Happiness at Work: Is it Achievable?
I have spent much of my professional studies and career on the question of happiness at work. How can we be truly happy and contribute our talents and skills to make a better world in a system that encourages work habits that can leave us chronically stressed, dissatisfied, and eventually burned out in our work, an endeavor in which we invest a huge amount of our energy and time?
This puzzle of happiness and resilience at work in the service of a better world first struck me in my early 20s. While volunteering at a domestic violence shelter in the late 1990’s in Washington DC I became acutely aware of how much the staff were putting into their work emotionally and physically as they sought to create safe and healing spaces for women and their children to dwell safely away from violence and trauma. How can we “help the helpers?” I wondered, and this became the first research project in my doctoral program (Baker et al., 2007).
Years later, much of my work has been in direct service. I’ve realized that I feel most connected and most joyful in direct service work with both clients and leaders/staff in human service settings. Offering psychotherapy and counseling in a wide range of settings from college campuses to VA hospitals to HIV clinics to corporations, I have found my work quite fulfilling and felt that my strengths were being well-utilized – I found my joy. Eventually, however, this joy started to dim within stressed systems, where, driven by ever-tightening financial pressure, the pace was quick, workloads were heavy, and workers were disempowered. Leaders were stressed and unable to use their positions of influence to create, innovate, and inspire, nor to effectively support staff as they navigated through times of conflict and change.
Around that time, finding myself fatigued, stressed, and overwhelmed, I decided to finally take an 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – something I had been meaning to do for years. As a “good student,” I did my daily meditation “homework” everyday even if it meant meditating as I rocked my baby girl to sleep at night. Toward the middle of the course, something changed inside of me, almost without realizing it was happening. I started feeling more calm- calm started to become my baseline, rather than the exception. I was taken aback when daily hassles that usually annoyed me, no longer triggered irritation or agitation. I also found I no longer spent time longing for all the pretty things in Better Homes and Gardens magazine or in the windows of my favorite clothing store. I felt satisfied with what I had, grateful to have my needs met where so many others do not. And the amazing thing about it was that this was not done by forcing myself to change existing thoughts and behaviors, I simply started to integrate a new way of being and seeing into my daily life without “forcing out” the “old ways.” Ah – this IS our natural state of being if only we have access to it! I have been committed, ever since, to continuing my practice (though there certainly are lulls and I see the effects when I am not meditating or doing mindful activities regularly), and committed to sharing mindfulness and practice with others in ways that are culturally-relevant and meaningful to them.
Sadly, though, my own mindfulness practice was and is not enough to change the stressed and challenged systems and workplaces.
I along with many others have found that mindfulness concepts and practices, which can be traced back thousands of years to Buddhism and Hinduism, are difficult to introduce and integrate into workplaces when they are counterintuitive to the underlying cultures and systems that focus on and reward productivity, action, speed, and individual achievement. What leaders in businesses and organizations often don’t realize or know how to actualize even if they do know, is that if we are more joyful, resilient, compassionate, and well – we will be more productive, effective, efficient, and successful (this means, among other things, that there is a significant ROI when it comes to quality mindfulness practices and programming in workplaces).
This is why I decided to become a mindfulness teacher. Through mindfulness teacher training (MBSR) and mentorship, combined with scholarship and training in frameworks and practices in psychology as well as leadership, social change, and social innovation at theSocial Innovation and Sustainability Leadership Program at Edgewood College, and trainings from Anima Leadership, Process Work Institute, and The 3 Doors Compassion Project, I refined and deepened my skills and practice.
I am very excited about the impact and possibilities of my current work, developing and teaching Mindful Leadership and Mindfulness at Work courses and partnering with talented teachers on intensive trainings and retreats, with an emphasis on creating diverse, inclusive and thriving teams, organizations, and businesses. What a rich journey it has been and continues to be!