The Art of Happiness at Work
The Art of Happiness at Work is the best selling book by The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. It may seem strange in a business ethics class to discuss the work of such a person but I think that it is certainly relevant to discuss happiness at work! Oddly enough, while this is an immensely practical subject area in both ethics and business it is rarely discussed in business ethics classes or addressed in texts. I'm not sure I know why this is the case but I hope these brief comments will rectify this important missing element.
It is crucial to point out that while the Dalai Lama approaches the question of happiness from a Buddhist perspective, you do not have to believe in the principles of Buddhism or practice Buddhism to benefit from his insights. In fact, the Dalai Lama himself points this out quite often in his teachings and books. He often counsels people to remain within their own spiritual tradition even if they take something useful from his own. So, with that in mind I want to give you a brief overview of the Dalai Lama's view beginning with a brief overview of Buddhist principles.
Just like any other religious tradition there are many different sects of Buddhism but they all agree on the central tenets known as the four Noble Truths:
Life is suffering.
Suffering is caused by selfish craving.
Selfish craving can be overcome.
The eightfold path to overcoming selfish craving is:
• Right understanding
• Right purpose
• Right speech
• Right conduct
• Right livelihood
• Right effort
• Right alertness
• Right concentration
It is important to notice that the basic principles here identify not only the cause of our suffering but also a way to overcome this. After all what would be the point of dwelling on suffering if it could not be overcome. Notice for our context that one of the eight points is right livelihood. Our work affects our happiness either positively or negatively.
Given that our work can affect our happiness where do we begin? In The Art of Happiness at Work which was co-written by Howard Cutler the Dalai Lama is asked, "If you met a complete stranger and they didn't know you or had never heard of the Dalai Lama and they asked you, "What do you do for a living?" what would you tell them?" This is an interesting question for us all to consider and even more interesting is the Dalai Lama's response: "Nothing. I do nothing."
What makes this answer so interesting is that the Dalai Lama is famously busy but he feels as if he does nothing. What's the secret? It's all in how you perceive your work. Psychologists have studied this and determined that people see their work in one of three ways:
• Job: primary focus is on financial rewards.
• Career: primary focus is on advancement, prestige, social status, and power.
• Calling: Primary focus is on the meaningfulness of work and its contribution to society.
While it is possible to be happy in any occupation people tend to be happier the more they feel their work has meaning and purpose. As it turns out there is no correlation between the type of work and happiness. What counts is one's attitude towards the work. And the important point here is that you have control over your attitude. This means you have control over whether you are happy or not, at work and in life in general.
This is the central message of the Dalai Lama's book, a message which is shared among other schools of philosophy such as Stoicism. In both cases, the emphasis is on attitude as the determining factor of happiness. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius once said "the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts."
But, it is tempting to believe that external factors cause happiness. In the work world this usually translates into money. But, you know the old saying "money can't buy happiness." It turns out that there is some psychological validity to this. Once your basic needs are met, money doesn't increase happiness. If you are making $25,000 a year and all of the sudden double your salary to $50,000, you will become happier; maybe even double your happiness. But if you go from making $50,000 to $100,000 you will not double your happiness. Studies have shown that beyond around $50,000 money doesn't really affect happiness at all.
So, what does contribute to happiness? For the Dalai Lama the answer is serving others. "If you contribute to other people's happiness, you will find the true good, the true meaning of life." Finding happiness is best done by not focusing on your own happiness. Instead, focus on helping others.
Despite how it sounds this actually goes right along with the ideas of free market capitalism advocated by Adam Smith and other economists. As economist Walter Williams puts it in one article:
"In a free society, income is neither taken nor distributed; it is earned. Income is earned by pleasing one's fellow man. The greater one's ability to please his fellow man, the greater is his claim on what his fellow man produces. This claim is represented by the size of his income.
"Let's look at it. Say I mow your lawn. When I'm finished, you pay me $20. I go to my grocer and demand, "Give me two pounds of sirloin and a six-pack of beer that my fellow man produced." The grocer asks, "Williams, what did you do to deserve a claim on what your fellow man produced? I say, "I served him." The grocer says, "Prove it." That's when I pull out the $20 I earned. We might think of those twenty dollars as "certificates of performance", evidence of service."
This seems to be a good way to tie in the various aspects of our investigation of business ethics. I'll try to sum up some of those in the final lecture. For now, I want to leave you with one other thought on the subject of finding happiness. It is inevitable that one will become frustrated from time to time in one's work. The key to getting through this is attitude. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said "don't demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well." A major cause of our unhappiness is when things don't go our way. But what the Stoics counsel (as well as the Dalai Lama) is to focus on what you can change about a situation. Of course sometimes changes need to be made as we've seen in various cases this semester. But, one has to distinguish between what one can change and what one cannot. Not only is this the counsel of the Stoics and the Dalai Lama, it is also the essence of the Prayer of Serenity. And an important key to happiness at work.