In Game 5 of the first round of the 1984 NBA play-offs, Isiah Thomas experienced the most remarkable 1 1/2 minutes of his career. Playing for the Detroit Pistons, trailing the New York Knicks in sweltering Joe Louis Arena, Thomas suddenly couldn't miss. With the last quarter slipping away, he scored 16 points in just 94 sec., forcing the game into overtime. "I remember coming back into the huddle at one time and practically crying because everything was just flowing so right," Thomas recalls. Even an eventual loss in the game doesn't tarnish the memory. It was a classic in-the-zone moment. "Your focus is crystal clear. You are seeing and you are feeling things before they really happen. You just instinctively feel and know what's ready to happen."
Those moments are rare, but Thomas says he could feel the euphoria years later. Nice work if you can get it, right? Well, maybe you can. Ask Carol Young. She isn't a pro basketball player; she's a teacher's aide in Santa Monica, Calif. For Kira Sweeney, a blind student, "I'm her eyes," Young says, anticipating Sweeney's needs through every lesson of the day. Young finds bas-relief globes for the student to touch during geography lessons, plants for biology and Braille versions of everything. "While I'm doing my work, I'm not worrying or fussing," Young says. "I'm on a wavelength where I just do what I need to do. It's almost an intuitive thing, like being on automatic pilot." Like Thomas, Young gets emotional thinking about it. "Sometimes I feel as if I assist in miracles." Listen closely, and you can almost hear the cheering fans.
As researchers in psychology, economics and organizational behavior have been gradually discovering, the experience of being happy at work looks very similar across professions. People who love their jobs feel challenged by their work but in control of it. They have bosses who make them feel appreciated and co-workers they like. They can find meaning in whatever they do. And they aren't just lucky. It takes real effort to reach that sublime state. Thomas says those 94 sec. were the culmination of years of good habits that came together on the court. Young discovered her calling in special education only after abandoning her earlier career of 17 years, toiling in an insurance office.
An even bigger obstacle, though, may be our low expectations on the job. Love, family, community--those are supposed to be the true sources of happiness, while work simply gives us the means to enjoy them. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term flow, which adherents of positive psychology would use to describe Thomas' and Young's job-induced highs, says that distinction is a false one. "Anything can be enjoyable if the elements of flow are present," he writes in his book Good Business. "Within that framework, doing a seemingly boring job can be a source of greater fulfillment than one ever thought possible."