We all want to enjoy our jobs. Given the amount of time we spend working, this seems like a reasonable wish. According to one study, the figure stands at 99,000 hours during a lifetime. That’s over eleven years.
But is happiness possible? Should we try to be happy even in a job that we don’t enjoy? These are the questions that Sharon Salzberg asks in her book Real Happiness At Work.
Contained within are practical steps to cultivating the qualities (eight in total) that she believes will lead to happiness. It’s these qualities, Sharon says, that shape our ability to relate to our working environment in a healthy, vitality-giving way.
The premise at the heart of the book is simple: whatever work we do, we can always foster more joy. The advice is just as applicable to those who are self-employed as it is to those working for a big organization. Our desk and the clamours of day-to-day life provide a perfect opportunity for spiritual growth.
Here are five steps that struck me as being the most salient.
1. Practice “stealth meditations.” A central piece of advice is to foster small but frequent moments of awareness throughout the day, referred to as “stealth meditations.”
Amongst my favourites were “labelling,” a technique in which you name your painful emotions (research has been done into this practice) and “sending mindful email,” which simply involves using the writing and sending of an email as a mindfulness trigger.
Offering loving-kindness to people with whom you’re struggling is another great suggestion. Sharon also gives a nod to “coherent breathing.”
2. Cultivate meaning. A common attitude nowadays is that meaning is only possible when we love what we do. Citing a 1997 study, Sharon outlines three different ways that people tend to view their work: as a job, as a career or as a calling. In each case, she argues, a true sense of purpose is possible.
Do we work for love of the activity, as a means to support ourselves and our family or simply to have a life outside of the office? Any motivation is valid. When we view meaning as coming from the relationship we have to our work, rather than something inherent in the work itself, we can return to our sense of “why” whenever we feel apathetic.
3, Act compassionately. A sentiment that crops up frequently in the book is that all human beings are essentially the same. That is, struggling with their own demons and acting in accordance with what they believe will bring them happiness. When we take this attitude, rather than the hyper-competitive, each-for their own mentality that’s very common, we enter into a shared sense of humanity. This is deeply healing. Not only for ourselves, but equally for the people we’re surrounded by.
Whenever you’re feeling angry or bitter, ask yourself, “Who is this emotion benefiting?” You’ll find that the only person being hurt is you. With a regular meditation practice, awareness will become a more prominent feature of your day, meaning you can be more open to opportunities for kindness when they arise.
4. Mindfully welcome difficult situations. When we get into the habit of dealing with our emotions mindfully, rather than distracting ourselves away from them, we loosen their hold over us. This is one of the key things I learned from the book. Next time you’re in pain, name the emotion and stay with it, allowing it to pass.
5. Concentrate. Research suggests that giving our full attention to a task improves our sense of well-being. In the chapter on concentration, Sharon explains how mindfulness can improve our ability to hold our attention on a single task. Whilst decrying the pitfalls of multi-tasking, she suggests that increased awareness allows us to notice the pull towards a distraction without reacting to it.
Before beginning your next task, set the intention to do it mindfully, to return whenever you notice you’ve become distracted.
Sharon’s Page (Includes free chapter and guided meditations taken from the book.)