How to Be Happier at Work, According to a PE Teacher

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One of the conceits of the movie Dodgeball was that it doesn’t take a genius to excel at the sport. Or does it? In 2020, a Tweet by sunflower begged to differ and racked up almost 1.2 million likes: “in high school our gym teacher asked us who we thought the smartest teacher in the school was. we guessed the AP chem teacher, the precalc teacher, the AP physics teacher, etc. he goes, nope, it’s me because I get paid the same as those guys and I play dodgeball all day.” I had to laugh. I am a gym teacher.

I’ve been in the PE game for over a decade now, and the truth is, I really enjoy it (pandemic turmoil and Zoom classes notwithstanding). I don’t play dodgeball all day, but the bulk of my work consists of being playful and active; teaching my students epic parkour skills; building meaningful relationships; and fostering a lifelong love of movement. I rarely have to take my work home with me. Oh, and I get summers off. Sure, there’s not a lot of money in this racket, but research has shown that above an income of $75,000, happiness tends to plateau anyway. Despite our societal commitment to the idea that more is better, it turns out having enough is—gasp!—actually enough.

My work is often dynamic, unpredictable, suffused with laughter, and instantly impactful. I’m sometimes rewarded with performance reviews that are enough to melt my gym teacher heart: “I didn’t like that class,” a first grader told me after a recent hike in the woods behind our school, “I loved it.” And my co-teacher even trained her classes to chant my name whenever they see me, so I can hardly cross the school playground without a chorus of students erupting in excitement and shouting, “Mr. Tzelnic!” That kind of positive affirmation is pretty unique to my line of work.

This isn’t to say I haven’t strived for other things. I’ve harbored dreams of becoming a novelist, an entrepreneur, and, at 35, I’m still holding out hope that a local scout for the NBA might see me shooting threes in the park and bring me in for a tryout (the fact that I’m 5’9” does not factor into this particular dream). I probably wouldn’t be writing this essay if I didn’t want more from life than teaching PE. But I don’t see PE as my be-all and end-all. In my current framework, writing gets to be an enjoyable side hustle rather than a grind, and I do get paid to shoot hoops—granted my opponents are usually about 4’1”.

The fact of the matter is, doing less has allowed me to do more—like spend time with my daughter, read novels, and exercise—and is a large reason why I’m annoyingly happy much of the time. But just because I’m the smartest teacher at my school doesn’t mean you need to take my word for it. After years of contentment following this approach, I decided to check my assumptions and completed a master’s degree in mindfulness studies (i.e., the art of being annoyingly happy)—and the research I encountered only confirmed that doing less can be profoundly life-changing.

Here are three ways to embrace it:

1.

Lower your expectations

Once on a Zen retreat (an experience I engage in twice a year thanks to the ample vacation time teachers receive) I was stuck in a frustrating mental loop. I wanted to feel ease and joy, and the harder I tried to do so the more rigid and frustrated I became. Finally, I gave up. It was hopeless. And as soon as I stopped trying, voila…I had found what I was looking for not by chasing expectations but by lowering them.

In a grad school class on the foundations of contemplative practice, we read a book by Buddhist scholar Dale Wright, and he summarized succinctly how this process works: “The deepest states of meditation are described as these experiences of ‘release’ and ‘letting go.’” In a capitalist culture built on accumulation—of wealth, property, degrees, titles, and status—we tend to do the opposite, to hold on for dear life.

Yet chasing lofty goals not only necessitates entering the rat race, but primes us for a let down. In contrast, researchers have found that the key to happiness may be lowering one’s expectations. This isn’t the kind of headline that’s going to drum up a ton of buzz in a society obsessed with wealth, but it makes perfect sense. The trick is to be content with what you have, rather than or even as you yearn. A trick, speaking of Buddhism, that is the basis behind that entire religion. By all means, chase that PhD or that dream job, but if you don’t enjoy the process, you’ll inevitably be disappointed with the result. As my mom has frequently noted, just about the only thing that feels as good as you think it will is when you finally pee after you’ve been holding it in for awhile. Everything else tends to fall short.

2.

Unplug

Speaking of peeing, once upon a time my phone slipped out of my jacket while I was in the bathroom, and the plastic object I subsequently fished out of the toilet was both useless and gross. In the interim between dropping it in the toilet and getting it fixed I lived a blessedly old-school life, devoid of instantaneous distraction. Part of the reason we feel the need to be constantly on the grind is because we can’t help but compare ourselves against the images we find on social media, which provokes feelings of inadequacy and increases our spending as well as our unhappiness.

The good news is we can unplug. We don’t have to spend all that time being scroll bots. As I researched how stillness can actually lead to meaningful action for a research paper in my mindful leadership and social change course, I came across the work of anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who distinguished between fast-time activities and slow-time activities. Fast-time activities are dominated by the pings and buzzes that command our immediate attention. When we put our devices away we get to pause and engage in slow-time activities—the restorative pursuits, like painting or hiking, that bring us joy and allow for meaningful contemplation.

It’s only when you step off the hamster wheel that you realize you chose to step on it in the first place. In those moments you might find the stillness to examine what it is about the wheel that you want to hold on to and what you may want to let go of.

3.

Simplify

Now’s the moment when I include the obligatory Henry David Thoreau quote, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” I’m allowed to though, as I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, and attended Thoreau Elementary School. It’s so easy to lapse into the clutter of modern existence. This is why I came to adore flights—my choices are suddenly limited to the meager possessions I have with me, like a book or a magazine, and there’s no guilt in indulging. Yet the clarity of a cabin in the woods (or an airborne cabin in the clouds) is available to us at all times if we’re willing to accept it.

Whatever direction you take this dictum, it’s likely to help. It could mean a thorough Marie Kondo-ing (or a Thoreau Marie Kondo-ing, if you will). It could mean a thoughtful reduction of fast-time activities, by carving out device-free blocks of time or setting clear boundaries between work and play. Or it could mean an intentional reminder to hit pause on that endless to-do list and make space for a walk in the woods, time spent with your kids, a thoughtfully prepared meal, or other leisure activities, which you don’t need a degree in mindfulness studies to know are a key source of happiness.

It would be irresponsible not to mention that my intentional approach to scaling back is possible only because I’ve been privileged enough to have a healthy support system around me, and been granted more than my fair share of opportunity. But the beauty of the above lessons is that they can be implemented in some form and to some extent by anyone, anywhere.

The point is not that one shouldn’t pursue meaningful endeavors or strive to excel in their work; the point is that happiness comes from a re-orientation of our priorities; a focus on appreciation rather than accumulation; and an intentional cultivation of the spaciousness that allows us to enjoy life rather than endure it. Being content often hinges on consciously choosing to do less rather than constantly powering through to do more.

At the end of the anti-corporate classic Office Space, former worker drone Peter Gibbons has started working construction, to the confusion of his tech buddies. When they approach him during their lunch break he seems…happy? After they leave, Peter, shovel in hand and a sheen of sweat on his face, turns to his neighbor Lawrence and says, “This isn’t so bad, huh? Making bucks, getting exercise, working outside.”

Amen.

By Alex Tzelnic - The Muse
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