What is it about what I’m doing that gives me such joy? How does one achieve professional satisfaction?
Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal may have found the answer in her study of positive empathy, which is basically sharing other people’s joy.
As a teacher, this is very easy to do. Children are full of joy, laughter and curiosity. When we share these with them, we feel happy as well. It could be something as simple as wishing a child a happy birthday, complimenting them on a success or sharing the joy of a moment of enlightenment. In class discussions, for example, I regularly find that students come up with insights that have eluded me and that’s always a thrill.
One of the greatest joys of teaching is running into former students who tell me what they’re doing in life and about their accomplishments. I often tell my classes how I look forward to hearing their own stories, because I know I will.
I witness the good in my students on a regular basis and I’ve learned to point it out. They do so many kind things for each other. They admit when they make a mistake. They persevere when dealing with challenges. They’re inspirational and I allow myself to be inspired.
It was very affirming for me to read that these are also some of the key findings in McGonigal’s research. They explain why through many years in a very challenging profession – one filled with budget cuts, long hours of marking and planning, ever-changing curriculums and numerous other stress points – I still look forward to going to work every morning.
Humans also feel the pain of others. We cringe when we see someone getting injured. We naturally respond empathetically when we see others in stressful situations. These are all good, especially when they motivate us to help others. They can, however, have a detrimental impact on us if we’re not careful. Some suggest consciously blocking the negative emotions of others, especially in the workplace.
However, McGonigal emphasizes that “positive empathy” also keeps us energized. The challenge is that it doesn’t necessarily happen as automatically as feeling the negative emotions of others; it needs to be consciously cultivated. There are several ways this can be done.
One of the most effective ways is to spend time with children, allowing ourselves to embrace their joy and laughter. This would certainly explain why many teachers and child-care workers are so happy in their professions.
We can also enjoy the playfulness of animals. We can appreciate the beauty of art and athletics simply for the joy of seeing them done well. We can allow others to do nice things for us, not just for the satisfaction that it brings to us but for how happy it makes others to give to us.
Finally, we can make a conscious effort to see the good in others. Sharing compliments makes us feel good. Sometimes we may feel a pang of jealousy, but if we can progress through this and share a sincere compliment, we begin to develop a positive habit that often leads to progress in our own lives.
Some professions, like teaching, lead more easily to developing positive empathy. But it’s an attribute within everyone’s grasp. It has more to do with how we interact with others than what we do in our work.
As the proverb states, “A joy that is shared is a joy made double.”
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.