How to love your work?Thirty-three years ago, Paul Ekman's newborn daughter, Eve-pink, naked, not one hour old-did something wonderful: She flashed her dad an undeniably authentic smile, the kind the baby books say infants can't make until they're weeks old. Now 79, he wishes he had time to pore over the movies he shot of his girl every day for the first month of her life. "What a joy that would be in my dotage," he says, wistfully. And-because Ekman is a renowned scholar of human emotion, who proved through the analysis of facial expressions that our core emotions are universal-his motivation is as much work as fatherly affection: He'd love to try to upend the conventional wisdom about the slow rate at which humans are thought to develop. But he has a full plate already, collaborating, for instance, with the Dalai Lama on investigations into meditation and emotional equilibrium-and he's not getting any younger.
One consolation, though: Eve is carrying on his work about emotion-with her own practical, timely twist. While Paul Ekman has illuminated the contours of inner life, Eve, who has a wide and warm face much like her dad's and a brown shag tipped blond from a long-forgotten bleach job, wants to teach us how to think and feel…better. She studies how to maintain and develop empathy at work, and she's developed a program, Developing and Reconnecting to Empathy and Meaning-DREAM, for short-to help enrich workers' lives. "She's not following in my footsteps," says her undeniably proud father, "but standing on my shoulders to see and do things I couldn't. That's beyond a parent's dream. She's remarkable."
For some time now, enlightened grammar and secondary schools have been coaching children to cultivate emotional resilience, in response to reams of data showing that strong social and emotional skills are important predictors of well-being and success. Eve's field, called adult emotional skills training, is helping grown-ups play catch-up in the place where they spend much of their time: the office.
Occupational burnout-the dulled mental state caused by prolonged work stress and characterized by low self-efficacy (aka lack of accomplishment), detachment, and emotional exhaustion-is the cornerstone of Eve Ekman's broadranging research. In a study she conducted last summer with guards at a juvenile jail in San Mateo, California, participants learned over two daylong sessions how to identify their own emotional flash points and to read other peoples' emotions more accurately (using, for the latter, her father's facial-expression recognition techniques). An academic paper on the prison study is in the works, but before the training was even finished, the guards pronounced it the most profoundly useful professional development training they'd ever received. "The [guards] feel better about what they do, better about themselves-and that translates to how they deal with the youth," says Roy Brasil, the deputy chief of the juvenile jail. "They're more empathetic, better adjusted."
Ekman is no ivory-tower academic. Her affable manner and unself-conscious playfulness notwithstanding, she is ineluctably drawn to human suffering. "I always wanted to help people on the front lines," she says matter-of-factly. As a punk-rock teen (she can be seen in this multiply pierced phase expertly demonstrating the archetypal facial expressions of fear, contempt, joy in her dad's riveting 2003 book, Emotions Revealed), she worked with a food-handout program for the homeless in Golden Gate Park. In her early twenties, she helped drug-addicted sex workers in the gritty Mission neighborhood. And for the past six years, she has counseled bottomed-out alcoholics, rape victims, and gunshot survivors and their families as a social worker in the emergency room of San Francisco General Hospital. "I wish there were a less self-sacrificial view of doing good, because it actually feels good," she says. "Brain biology shows we're hardwired for empathy": Our innate abilities to nurture and protect are central to our species' survival. And, she adds, toggling fast as she often does between science and Eastern philosophy, "Buddhists say that our true nature is caring, and whatever obscures that nature is 'dust on the gold.' That resonates with me."
Brasil is an unlikely convert to Ekman's way of thinking. "If you asked me 40 years ago, I never would have thought that a young PhD candidate from Berkeley could teach me anything. I would have said, 'You must be smoking something. I'm a tough police officer. Those Berkeley do-gooders-they want to solve every problem with dialogue.' " He pauses to laugh with wonder. "If you've been in the trenches, fighting for your life, you think no amount of dialogue is going to help. But the irony is, after Eve showed up, what I'm feeling is a feeling of goodness: There's hope for life; go smell the flowers; it doesn't have to be a fight all the time."
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So what are Ekman's strategies for getting and staying on the sunnier side of work, where there's hope and-can it really be?-even some fresh flowers to sniff?
When she first asked the guards if they ever experienced job stress, she got an earful: "Everyone was like, 'You want stress? I got that!' " Stress, the guards reported, made them feel down and likelier to blow up at their kids and spouses, or to block them out.
Yet when Ekman moved to her next question-"Now, who here in the room is emotional?"-not a soul raised a hand. Ekman wasn't shocked: Who wants to cop to being "emotional" on the job? But then Ekman reframed their thinking. Stress, which no one is ashamed to admit to-in fact, some people seem to revel in kvetching about how incredibly busy they are-is just the buildup of emotions such as fear and anger. While a particular feeling may be fleeting, lasting a few seconds, the refractory period lingers, and during this phase, people are more likely to regard even neutral or positive incoming information as further cause for affront. (And beware that chronically cranky colleague: "Negative emotions are contagious. So when you have a negative, cynical coworker in the room, all of a sudden you're in bad mood too. It's tough.")
Ekman says that once people start to understand that emotion is not separate from thought but integral to it-because emotion is the filter through which we assign meaning to, uh, everything-they become more curious (even the typically therapy averse) about what's making them feel and act the way they do. Ekman teaches simple mindfulness meditation techniques that can be used to notice tension rising and to derail destructive thoughts before they escalate. She also encourages people to analyze their "regrettable emotional episodes" (as she politely calls those nasty snubs at the coffee machine, or those blown deadlines that, sooner or later, bedevil us all), scrolling backward from these smoking guns to find the trigger. "When you talk about the time line of an emotional episode and help people realize we all have background experiences that influence our everyday behavior," they can use the information to break out of negative patterns, Ekman says.
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One of Ekman's own regrettable episodes occurred at the hospital on a night she sprinted many times between a gunshot victim's room and a large gathering of his friends and family outside. She assumed from the size of the crowd that the patient was "an important guy," someone who really mattered to all of them, which in turn created the feeling in her of "really rooting for him, of being on his team." She badgered doctors and nurses in a fervent effort to bring the family regular updates. But when she learned later that the wounded man was actually a gangbanger who'd shot (and killed) other people, her rage flared. "I felt personally betrayed," she says, before adding, pointedly, "but I was really betrayed by myself." By letting herself get overly invested emotionally, she explains, she lost sight of other patients who also deserved-at least as much as the gangbanger-having her tune in to their needs.
Ekman says that "attentional flexibility"-giving the proper amount of attention at the right time to each case or task, and being able to step back when hot emotions threaten rational thought-is important in every job (and obviously critical in the high-pressure fields of medicine and law enforcement, where slipped attention can have fatal consequences). Her suggestion for figuring out where one's energies should be focused is clear-cut: Pause, take a deep breath, and "get curious." Adopting a poised, curious stance gives us a moment to "inject choice" into a potentially charged encounter, as well as home in on whomever we're working with. Ekman likes to share a bit of concrete interpersonal advice from one of her dissertation advisers, Jodi Halpern, an expert on doctor-patient relationships: The best way to cope with a stressful situation isn't to blurt out that great humanity-denier/conversation-stopper "I know how you feel," but rather to say, "Tell me what you feel."
One of the "big, interesting findings about stress," Ekman says, is that whether the source is the risk of someone dying if you don't hook them up to the right monitor or "poor color correction on a picture" (she worked briefly in the photo department of a magazine after college), perceived stress and objective stress have "the exact same physiological response." That's pretty sobering, and good incentive for figuring out when we might be losing perspective at work, self-dramatizing so that every spreadsheet feels incredibly urgent.
One method to cultivate healthy stress-yes, there's a good kind; it gets us fired up so we can connect with the intricacies of challenging assignments-is to revisit the original reasons we chose the job we did. True, every occupation has a certain degree of drudgery-and in jobs where workers have limited freedom, the paycheck might, at least initially, be the main motivation. Still, almost everyone, at one point or another, experiences pleasure knowing his or her labor has benefited someone else. And once you've rediscovered the sense that your work has meaning, Ekman says, "it can really get you through a lot of the bullshit of the everyday-dealing with cases or clients, or, in the case of the juvenile prison guards, kids who are giving you attitude."
During an all-day session on burnout prevention (an abbreviated version of her prison intervention) Ekman gave to a group of visibly stressed-out, iPhone-punching trial lawyers, I saw this principle in practice. When she asked the participants why they became attorneys in the first place, various among them cited a calling to help children, immigrants, and the elderly-people who were "powerless to help themselves," as one woman put it, her voice suddenly cracking with emotion. As I watched, I saw them, I swear, straightening up in their seats. They look focused, optimistic, proud, and-finally-revived.
Many of Ekman's ER colleagues, as well as the San Mateo prison guards she's worked with, handle their professional responsibilities with amazing competency, she says, as if helping is ballet for them-an experience that seems to lift them off the ground and, in a sense, inoculate them from burnout. Still, Ekman has observed in these empathetic superstars a few practical habits we can all try to emulate.
Rather than expecting to sustain total focus on others throughout the day, they express concern efficiently, like a muscle-using only as much emotional energy as the moment requires. Plus, "these people are also very aware of their limits" and don't apologize for them: They know when it's time to withdraw and not look back.
Women, still typically the primary caregivers at work and home, can have an especially difficult time setting boundaries. "Self-compassion is crucial for empathy," says Ekman, who, on days when she saw patients die, established an after-work routine of jumping on her bike and "riding straight to the beach to spend the evening watching the sun set." But "self-care means different things to different people," she says, so the task is to figure out what soothes and restores you. "You need to be taking care of yourself, so you can relax enough to see what's really happening with others, to know cognitively what you can do to help. If you're stressed and burned-out, you can't think about anyone else."
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