“Happiness is not something readymade. It comes from your own actions.”— Dalai Lama
As patrol captain, I kept a small, rainbow-colored statue of the word “joy” on my desk. The reason was so that when one of my deputies stopped by, they might be struck by the oddness of it and walk away with something to think about. You see, cops never use the word — especially not the rainbow-colored version of it — let alone admit to pursuing it. What about you? When’s the last time you used the word “joy” in a sentence? I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem … but it may be the symptom of one.
Happiness at work is so elusive that the Dalai Lama wrote a book about it; that’s where this article got its title. He first wrote the bestseller The Art of Happiness. And the “at work” follow-up book must have been because trying to find happiness in the rigors of work life is more elusive. Especially, I think, in ours.
Whenever I told people what I did for a living, the most common response was, “I wouldn’t want your job.” Many LEOs end up deciding that we don’t want it either. Uniquely, our work has even spawned its own psychology specialty. Hundreds, if not thousands, of police psychologists make a great living either a) unwinding us, or b) winding us back up. Ever heard of a firefighter psychologist? Me neither.
So, on an individual level, how can we in our work lives pursue that “state of happiness” or “emotion evoked by well-being” that defines the word “joy”? Let me offer you a three-step how-to for that. I promise you that if you follow these every day — so much so that they eventually become life habits — you’ll experience more happiness on duty, and it will pour over into your off-duty life, too.
STEP 1: Control your level of emotional investment in your job
“A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.”— Dalai Lama
In order to even have the hope for job contentment, the first thing that cops need to control is their level of emotional investment in their jobs. According to the sheer numbers of cops who get this wrong, the number one source of cop burnout seems to be what I refer to as “noble-cause overinvestment.” This occurs when you are too committed to making things “right” out there on the streets. Whether it’s anger, significant disappointment, depression or more, in response to all the stimuli that bombard your work life, if you frequently feel deeply visceral about the outcomes, then you may have too much of your emotional self invested in your work, and you need to take about three steps back.
Emotional investment in your work is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a good thing. But for that to be true, it must be a wise thing. Get into a biofeedback habit where you constantly monitor your level of emotional investment in situations at work — particularly for negative emotions, but also for positive ones like compassion. At these times, remind yourself that by allowing these emotions to affect you, you are paying out of your limited emotional bank account and it will need to be replenished. Through diligence, build up a habit of asking yourself if the situation you’re in — a domestic violence call, a missing child, a bullying sergeant, a homeless old lady — is worth your emotional investment. Sometimes the answer is “yes,” but oftentimes it is “no.” If the answer is no, gird your emotions. Right then, go into professional/methodical response mode and start emotionally divesting. With time, you can and will make this a habit, and that will protect your ability to pursue job happiness.
You can visualize where you want to be emotionally like Figure I on the next page. With your emotional investment compass set in Step 1, you’ll be ready to take big strides in this elusive happiness-at-work pursuit.
STEP 2: Divide everyone into supporters or detractors
“Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.”— Dalai Lama
After noble-cause overinvestment, the biggest factor in determining whether you will be happy or unhappy at work is the type of on-duty relationships that you keep. Relationships are complicated things, but here, we’re going to keep things simple. Think about your work relationships: peers, bosses and co-workers inside the office, and then victims, witnesses, involved parties and suspects out on patrol, and beyond. For every person you relate to at work, place them into one of two buckets: supporters or detractors. Supporters are people who like you and have your best interests in mind. They’re people you can trust and, because of that, they can disappoint you if they let you down. Detractors don’t have your best interests in mind, and usually they want something either from you or through you. A detractor is someone you shouldn’t trust — even though in this job we often do — and they shouldn’t even be able to disappoint you.
In order to thrive, human beings need healthy relationships, and we especially need close relationships. Closeness comes through emotional vulnerability, which means you can be hurt. Many cops subconsciously decide they don’t want to be hurt, period, and end up becoming emotionally disconnected from everyone, including their closest loved ones. Then, all hopes of happiness are pretty much lost.
To operationalize Step 2, increase your emotional vulnerability with supporters according to their degree, and likewise, decrease your vulnerability to detractors according to their degree. With detractors, make sure that your transactions stay all business. Far and away, your greatest supporters (and therefore the center of your greatest vulnerability) should be close family and friends.
Visually, the model looks like Figure II below.
STEP 3: Pursue the very things that brought you to this job
“It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others.”— Dalai Lama
C.S. Lewis pointed out that humans are the only creatures with a moral compass. There is something inside us that tells us, even risking survival, we “ought” to do what is morally right and “ought not” to do things that are morally wrong. It’s why you run toward gunfire. As a species, we are uniquely hard-wired to help each another, and when we do, we’re fulfilled. Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore put it this way: “I slept and dreamt life was joy. I awoke and saw this life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Helping others is a key to happiness.
Every cop I’ve ever known at least started out as an altruistic person. Altruism, the belief in selfless concern for the well-being of others, is one of the most noble character traits in humanity. But this job of ours can sure beat the hell out of it. Both inside and outside the walls of our agencies and departments, we see so many messed-up things that we can lose all hope. Then, the job morphs into an emotional dead-end. All of our relationships suffer, and we end up only working to pay the bills.
But just for a moment, think of all the other jobs out there, and compare them to our opportunities to bring goodness and hope to others in need. Even with all of the bullshit that’s going on in law enforcement right now, on virtually every shift that you work, there will be some deserving soul who can really benefit from your positional power in your community. That’s Step 3. Because we’re wired to find contentment, meaning and happiness through helping others in need, you could say that doing these other-centered things — those very things that brought you to this career — is actually self-serving. Once your emotional response to this job and to others is wisely divined, helping others who deserve it brings happiness.
So, there you have it, on-the-job happiness in three steps: Control your emotional investment in this job, manage your emotional vulnerability with others, and BOL for deserving people and then come to their rescue. Make these things habits and you’ll see, eventually they will turn into character and you’ll find happiness at work.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”— Dalai Lama
As seen in the December 2020 issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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