Interview With Sharon Salzberg About Her
New Book, Real Happiness at Work

Dr L: As you know, the title of your book is Real Happiness at Work. Some might object to the title and say that happiness is not possible, and perhaps not even desirable, in the workplace. What do you think about this position? 

SharonI don’t define happiness simply as pleasure or having fun, but as something much more than that. I think happiness is deeply related to resilience, an inner sense of wholeness that prevents us from feeling depleted or overcome by difficult circumstances. Happiness is born of our ability to tap into our inner sources of strength while also connecting to a bigger picture of life.

In the context of work, it’s not only possible, but necessary, to achieve this kind of happiness. Otherwise, we either burn out or become indifferent. Neither is a good position from which to sustain our efforts.

Dr LIn the introduction to Real Happiness at Work, you introduce the five Core Meditations as the basis of all the meditations in the book. What are the five Core Meditations?

Sharon: The core meditations include the basic breath meditation, paying attention to emotions, walking, letting go of thoughts, and Lovingkindness. 

The core meditations form a comprehensive path to meditation skills. If we practice them, we build a strong set of foundational skills that allow us to deepen concentration, mindfulness and compassion. Concentration helps steady and center our attention. Mindfulness refines our perspective by helping us see things more clearly, including the many old reactions and fears that can cloud our vision. Compassion strengthens the forces of Lovingkindness towards ourselves, and towards others. 

Dr LWhy write about mindfulness in the context of work – and why now?

SharonIf we practice mindfulness—a balanced quality of awareness that allows us to connect to a given moment’s experience without becoming lost in immediate reactions to it – our worlds open up. By practicing mindfulness, we open up the door to discernment, compassion, and intelligent, empowered choice. All of these are valuable whatever kind of work we do. 

Mindfulness is also the basis for insight. If we try to deny or avoid a difficult thought or scenario as soon as it appears, we don’t make adequate space for learning. If we become swamped by reflexive reactions, we leave little room for a sense of perspective. Mindfulness transforms our lives by enabling us to be more present and aware, which becomes the platform from which we can reach greater wisdom and compassion.

And why now? Recent research has shown that mindfulness meditation improves one’s concentration, memory, energy and mood while on the job. We’re seeing more and more corporations, non-profits, tech companies, universities and government agencies exploring the potential benefits of mindfulness for their employees.

Dr LWhat can we gain from being fully present in the workplace? How does that contribute to greater happiness?

SharonIn a previous book, Real Happiness, I wrote about “continuous partial attention,” the fragmented and hyper way we often pay attention these days. We ostensibly pay attention in this way so as not to “miss” anything – but this scattered way of “paying attention” often leaves us feeling stressed and unfulfilled.

“Continuous partial attention” is a phrase coined by tech researcher Linda Stone. Stone also unveiled another phenomenon very pertinent to the workplace – “email apnea.” She discovered (initially via personal experience) the temporary suspension of breathing, or very shallow breathing, while writing and reading emails. The phenomenon of “email apnea” has been likened to sleep apnea. It is no surprise that email apnea too often leaves us feeling stressed and unfulfilled.

One way to turn these habits around is through the development of greater concentration so as to be more fully present. Concentration is the stability or steadiness of attention. Rather than having our attention (and our energy) flying off in all directions all of the time, we can cultivate the ability to focus, be fully present, and utilize our energy efficiently. As a result, our previously scattered, stressed energy becomes more available to us, and we feel empowered. As we gather our attention, we feel more integrated, unified, fulfilled. This isn’t beyond anyone’s abilities…It’s just a question of gentle, persistent effort.

Dr LCan you describe the role of meaning?

SharonStudies show that the greatest factor for cultivating a sense of happiness at work is a sense of meaning.

Meaning might not be something we find in our job description, but can be something we infuse into our work. We can determine to try to bring full awareness to everything we do.  We can commit to doing everything we do in as wholehearted and complete a way as possible. We can honor the fact that in this world of interconnection, every job plays a part. And we can resolve to listen, and remember compassion in every encounter we have: in person, on the phone, via email etc.

A wonderful example is a woman who told me she worked in a call in center, fielding customer complaints. She wanted everyone to feel respected, even if she couldn’t solve their problem. She was kind, and also honest. As she was talking, I noticed she was just beaming, even though I’d imagine fielding customer complaints might not have been the job of her dreams.   

Dr LHow can practicing compassion help us get along better with our colleagues and feel happier overall in the workplace?

SharonAs we go about any given ordinary day, it’s easy to overlook how vulnerable we all are to change. In some ways, I think our society is built around the notion that if we accumulate enough, or if we get that one, special experience (or relationship or object), it will serve as a totem against the specter of change.

It’s a powerful part of our conditioning, and it’s a shame, because recognizing that vulnerability is one of the things that invites us to recognize our interconnectedness, that brings us together, and that awakens our compassion.

It’s not that we all have the same share of joys and sorrows. But we do share the same basic reality – life is constantly changing; nothing is static or fixed. We all want to be happy, yet there can be so much confusion about where true happiness is to be found. Instead of finding it by denying change or trying to protect ourselves against it, we find it in the development of Lovingkindness and compassion.

Lovingkindness is the deep recognition that we live in an interconnected reality. Our lives really do have something to do with one another. Sure, we may not like particular people or want to invite them over to our home. But we can understand that everybody counts, everybody matters.

Compassion is the movement of the heart toward recognizing our own and/or someone else’s vulnerability. When we practice compassion, we move ourselves and our hearts towards that difficult situation, rather than turn away, to see if we can help. In day to day life, that might simply consist of merely recognizing our own humanity or the humanity of someone else.

I was teaching recently and after the sitting, a woman told me, ” All week long my boss has been a tyrant – unfair, judgmental, in a very uncharacteristic way. It’s only been here, meditating, that it occurred to me to think, ‘She might have something going on in her life that is provoking this.'” This is not to say that compassion is about excusing bad behavior, or pretending it wasn’t wrong. But if we remember that the “unfair, judgmental” boss is also a human being, we can access a new level of compassion, and perhaps say or do something in response to his/her behavior with a more open mind.

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