Motivation, happiness and satisfaction in the workplace – and during the World Cup

Learn about self-motivation at work – and how to get your wife to watch the Football World Cup with you. A guide not only for men.


I - The motivated salmon filleter

I recently came across another interesting article by the American psychologist and bestselling author Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, whom I hold in very high esteem. In the article, entitled “The Pleasure Principle”, he deals with the question of what factors cause people to feel satisfaction and happiness in the workplace.



Now of course we are all aware that some jobs offer higher opportunities for satisfaction than others. If I can apply my creativity, my intellect and my dedication, if I find my job challenging but not overwhelming, this leads to a higher probability of satisfaction. In companies, we therefore rightly strive to design workplaces in such a way that creates a motivational environment.

Whether I find my work motivating depends not only on the kind of work it is, but above all on my own attitude. Csíkszentmihályi tells the story of a New York delicatessen employee who has been enthusiastically filleting salmon into fine slices for 40 years, even though he could have retired long ago. When asked how he can dedicate himself to this work with such enthusiasm, he responded with a simple statement: “Each salmon is different”. He saw it as a challenge to understand the anatomy and structure of a salmon and to fillet it in the simplest possible way with as little waste as possible. His fundamental conviction was expressed in his daily work: if salmon is filleted correctly, it will taste better to the customer. He found meaning in his work based on this conviction. He had learned to focus so intensely on what he was doing that he even “lost track of time” while working.


II - Was Sisyphus happy?

This anecdote reminds me of Albert Camus' reinterpretation of the Sisyphus myth, which is usually viewed negatively. Camus suggests that we should imagine Sisyphus as being a happy person. Sisyphus, he said, achieved dignity and freedom precisely because he kept rolling the rock up towards the mountain peak – it was futile, but not pointless. Whether – or better: how we see ourselves as Sisyphus – depends primarily on our attitude and our degree of concentration, and less on whether our work consists of filleting a new salmon over and over again or whether we are managers conducting performance reviews with salmon filleters.

Personally, I don't know any salmon filleters. But I know managers who devote themselves to each performance review with concentration and diligence, because every employee is different. And I know some managers who want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. They see it as an annoying obligation - and their performance reviews "taste" accordingly.


III - The secret to being happy and satisfied with whatever we are doing

And now we are getting closer to solving the mystery of how to be happy and satisfied at work: we just need to be so absorbed in our work so that we forget the world around us. But let us not forget all the other roles we have, in which we also want to achieve satisfaction: we also want a happy and content family life, do we not? We therefore mustn’t let work make us forget all about our families for too long. On the contrary: when you’re focusing on your family, please put work out of your mind as quickly as possible. My wife sometimes smilingly tells me that I still have development potential in this area. Maybe that's why I had the glorious idea of watching some of the World Cup matches with her.

This example illustrates that it is not so easy to forget what is going on around you and become absorbed in an activity. On top of this, there are also quite a few activities that we don't exactly love. And things that really get on our nerves and where we think that if only we didn’t have to do them, we could really enjoy our job. Usually we quite quickly find ways to deal with these activities: we postpone and avoid them, perhaps we quickly put them behind us so that they no longer lie ahead of us, or – if possible – we delegate them to those who do not like them either, but who have even less possibility to refuse to do them than we have. But that's precisely the mistake! You can't possibly love a job if you just want to get it over with.

This is where Csíkszentmihályi makes a surprising suggestion. Instead of doing what we don't love in a slipshod way, we must do it with the utmost care. His findings are based on research he conducted in the 1990s with two research colleagues from the universities of Harvard and Stanford. In this study, he dealt with the question of how people find satisfaction in their work. The conclusions were quite clear: people who carry out their activities on their own initiative to the best of their ability and are also aware of their social responsibility almost without exception experience joy and satisfaction in their work.




"Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory." – Mahatma Gandhi

IV - So how do you get your wife to watch the World Cup with you?

Harvard professor and mindfulness researcher Ellen Langer conducted a study with people who hated watching football matches on TV. She divided them into 4 groups. One group was supposed to just watch the football match. The second group was given the task of finding out a new fact about football. The third group had to find out 3 things about football and in the fourth group, the participants had to discover six new findings. The result was very clear-cut: the more active the people had to be, the more they enjoyed the football match. Boredom and disinterest stem from a lack of mindfulness.

So if we want people to share our enthusiasm for something, we need to evoke that enthusiasm in them by getting them to learn more about the topic by investigating it themselves. Of course you know that you also need to create a connection: when it comes to football, it can be a good idea to first watch a women's football match together. But maybe you as a man will also learn something new about football by doing so. You should not rule out the possibility that you, too, may still have something to learn.

And as a tip for all die-hard non-fans of football: this was of course also tested with other areas such as music or art and worked just as well. So if you as a woman would like your husband to do more in the garden, then you know what you have to do. However, I do not believe this has been tested on washing the dishes. There may therefore be some limits to motivation.


V - This is how to motivate yourself to do things you do not enjoy.

When faced with having to do some troublesome and tricky work, don’t avoid it, but rather change your mindset and do what the salmon filleter in the delicatessen does, giving it your full attention. Your level of contentment will grow instead of you becoming more and more disgruntled. The feedback we receive from others about our changed attitudes will hopefully add to this, too.

If you want to motivate someone, make sure that they carry out tasks on their own that lead them to acquire new knowledge. The more competent people are in an area, the more motivated and happy they will generally become when dealing with it.

It is said that having happy employees leads to good work performance and active engagement. The opposite is equally true, if not more so: what we do and how we do it is what leads to happiness and satisfaction.




Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, „The Pleasure Principle“. In: Holland Herald, 11/2009, p. 22ff.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow im Beruf. Das Geheimnis des Glücks am Arbeitsplatz. Klett-Cotta 2004.

Ellen Langer, Mindfulness, 25th Anniversary Edition. Da Capo Press 1989, 2014.