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Vital Engagement: When Meaning Meets Flow

This short article is part of a series of articles I am sharing to inform the readers on central concepts and principles of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of what goes right in life (Peterson, 2006), which is the science behind the #PositiveHR framework.

In the first two articles of this Positive HR Series, I presented two of the most fundamental concepts in Positive Psychology, namely: #Meaning and #Flow. Each concept on its own is already so profound and impactful but what happens when these concepts meet? The result is what Positive Psychology calls as vital engagement defined by Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2003) as any relationships to the world characterized by experiences of #Flow (the psychological state that accompanies highly engaging activities; Peterson, 2006) and by #Meaning (or subjective significance). Vital engagement is considered as one of the features of optimal development.

Vital Engagement = Meaning + Flow

Since #Flow is achieved when one tackle a certain task that challenges a person's skills or competencies, self-absorption or deep involvement occurs regardless of the nature of the activity itself. And when the activity is thought or perceived to be meaningful as well as absorbing, one naturally becomes vitally engaged.

The good news is that it does not seem to matter which comes first between #Flow and #Meaning to produce vital engagement. Usually, when one finds something to be meaningful or inherently important to do (e.g., science, medicine, arts, etc.), one can have sustained engagement with the flow activity. However, a flow activity can also be a pathway to meaning since sustained engagement increases the subjective significance of the flow activity itself (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

Another good news is that the application of the concept of vital engagement is not limited to science or that of the arts. One can even use vital engagement in raising children, in education, and of course, in business or in the workplace.

As an example, one way to increase the perennially low employee engagement of workers in the workplace is to enable them to be vitally engaged in their work by creating conditions for #Flow to materialize in the workplaces (i.e., challenge matches skills + proximal goals + real time feedback; refer to Suggested Readings below) and helping employees appreciate the significance of their work to the overall mission of the organization, i.e., let employees know that their work matters.

A novel way to let employees know that their work matters is through impact meetings as posited by Grant, Campbell, Chen, Cottone, Paledis, and Lee (2007). This approach encourages organizations to have their employees meet up with the beneficiaries of their work (i.e., internal and external customers) so that employees may become aware of the significance or impact of their jobs/tasks to others. For example, a recruiter may meet the family of a person whom she recruited to join the company and see for herself the impact of that move to the life and well-being of the family. This approach can lead to an increase in motivation maintenance (Grant et al., 2007) and ultimately, to find meaning in their work.

In conducting these impact meetings, respectful contact (characterized by courtesy and appreciation) between the employees and the beneficiaries (or customers) is a crucial ingredient in this process (Grant et al., 2007). [Note: More discussion about this approach will be made on the topic of Positive Institutions. Stay tuned.]

As HR professionals, we can be an active witness or participant in the marriage of #Flow and #Meaning to create a vitally engaged workforce for our organizations.

Suggested Readings:


Grant, A. M., Campbell, E. M., Chen, G., Cottone, K., Lapedis, D., & Lee, K. (2007). Impact and the art of motivation maintenance: The effects of contact with beneficiaries on persistence behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Making Processes, 103, 53-67.

Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). The construction of meaning through vital engagement. In C.L.M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (p. 83- 104). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

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