How can we be happier at work? This question seems well worth pursuing, given how much time we spend there, and the way in which happiness spills from one area of our lives into all the others. I recently came across The Art of Happiness at Work, a collaboration between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard C. Cutler, M.D, first published in 2003. I’m fortunate to have a job I truly enjoy, but was curious to explore what the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, had to say about cubicle culture and happiness at work.
“You begin by realizing that no situation is one hundred percent good or one hundred percent bad,” the Dalai Lama notes. “Sometimes, particularly in the West, I’ve noticed a tendency to think in black-or-white terms. But in reality everything in life is relative.”
This thought-provoking book centers on a series of conversations between the coauthors, providing key advice to those of us searching for increased happiness at work and in our lives. Here are my top three takeaways:
1. Create the Right Mindset
The first and most fundamental step asks you to be aware of your mindset. Recognize that “happiness” doesn’t imply that we skip down the hall to each staff meeting or feel joy when we open a spreadsheet (although we might!). Rather, it’s about finding a more complex, balanced feeling of contentment.
The Dalai Lama advises us to begin by cultivating a wider perspective. In many parts of the world, finding employment at all—let alone earning an adequate living—is difficult. It’s certainly not a given here in the U.S., but he notes that we have more opportunities, in general, and a greater degree of freedom. Simply considering your good fortune, he suggests, is one way to tap into feelings of gratitude and inner joy.
He also stresses the importance of developing compassion and empathy—for the people you lead or manage, if that’s your role, but also for the people above you (your boss, senior management, etc). It doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be mistreated, but instead, cultivating an understanding that the behavior of others isn’t always about you and that it may be a reflection of other pressures they’re feeling. Keeping this in mind can help temper feelings of discontent when higher-ups make decisions you don’t agree with, you get an assignment you don’t particularly like, or you miss out on a promotion.
Both authors note that it’s important not to confuse contentment with complacency. If there are harmful external conditions negatively impacting your job satisfaction, and you have the capacity to change them, it’s absolutely worth taking action. But if things are truly stuck, and you can’t change them, it may be time to move on. Most importantly, focus on what’s within your control: your attitude and outlook. It may take some time, but shifting your mindset and retooling your perspective can make a big difference—and these “inner conditions” are things we carry with us wherever we go in life.
2. Focus on the Quality of Your Relationships
“We should take special care to pay attention to the human relationship at work—how we interact with one another—and try to maintain basic human values,” says the Dalai Lama.
We’ve probably all encountered an inflexible or hypercritical supervisor or a coworker who complains about every task. These people can drain the joy out of any day.
By contrast, if you’ve had the chance to work with truly positive colleagues, you know how enlivening that feels. These are the people who go out of their way to check in on you and offer their help or encouragement when things are tough. Those from whom even the most mundane small talk rings sincere. These folks are like a ray of sunshine in your day. It doesn’t mean they’re invariably cheerful, but they possess compassion, empathy, and the emotional intelligence to filter what they express to others, both in word and deed.
This is an especially important quality for leaders, but just as powerful for people in other roles. You don’t need to be an extrovert or become besties with everyone (or anyone) in your office to improve the quality of your work relationships. By simply paying attention and practicing mindfulness—tuning in to how the people around you feel, making an effort to connect and ask questions, offering some kind of support—you can make a tangible difference in the lives of your colleagues, as well as your own.
3. Find the Meaning in Your Work
This shift in perspective involves stepping back to consider the impact of your work in the bigger picture—be it the world, your community, or even just your network of colleagues and customers. Whether you’re filling a multimillion dollar technology order or filling a vending machine, you’re making an impact.
Dr. Cutler talks about three general categories of workers and their attitudes: Those who view their work as a “job,” with a focus on the financial rewards; those who see it as a “career,” with a tendency to be motivated by prestige, status, and power; and those who consider their work a “calling” and find meaning through the work itself.
At first glance, a calling may seem like a rare and distinct category, reserved for life-saving or high-profile professions (think: social workers, teachers, surgeons, and artists). But Dr. Cutler and the Dalai Lama argue that any job can be a calling with the right perspective. Achieving this requires that you slow down, take stock, and consider the people your work affects, both directly and indirectly. Even if you’re not saving lives, your work and working relationships can bring some degree of happiness, relief, or service to others.
American culture tends to celebrate the hustle and grind, with financial success as the ultimate measure. It’s easy to lose sight of the simple dignity of doing a job well and earning a paycheck.
No matter how high you are on the ladder or how much money you earn, there will always be elements of work that are difficult or not-so-enjoyable. The key point from the book is that if you want to be happier at work, keep challenges in perspective and focus on the good you derive—and deliver—each day.
Elisabeth Flynn is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor, and has spent the last 15 years working in the nonprofit/social innovation sector, including stints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ-focused health and wellness provider.