Before you read further, pause and consider your circumstances. Chances are you’re in a comfortable, safe setting, with access to virtually unlimited resources. You can travel freely, communicate globally, and explore the entirety of human knowledge virtually unrestrained. And you likely have ready access to friends, colleagues, family, and neighbors. Most of us are endowed with unprecedented resources never before experienced throughout human history.
Yet, there is a “rub”—a strange irony to our circumstances. Despite such remarkable prosperity, too many of us find ourselves increasingly depressed, anxious, and unhappy.
And, in the midst of such anguish, we aren’t treating each other well. Nearly 90% of us feel that rudeness in everyday social encounters is getting worse. And on the job, 78% of us feel disrespected, bullied, or demeaned.
In short, while those of us living and working in developed countries are profoundly prosperous with resources unimaginable to the billions of humans who came before us, we are, nonetheless, increasingly dissatisfied.
What’s the source of this “irony”? How have we come to obscure our good fortune? And what can we do about it?
Research shows that being grateful dismantles the impulsiveness of a wandering mind.
In his study of “cognitive mind wandering,” Matthew Killingsworth documented what may be the source of our problem. Essentially, his research found that we human beings spend about 50% of our time thinking about something other than what we are doing. And at work our minds stray as often—almost always toward non-work-related concerns.
And here the research brings the irony into sharp focus: According to Killingsworth’s findings, when our minds wander from our immediate experience, what we are considering is almost always more distressful than the actual experience we’re having. In essence, we spend a lot of our time ignoring our prosperous circumstances while giving birth to the very distress we’re seeking to avoid. This is where mindfulness-awareness meditation comes in.
Meditation teaches many things. One of the core effects is we become utterly familiar with our immediate experience. Whether tragic or triumphant; exquisite or horrifying; painful or pleasurable, meditation liberates our hearts and minds to savor life as a “lived experience” rather than a mental rehearsal of thoughts, ambitions, hopes, and fears. And it’s here in our willingness to open to life that we can realize our profound prosperity—not as an “economic fact” but as a remarkable lived experience.
While training our minds on a meditation cushion or chair is a powerful discipline, no doubt, we can also bring prosperity alive in our work life with these simple practices:
Marvel at devices
Too often we treat our iPhones, tablets, and computers like bothersome intruders or numbing gadgets. Or we take wonders like lightbulbs, toilets, fridges, and airplanes for granted. Instead, pause and consider the sheer human brilliance that brought us such powerful devices. Marvelling at our modern-day experience rather than being numbed by it can make us happier and more productive at work and in life.
Research is fast showing that being grateful is a skillful way to dismantle the impulsiveness of a wandering mind. Here, we deliberately pause throughout the day, at home or at work, to be grateful for a glass of water, a loving friend, a colleague, a blue sky, a working traffic light, a breeze—the list is endless.
Delight in others’ joy
Whether it’s a child smiling with her mother, a fellow worker making a breakthrough, or teens playing soccer, there is much human joy to witness and appreciate.
Remember the scope of human despair
When we think about all the innumerable sources of pain that humans experience on a huge scale, from homelessness and displacement to the climate crisis and lack of resources needed to survive, we can break through our tendency to push away pain and connect with the truth that human despair is vast and unrelenting—and we can permit our human hearts to break.
It helps sometimes to think not just about how we work, but about why we work. Many experts in 21st-century economic theory are fast concluding that successful “prosperous” societies will be less about accumulating wealth, growing income, or amassing consumables, and more about relieving human suffering, inspiring human creativity, and offering solutions to human problems. Such an awakening comes as no surprise to mindfulness practitioners. Because all we have to do is pause and witness all the beauty of the life before us, and the desire to share such prosperity with others, then, just comes naturally.