"Of course, you're right," I agreed. "I've also been to many countries, and I've seen coolies or baggage handlers here in India, or migrant farm workers, poor people working in rice paddies throughout Asia, or remote nomads in your own country, and many of these people seem genuinely happy and content. Of that there's no doubt. And I have to admit that we can become spoiled. But my country, America, was built on personal initiative. Shouldn't we want to advance, rather than just be content with the way things are?"
"Yes, Howard, but 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. If we have a poor job, perhaps some unskilled labor, but we have the skills and qualifications for better work, by all means we should exert our best effort for the better work, make a good attempt. But if that fails, then instead of frustration, or becoming angry focusing only on the thought, I tried but I wasn't able to make it-then think, O.K., I'll carry on with this work. Be content with the work you have. So if you fail, that is where one's attitude and the practice of contentment can make the difference between anger, resentment, and frustration, and a calmer and happier attitude. That's where training of the mind comes in. These kinds of things, lines of reasoning, can diffuse your frustration and disturbance of mind. So contentment, I think, contentment-that's the key thing."
While he spoke, I thought about how difficult it might be for many people to adopt these lines of reasoning to diffuse their anger, hatred, and jealousy. I realized that is why he has so often stressed the fact that it isn't easy to train one's mind and reshape one's attitudes, that it takes repeated effort. And it takes time. For this kind of "analytical meditation" to work, one needs deep and sustained reflection on these alternative ways of viewing one's situation. One needs to be fully convinced of the absolute truth of this new perspective. Otherwise there is a danger of using these lines of reasoning merely as insincere rationalizations. A matter of "sour grapes." Oh yeah? Well, I didn't want that job anyway!. So, we're going for that promotion and we lose out. And we really wanted that promotion--every fiber of our being tells us that, even aside from the higher pay, the more important our job is, the happier we'll be.
So how do we convince ourselves beyond a reasonable doubt that the more important job may not necessarily make us happier? By looking at the evidence. By examining whether we're permanently happier from the last promotion we received or looking at people we know to see if those in a higher position are genuinely happier than those in a lower position. Or, we can look at the scientific evidence. In this case, for instance, while at SUNY Buffalo, Robert Rice, PhD, a prolific scholar in the field of job satisfaction, led a group that conducted a surprising study. Contrary to what one might expect, they found that those with more important jobs are no happier in life than those with less important jobs. This finding has been replicated in a number of similar wide-scale studies showing that while job satisfaction is linked with life satisfaction, the specific type of work one does, one's occupational prestige, or whether a person is blue collar or white collar, has little impact on one's overall life satisfaction.
There's an additional reason why it is sometimes a long and difficult process to reshape our attitudes and outlook, to change the habitual ways that we perceive the world, modify our customary interpretation and response to any given situation or event. What's the reason? When it comes down to it, many of us resist giving up our misery-a vexing and baffling feature of human behavior I often observed in the past when treating psychotherapy patients. As miserable as some people might be, for many there is a kind of perverse pleasure in the self-righteous indignation one feels when one is treated unfairly. We hold on to our pain, wear it like a badge, it becomes part of us and we are reluctant to give it up. After all, at least our characteristic ways of looking at the world are familiar. Letting go of our customary responses, as destructive as they may be, may seem frightening, and often that fear abides on a deeply ingrained subconscious level. And added to this, of course, are the secondary gains to holding on to our grudges, jealousy, and dissatisfaction, as our constant complaints serve to elicit sympathy and understanding from others. Or at least we think so, at least we hope so. Sometimes it works-our friends or co-workers join in with a catalogue of their own grievances, and a bonding takes place as we indulge in our own little festival celebrating life's inequities and the sins of our employers. Quite often, however, while our complaints may be received with outward expressions of sympathy, they may more likely be met with inward annoyance by those who have problems of their own to deal with.
From The Art of Happiness at Work. Copyright The Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Riverhead Books.
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