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Sharon Salzberg Teaches How to Grow Happiness at Work

Feb 06, 2014 04:56AM

Is happiness at work the final frontier for healthy living? Many of us spend more waking hours working than doing anything else. Relationships with colleagues play a significant role in whether we feel fulfilled, and work issues are among our greatest challenges in achieving happiness, says Sharon Salzberg, author of the New York Times bestseller Real Happiness.

Salzberg’s readers and live forums in New York and the District of Columbia contributed perspective to her new book, Real Happiness at Work. The longtime meditation teacher, writer and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, offers teachings, meditations and exercises to improve the workday. She responded to these questions in a recent interview.

GO: What do you mean by real happiness at work?

Salzberg: This kind of personal fulfillment allows us to have a sense of inner resourcefulness and replenishing and caring about others. Tools for balance, resilience, compassion and meaning are practical. We can live in the world as it is and develop skills in a real way so that whatever we’re doing for work, it will be better.

GO: What is an easy way to start?

Salzberg: Look around the room and remember that everyone wants to be happy. A different perspective comes into mind, “We all do want that, don’t we? Maybe there’s a way we can both be happy.”

GO: What if you work in a stressful environment?

Salzberg: Basically, we need something like the breath that we can keep returning to, something available, simple, portable and non-sectarian. Rather than expect to maintain awareness of breath, the goal is to renew the connection. Pausing to notice the breath, we have a chance to remember what we care about. When we’re caught in the grip of a reaction, we may not see as many options as there actually are. Maybe we want to write that email and pause before we send it. Re-read it an hour later.

GO: If its your job to fight for things, how can you do it mindfully?

Salzberg: First, you can have an opponent who is not seen as an enemy. You can realize you want to take a strong stand and fight hard for what you believe in, but you don’t have to demonize your opponent—even if they demonize you. Certain skills are helpful, especially deep listening. Sometimes you hear something in what someone is saying and sense how to give them what they’re more deeply asking for, not their armored position, but what is motivating them.

Next, it is always useful to discern one’s own motivation before a negotiation or challenge. Ask yourself what you want most to come out of it. Do you want a resolution or do you want to be seen as right? Do you want to help somebody come to resolution or do you want to damage them? Knowing your motive helps you in the interaction, reminds you of your deeper values. You see you’re just trying to hurt the person, but no good will come of it. You remember the people you really care about so you modulate. You catch your habit of being impulsive and recall you do better when you take the time to breathe and see an array of options beyond the reaction. It’s about creating a space where our actions can be more effective and clarified, but we definitely keep fighting.

GO: What inspires your ten-plus year commitment to teaching in Washington?

Salzberg: I believe in collective action for the common good, which means politics and government. I think we are all ennobled or freed by caring for others. Our sense of community can be very big, we think about what serves a larger body and see it also serves us. I feel admiring of people who are trying to execute that. Partly because of work in other domains, I’m compelled by seeing when compassion turns to burnout and good values that lead a lot of people into their field are confronted by seemingly intractable systems and a lot of pain and suffering that you can’t easily fix. In some ways that’s the most profound arena I work in and it’s certainly prevalent in Washington, as well as in domestic violence shelters and hospitals and among first responders.

People working on Capitol Hill represent those who are suffering by trying to change or establish policy. At some point, the same issues of futility and hopelessness arise. Resilience and meaning are very important when you are trying to get something done.

Grace Ogden is the founder of Grace Productions, which offers transformational consulting and Living Sacred events. For more information, visit 


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