“The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” (David Foster Wallace) - yet these realities need to be brought out of the darkness and into the light. Without at least recognising them, to speak nothing of the arduous task of actually addressing them, we will be hard pressed to begin taking the steps to improve our individual situations.
I admire the American writer David Foster Wallace a great deal and one of his speeches, a commencement speech at Kenyon College in the US, has had a lasting effect on me. This speech brought to light a lot of truths pertaining to my own work and life situation and inspired me to question much that I previously took for granted. Many of his thoughts speak directly to the very question I had been asking myself regarding happiness and work.
And that question is: Why am I unable to find meaning in my job? Why am I unhappy even though on all objective levels, I am in a better situation than 99% of the rest of the world? For something people spend approximately 25% (if not more) of their entire adult life doing, it is a sad reality that so few of us are happy doing it (1 out of 7, according to a Gallup study conducted in 2013).
An answer to this question can begin to materialise by addressing two separate yet interconnected aspects: One’s internal mindset (how one chooses to perceive a given situation) and the external environment that surrounds him or her. While a supportive environment that promotes a positive mindset helps, an individual must adopt the proper mental state to be able to handle the frustrations, stress, and challenges that inevitably arise in work and life.
This is where personal responsibility comes in. Despite many companies having taken steps to build environments that support the mental health of workers (including, for example, 75% that have implemented flexible work policies according to a Vodafone study from 2016), without the individual taking steps to recognise and work on his or her own internal mindset, the environment, no matter how good its good intentions, won’t be enough to fill the gap, especially in particularly frustrating, stressful, or challenging cases.
A fact that not many like to admit or talk about is that, in reality, large parts of adult life can be boring, monotonous, and frustrating. Even the “best job” comes with large portions of work that one would probably rather not be doing.
The typical response to this, and one that I have certainly uttered before as well, focuses on the deficiencies of the environment or other people at work as the source of this problem. In essence, the environment itself is flawed and not conducive to promoting personal fulfillment. Examples include: “the company’s culture is toxic,” “my manager doesn’t care about me,” “I’m not learning anything,” and so on.
The key challenge here, and something else we often don’t like to admit, stems from the fact that we humans are self-centered; programmed this way at birth. Thus, by default, I view and analyse these situations from the perspective of how they personally affect me and my existence.
In thinking this way, I tend to filter these experiences through a so-called lens of self: “the toxic culture is affecting my happiness there,” “my manager doesn’t care about me,” “I’m not learning anything.” All of these concentrate on their effect on me, the center of the universe.
If I decide to make all of these situations about me, then it will be difficult to think of anything that isn’t frustrating, annoying, personally unfair, or in my way. If I put myself at the center, then how I feel about something should determine the world’s priorities.
That’s not to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with thinking this way; We, and I certainly, do it all the time. The issue is that thinking this way is so unconscious that it doesn’t have to be a choice. David Foster Wallace describes this as being our “default setting,” hard-wired into each of our brains at birth. It is so powerful and insidious that often we don’t even realise we are in it or slipping into it.
But all is not lost; the truth is that we each have one force that we are in full control of: we each have the power to choose what to think.
We can choose to make these situations all about us, our unhappiness, and our frustrations... or we can choose to look at them another way. Maybe my manager does care about me, she just has a large number of different pressures coming from all directions, and it is I who am bothering her. Maybe the toxic culture is merely just my perception of a reality that doesn’t exist, and in fact I am discounting or ignoring all the work that many individuals have put in to improve the environment for everyone. Maybe I’m not learning anything because I’ve been so consumed with these unconscious thoughts that I can’t see the learning opportunities that surround me every day.
If we are so sure that we know what reality is and who or what is important, then of course we will have trouble seeing these alternative possibilities. But, if we can learn to have a little critical self-awareness, to be able to pay attention, be conscious, and exercise our power as individuals to choose what to think about, we can see different options.
But if all of these situations shouldn’t be about me, then what should they be about? Is it possible to find happiness hinged on external factors? Unfortunately, measuring our own personal happiness based against external factors (company culture, my manager, how much I feel a company cares about me), will ultimately lead us back to self-centeredness. If I measure my happiness based on how many learning opportunities I feel are given to me, I will never feel I have enough. If I derive meaning from how much I feel my manager cares about me, I will never feel cared for enough.
By using external circumstances to derive meaning, rather than some set of unbreakable internal principles that are unaffected by external factors, we resort to chasing these infinite, unreachable goals. This results in our tending to slip back into our unconscious state where we forgo our freedom to choose about what to think. With this mindset, we will forever feel like true fulfilment is always just out of reach.
This is also why merely having a supportive environment is not enough. When difficult times or situations arise, and they most certainly will, we need to be able to bear them without slipping back; to be strong enough to endure. An external environment can’t, and won’t, do that for us completely.
Of course, I am by no means blind to the fact that actually making this choice, being aware and conscious of ourselves and our assumed certainties, is unconscionably hard. And looked at from a distance, there is nothing inherently wrong with living on this default setting; We do it all the time and some days just don’t have it in us not to.
For me, personally, for example, I don’t yet have all the answers and have only just begun this journey. Every day is a learning experience, and often not an easy one. There is still much to learn.
However, in attempting David Foster Wallace’s approach, one glimmer of real, concrete change for the better that I see in myself is that, actually trying to exercise this choice in my daily life and being patient with myself, has opened me to the possibility that maybe I do have the power to be happy at work.
Maybe that power begins with me.
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