.