Most people recognize that people have psychological motivations for doing the things they do. Depression or anxiety, for instance, might cause a person to slack on their work, or snap at a coworker. But there is more to psychology and motivation than this kind of thinking. In recent years, psychology has become more positive: less about trying to fix what is wrong with us, and more about how to make the most of our strengths. This approach is known in academic circles as "positive psychology," and it is transforming the lives of people, as well the organizations they work for.

I recently had the opportunity to interview some of leading researchers on positive psychology to learn how academics are helping business leaders gain a better understanding of human motivation.

A Founding Father of Flow

Any list of positive psychology's leading names is likely to include this one: Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD. Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. Along with Martin Seligman and Abraham Maslow, he is considered to be one of the founding fathers of positive psychology.

Csikszentmihalyi literally wrote the book on the psychological concept of "flow." It's called "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience." In it, he details how flow - a highly focused, intrinsically motivating state - helps people become happier and more productive.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow produces deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement. How do you know if you or your employees are in the flow? Look for these eight characteristics:

  1. Complete concentration: you're totally absorbed in the task.

  2. Clarity: your goal is clear and you recognize when you're succeeding.

  3. Time transformation: time seems to slow down or speed up.

  4. Intrinsic reward: accomplishing the goal is an end to itself.

  5. Effortlessness: the work seems easy, even if it isn't.

  6. Skill: your skills match the challenge at hand.

  7. Lack of self-consciousness: you're focused on the work, not your performance of it.

  8. Control: You feel in control of the work.

Flow isn't just something to be experienced on an individual basis; organizations can leverage the concept to make their workers and workplaces happier. Says Csikszentmihalyi, "Understanding how energy works, what morale and mindset it takes to get into that state, allows us to remove the obstacles that keep people from getting to that optimal state of flow."

According to Csikszentmihalyi, organizations should focus on making the workplace one where people are able to focus on work and collaborate productively. The key to doing this, he says, is through habits. "Habits help to free up attention by automatizing necessary behaviors, and thus freeing attention for more enjoyable tasks," says Csikszentmihalyi. "When habits relate doing your job, they become values: 'This is how we do things around here'."

"Anything that supports positive work habits also supports flow," says Csikszentmihalyi, who cited a few examples: "Informal dress codes can help people get focused, which promotes flow. Office layouts that ensure people have a comfortable place to work, where the people who need to collaborate are able to do so, can also help people achieve flow, as can encouraging informal business-connected discussion groups."

More Fun + Less Conflict = Happier Workplace

Judy Eaton, Associate Professor and Department of Psychology Program Coordinator for Psychology and Foundations at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario, says that her research indicates that positive psychology offers hope to individuals that are unhappy at work.

Eaton's research is centered on the cause, consequences, and resolution of interpersonal conflict using a social cognitive approach. "Social cognitive theory tells us that people are highly individual and complex," says Eaton. "So if you're trying to effect change in an individual, or an organization, you'll find that not everything works for everybody. We need to understand people's strengths and interests, and have different approaches we can use."

Eaton believes that the approach that works most consistently is leveraging each person's strengths. "Increasingly, in the university setting, we're finding it very important to get students to understand what their strengths are. If they understand their strengths, they can find out what motivates them. Generally, students don't respond as well to the traditional methods of motivation and learning."

Employers, too, are finding that workers are less motivated by traditional tools like money and top-down management structures. Instead, says Eaton, most people tend to respond better to a more engaging approach.

"We've looked at how gamification has the ability to create positive social change by engaging people with how to develop better habits and resolve conflict. When it's intrinsically motivating, it puts people in a positive mindset where they are ready to work and to learn."

Academics like Csikszentmihalyi and Eaton are helping shed light on what motivates individuals to do their best work, whether that's in the workplace or university setting. By understanding these secrets of how the human mind really works, organizations can help unlock the potential in each individual and create a better, more productive workplace for all.