“Some people identify so strongly with their role at work, their self-concept is so mixed with the role they play or sometimes the amount of money they make, that it is as if they don’t exist once they lose their job.”
- His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
It is funny, perhaps, to turn to the Dalai Lama for career advice. His job looks like no other on this planet, and comes with enviable perks like guaranteed lifetime employment, lots of respect, and tremendous responsibility. However, when asked the question “What do you do for a living?” the Dalai Lama answered, “Nothing, I do nothing!” Not your typical career coach.
Yet, being less than totally happy in the day-to-day at my own job, I turned to his book, The Art of Happiness at Work, written with Howard Cutler, a psychiatrist who posed questions to the Dalai Lama about his philosophy about work. His advice on happiness at work centers around improving your attitude as much, if not more, than your circumstances. While the book covers many topics, I took away three core lessons on how to improve happiness at work.
1. Be a Good Co-worker
Regardless of your job—whether you are teaching children, managing a large company or tediously nailing parts on an assembly line—the Dalai Lama points out that we are all interconnected. Our actions impact the people around us, especially our coworkers, customers and clients. Making the most of this connection by treasuring the relationships we have, assuming coworkers’ best intentions, and taking joy from them, is central to work happiness.
“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 good human qualities to the workplace, that we can make a tremendous difference,” he writes. “Then, whatever kind of work we do, it can be a source of satisfaction.”
2. Seek Balance
Much of the Dalai Lama’s advice comes down to finding a balance—balance between work and the rest of your life, between taking care of ourselves versus others, and, importantly, between being happy with what you have and trying to improve it.
The Dalai Lama puts it well: “You shouldn’t confuse contentment with complacency. You shouldn’t mistake being content with one’s job with just sort of not caring, not wanting to grow, not wanting to learn, just staying where one is even if one’s situation is bad and not even making the effort to advance and to learn and to achieve something better.” In this case, he recommends trying to find better work. If that fails, then to try to be content with what you have. If you shift your attitude to being grateful for what you do have, rather than upset about what is lacking, it can save you from anger, resentment and frustration.
The Dalai Lama also discusses a balance between challenging ourselves and boredom. A manageable amount of challenges can keep us engaged at work, but we also need to balance complex work with simple tasks.
Ultimately, the Dalai Lama points out that we challenges aren’t an absolute requirement or satisfaction, and also pokes fun at the busy culture of work. “Personally, I think no challenge is better because without challenge you can just lie down and rest,” he writes. “Take a little nap.” Learning to balance work and other parts of life, and to sit still, allows us to be happy doing less.
3. Expand Your Identity
Often, our unhappiness at work stems from our ego and identity: We don’t feel respected, we think we deserve more, we are upset over a rejection, or are worried about being perceived in a certain negative way. As Cutler points out, “If we choose an external marker as the measure of our inner worth, whether it is the amount of money we make, or other’s opinion of us, or the success of some project we’re involved in, sooner or later we’re bound to be battered by life’s inevitable changes. After all, money comes and goes, and thus is an unstable source of self-esteem, an unreliable foundation upon which to build our identity.”
There are two ways to widen your self-image. One is by “outward expansion,” which Cutler describes as “looking out across the landscape of [your] life to find other parts beyond the workplace.” This can be relationships, hobbies, athletic endeavors, volunteer work, anything that gives your life meaning. Yet, Cutler realizes that for the Dalai Lama, something deeper is at work; it involves “‘inward expansion’—going to the core, moving to a deeper and more fundamental level by discovering the essence of the particular role or activity…and binding one’s identity to this essence.” For the Dalai Lama, it is his spiritual practice as a monk; for us non-monks, our essence might be relationships that have love and affection at the core, it could be growing and learning new skills, or creating beauty, solving technical challenges.
Of course it isn’t true that the Dalai Lama does nothing all day. He works hard as a Buddhist monk, waking before dawn for meditation practice, serving as a statesman and leader of Tibet, and traveling globally to meet with other leaders and give speeches and talks. His answer of “I do nothing” reflects not a lack of activity, but his own attitude to his job. His life is so aligned with his core purpose as a monk that he brings joy and tireless energy to an exhausting schedule. It’s clear that the Dalai Lama’s career advice comes from a deeper place, one that is not solely concerned with material possessions or even meaningful work. Rather, it comes from a generous and holistic view of life and the world. He understands that job satisfaction is only one piece of life satisfaction. Accept that your job won’t be perfect, but your life can still be full.
“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.
Photo: Christopher Michel