Being employed in the nonprofit sector isn’t coal-mining or cleaning sewers or toiling in a sweatshop; many people dream of having such meaningful work, of being paid to make the world a better place. But a downside exists: Because the work matters so much and the fights are inevitably uphill – and because the pay is typically less than one would make elsewhere – the risk of burnout is consistent and high. Add in the inevitable personal challenges and it’s a wonder more people don’t snap.
Because we rarely know all a person faces. Underneath the surface of that perfectly rewarding Instagrammed #dreamjob life may lie catastrophes and afflictions we haven’t imagined. I have a son with Type 1 diabetes. Sometimes his blood sugar drops really low at night, despite all he does to manage it, and I have to get up and save him. After those nights, I’m emotionally frayed and physically wrecked from worry and loss of sleep, but I put on some makeup, answer my emails, show up for the phone calls and do my best to make sure the work gets done without complaint to anyone but my closest friends. It can be really hard. We do not talk enough with each other about the sometimes unshakeable sadness that inhabits us on occasion.
But how to bring up the subject of despair in the workplace? To do so in a professional environment, even the friendliest of professional environment, is rife with hazards. The workplace is not designed for those types of emotions. Is it smart to admit your vulnerabilities to the same people you’ll eventually ask for a raise? So we come at it sideways, talking about burnout and capacity, the importance of health and happiness – situations not limited to nonprofits! – and in doing so hopefully find support.
Disclaimer: I’m not a happiness or health or professional expert of any kind. But as an amateur researcher, occasional paid-advice-giver, compulsive happiness-seeker and fair-amount-of-experience-haver, I can share a few things I know, one of which is that guides to happiness abound!
For example, I like this site because it’s science-based and modest and sometimes silly and also I am a sucker for lists. Gretchen Rubin’s advice is a bit hokey for me, but it works for some people. The NYT offers a Well section and WaPo has Wellness. I love this suggestion to use comic journaling as a way to address one’s fears. Those of us who do work in the nonprofit world will likely appreciate the posts at Nonprofit AF. Let’s not forget Lifehacker or the venerable Hidden Brain.
If your life has big problems, circumstances you desperately need to change or circumstances you can’t, those websites, these suggestions won’t solve them – but they can still be useful, whether you’re needing to recreate your life or merely refine it.
Note: If the thought of removing yourself from existence seems an answer to your problems, please seek help now! It’s common, this feeling, and no more something to be ashamed of than going to the doctor for a broken leg or a lung disease. And by “seek help,” I mean, make an appointment with a therapist, call a hotline. If you can’t bring yourself to do those things, ask a friend to help you do them. People would much rather be inconvenienced by your “drama” than by your death, I promise.
And now, my own list of 10 Things To Consider When Pursuing Your Best Life:
- Your relationship with your phone. It’s not the boss of you. It’s a tool. A glorified shovel, really. Maybe you need to redefine your relationship with it. Neither random scrolling nor Pavlovian response to notifications does anything but make you dumber and sadder. Apps are designed to be addicting. Yes, yes, I know – we need them for navigating, checking on our children, paying our share of the dinner tab. I like Instagram as much as anyone. But it’s okay to stand in line and look around and think sometimes. Without idle time, creativity nosedives! Here – try these Bored and Brilliant challenges and see if you don’t emerge a little more sparkly after.
- Exercise. Those of us tethered to computers all day tend to let this slip. Don’t.
- Outdoors. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with easily accessible, pleasant outdoor options, take advantage of that. Get your exercise surfing or running or riding your bike or whatever your thing is. Incorporate some fresh air into your office routine. I work from home and for several months I couldn’t get cell service in my house, so every conference call would turn into me roaming the neighborhood for an hour. At the time, the situation annoyed me, but once the service improved, I missed those walks. Especially when I found myself sitting at my desk doing all the things people on conference calls typically do – namely, multitasking.
- Don’t multitask! It’s the worst.
- Eat right, get enough sleep, mediate, all the usual things. As someone who’s suffered from insomnia for years, I know how not sleeping can jack up your day. Melatonin didn’t work for me. Xanax helps. So does reading before bed instead of binging shows (sorry, Netflix!).
- Relationships. I’m on the road quite a bit, so when I do come home, I make a point of scheduling lunch dates, early morning hikes, happy hours, coffee, bowling outings – whatever sort of social moment can be made with my close friends, I make it. Sure, everyone is different, but here are two absolute truths:
- Science, history and the obvious show that we need meaningful relationships.
- Time with the people who inspire you is always worth it (avoiding people who drain you, same).
- Time-management. How to make the most of your days, especially when you want to do all the things? Again, no lack of advice. One of the most effective tricks I use on myself is to think of someone I admire professionally and ask myself, “What would so-and-so be doing right now?” The answer is rarely “fucking about on Facebook.” Nor is it “laundry.” (Did I mention I work from home?) The idea of an accountability partner appeals greatly to me.
- It’s easier to change your environment than change yourself. Look, if you don’t want to drink, don’t keep booze in the house and don’t go to bars. If you don’t want to overspend, leave your bank card at home when you go out. If you don’t want to be sucked into the email/social media abyss, spend the money on a blocking app so it’s no longer a choice. Willpower is overrated. Rearrange what surrounds you to make what you really want to do easier to actually do.
- Be easy on yourself. If you’re the sort of person obsessed with how to do things better, you clearly care about meeting your obligations and exceeding expectations. Take a moment and consider that. If no one else has told you today that you’re rocking it, go ahead and write it down for yourself right now: “Today, I am ROCKING IT.”
- Don’t be an asshole. I mean, that’s just solid advice.
What works for you? What hasn’t worked for you? Leave a note and let’s solve all the problems.
Thank you Jennifer! Such great recommendations. I’ll also add that enrolling in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course has been a game-changer for me. Teaching you to take a step back, incorporate moments for yourself to simply be (even 5 minute meditations during your lunch break) help me come back focused, calm, and less stressed to tackle that ever growing to do list. Oh and as a scientist – I have to say that this isn’t just for the hippies 🙂 courses are offered at mainstream universities, including UC Irvine and UC San Diego, with a wealth of studies to support this practice’s positive impact on human health and wellness!
Thanks, Katie! That’s great to know. Finding resources can be challenging enough, especially if you don’t know what all exists. Trying to incorporate mindfulness into my life has helped me a lot especially when dealing with stress or stressful emotions; I’ve grown better at recognizing and identifying those times in a way that’s helped me move through them with more stability.
Thank you for this, Lady Savage of the North!
This is awesome Jen! Here are some sites with good info on staying happy & healthy – https://www.mindbodygreen.com (great podcast too: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/search?q=podcast), and https://www.bewell.com/healthy-living. This UCLA site also has some good free guided meditations – http://marc.ucla.edu/mindful-meditations