One of the main reasons coworking has expanded so quickly over the past few years is the desire for independent workers to cultivate and be a part of a community. Of course, having an aesthetically pleasing place to work that makes you feel good to be in it certainly doesn’t hurt — but it’s not the main draw. I think the best explanation for the success, and the continued success, of coworking is best understood through positive psychology.
Positive psychology is a relatively new focus of psychology that aims to better understand what makes life worth living. Traditionally, the discipline of psychology has done a great job helping people with mental sicknesses diagnose their problems and help restore them to normality. This is a noble and worthwhile goal, to be sure. Positive psychology, however, argues that we have neglected the positive mental conditions and behaviors that make life worth living. Things like peak performance, optimal experience, flow, happiness, joy, passion — do we understand what these are and under what conditions they can be facilitated? Positive psychologists want to know if it’s possible to do more for people than restore them to normality. Can we help people reach a level above average?
I think coworking provides an excellent environment for many components of positive psychology to be explored and nurtured.
One of the two “fathers” of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has made his career on what he describes as “flow.” In the 1970’s he began studying people who do things apparently for no reason other than for the enjoyment of the activity. Some of these individuals became so absorbed in what they were doing they would forget to eat, use the bathroom, or completely lose track of time. You’ve probably experienced what he ended up calling flow when you were super engaged in some kind of work that you found challenging, yet doable, and at least somewhat interesting. His further work into this concept showed that engaging in activities that let you experience flow is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. While most people don’t report that they’re happy or having fun when in the midst of the flow activity (they’re way too “in it” at the time), almost all look back on it and wish they could do it again. Coworking spaces can be a great environment to help facilitate flow. In my own experience, being around other people who are engaged with their work makes it easier for me to be engaged as well. The more we can find flow in our work, the more likely we are to enjoy the work we do.
Christopher Peterson, an important individual in the positive psychology field, has succinctly summarized his view of the most important lessons of positive psychology as, “Other people matter.” Much of our individual happiness and well-being is tied to the relationships that we have with other people. Many entrepreneurs and freelancers cite the social isolation as one of the main reasons they pursued joining a coworking space. It can be tough to spend the majority of your time working in almost complete isolation. Coworking provides an arena to cultivate the interpersonal relationships that are so important to making life worth living. Everybody is quick to point out the networking possibilities of a coworking space — a claim I won’t deny. However, let’s not forget that simply cultivating relationships, even friendships, with people at your coworking space is even more important than business contacts. Very simply, your coworkers and the relationships you build with them can help you have a more complete and healthy existence as a human being.
Happiness & Positive Emotions
Most people who have heard of positive psychology tend to think of it as the science of happiness. Or, as positive psychologist cringe when they hear, “happiology.” Serious positive psychology researchers shun this label because positive psychology encapsulates much more than understanding happiness. Regardless, cultivating our understanding of happiness and positive emotions (which are not necessarily the same thing) has been a major aim of positive psychology since its inception. For example, Barbara Fredrickson coined a theory known as broaden-and-build to understand why and how positive emotions have been important in human evolution. Almost a foil to the fight-or-flight impulse in response to threat that most of us are very familiar with, broaden-and-build is our response to positive experiences. Whereas fight-or-flight narrows our response options in a panicked effort to keep us alive (adrenaline and narrowed vision to help us escape a dangerous situation), positive experiences broaden our response repertoire and therefore helps us expand important internal resources that are important for survival later on. For example, her theory explains play as a broaden-and-build activity that helps teach and prepare young animals (including humans) how to flee or respond to threats later in life. Instead of narrowing potential responses to a stimulus, positive experiences allow the individual a broader array of possible responses. When you pair this idea with the concept of a positive affect spiral (basically, being positive and happy will make the people you come into contact with positive and happy, thus instigating an upward spiral of emotions in a community or organization), a coworking space suddenly becomes a haven of positive emotions and happiness.
Strengths, Values, Passion — The List Goes On
This is only a small smattering of possible positive psychology concepts that I think are relevant to positive psychology. Others include the identification and development of character strengths and values, the development of sustainable motivation and passion, and a myriad of organizational ideas such as job design and self-management. When positive psychology was set as Martin Seligman’s focus during his APA presidency term in 2000, a framework to help describe it was developed. Positive psychology can be thought of as having three pillars that are all interrelated; positive experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. I think coworking spaces have the potential to be one of the most positive institutions for individual happiness and well-being that has been formed in recent memory.
Sam Spurlin is an American graduate student studying the intersection between developmental and organizational psychology. He writes and coaches at SamSpurlin.com and is spending the summer in Prague working in Locus Workspace. He’ll be sharing his thoughts and observations about coworking here for the next couple of months. You can follow him on Twitter (@samspurlin) or send him an email (samspurlin AT gmail DOT com).