For the past few years, I’ve been in a state of sustained dreadfulness at work, since witnessing a friend and co-worker get callously fired and escorted out a week before Christmas. Despite repeatedly reminding myself that I’m lucky to have a job in this economic environment, I’ve grown increasingly unhappy and grumpy at work. And like many people these days, my ability to move elsewhere for a job is hampered by being a homeowner in today’s horrendous real estate market.
Practicing Compassion Instead Of Cashing In My 401(k)
Feeling trapped in a bad place, after a particularly bad day at the office (the kind when you contemplate quitting and cashing in your 401k), I implored the universe to help me: if there’s a lesson I’m meant to learn from this situation, please show me what it is. The next day, I ran across The Art Of Happiness At Work, by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, M.D.
The book contains important lessons about applying Buddhist philosophy to transform dissatisfaction with work in the Western world. The lesson I needed is that happiness at work doesn’t begin by finding a “nirvana” job free from tormentors and tyrants. It begins by turning inward and reshaping my own attitudes and outlook.
I had grown so disillusioned with how people are treated at the workplace that I had checked out as a human being. I was just doing the work expected of me and collecting a paycheck until I found an escape hatch. The Dalai Lama teaches that this is not the route to happiness:
“[I]f we are discussing happiness and satisfaction at work, like in all human activities, the human factor—how we relate to those around us, our coworkers, our customers, our boss—is of prime importance. And I think if we make a special effort to cultivate good relationships with people at work, get to know the other people, and bring our basic human qualities to the workplace, that can make a tremendous difference. Then, whatever kind of work we do, it can be a source of satisfaction. Then you look forward to going to work, and you are happier there. You think, Oh, I’m going to work to see my friends today!”
He emphasizes that “we should take special care to pay attention to the human relationships at work, how we interact with one another, and try to maintain basic human values, even at work…. Just basic human goodness. Be a good person, a kind person. Relate to others with warmth, human affection, with honest and sincerity. Compassion.”
Gee, That Sounds Familiar
The Dalai Lama’s co-author, Dr. Cutler (a psychiatrist), weaves real-life examples into The Art Of Happiness At Work to illustrate these points. One story from a senior editor at a publishing house really hit home:
“I have to start with the irritation I feel when I have to answer a nagging question from a co-worker. I have to appreciate that person as someone who also has a job to do and whose needs are at least as important, if not more so, than my own. Then I can take some satisfaction in the fact that because of my job I’ve been able to help clear someone else’s confusion….
“So then I can see the purpose of my job is really to help alleviate suffering. But it’s not easy to maintain. I slip into ‘burnout’ all the time. It’s a mind-training exercise that I have to engage in all the time. And crabbiness at work is the sign that I need to do it again, and again, until one day the feeling just comes naturally, spontaneously….”
What About The Tormentors And Tyrants?
Of course, training my mind to be more kind and compassionate doesn’t make the tormentors and tyrants disappear. But as the Dalai Lama explains, those individuals provide us with chances to improve ourselves:
“[T]here are some people who have an interest in spirituality, those people who are trying to train their minds, to cultivate spiritual values like compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness. Now, for those people, they may use these challenging situations as part of their spiritual practice, and view situations where there are conflicts with difficult co-workers as opportunities to practice these wonderful human qualities, to strengthen these spiritual values. I think it is a wonderful thing if one can use one’s place of work as a place of spiritual practice as well.”
Lasting Happiness 24/7
The Art Of Happiness At Work helped me see that I can’t have a happy life unless I relate to others with warmth, human affection, sincerity and compassion in my personal life and in my professional life: “When you appreciate the interconnected nature of all aspects of your life, then you will understand how various factors—such as your values, your attitudes, your emotional state—can all contribute to your sense of fulfillment at work, and to your satisfaction and happiness in life.” Practicing these seemingly simple lessons in recent weeks has had a transformative impact on my life, in and out of the workplace.
Does this mean that I plan to stay in my current job for the rest of my working life? No. But while I’m there, I’ll use the experience as a tool to reshape my outlook and attitudes, to integrate basic human values at the office, to reduce my anger and hostility and cultivate the opposing mental states of kindness, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness. In Dr. Cutler’s words, “true happiness may take longer to generate, and requires some effort, but it is this lasting happiness that can sustain us even under the most trying conditions of everyday life.”
You can get a copy of The Art of Happiness At Work on Amazon. It’s not currently available as an e-book, but I prefer to have a hard copy anyway. I keep it on my desk at work as a reminder of the important lessons it contains!