When it comes to work, people in the UK are among the most dissatisfied in Europe. It isn’t too hard to see why. We work longer and longer hours and yet innovation and productivity remain low. And hard work—that strangely British virtue—isn’t the problem: in October, a report found Britons are working harder than ever. One professor put it best when he said that people in the UK are working harder and harder ‘just to stand still’.
There have been many attempts to disentangle the ‘productivity problem’. But perhaps the problem is the emphasis on productivity itself. Since the industrial era, when Victorian Britain became the workshop of the world, we in the UK have taken the successful factory mindset and applied it to other areas of life. Creative, contextualised thinking has given way to an industrial mode of thinking that puts a premium on growth, efficiency, and productivity. We’ve started to process information in a way that is left-hemisphere dominant in the extreme.
Iain McGilchrist captures this in his wonderful book, The Master and His Emissary. The left hemisphere, he writes, is detail-orientated; the right has greater breadth, flexibility and generosity. Both are important, but the left has a tendency to take on more and more power for itself. When it does, we become individualistic and controlling, our survival mechanisms intensify, and we come to see the world around us in smaller and smaller units. We struggle to find meaning and purpose, lose our sense of connection and, sooner or later, find ourselves in a permanent state of stress and—to our distress—unable to be as productive as we once were.
Chronically short on time and energy, and increasingly preoccupied with arbitrary targets, we inflict our irritability on our friends, colleagues and family. We can’t pull in the same direction at work because our relationships are weak and we’re too wrapped up in our own problems to see things in context. We seek out hacks and short-cuts—anything for an ‘edge’. And devoid of inspiration, we lean on adrenaline and caffeine in order to do more.
Clearly, this approach isn’t working. The square peg of industrial thinking simply doesn’t fit into the round hole of 21st century workplace dynamics. But there is an antidote: meditation. And I sympathise with those that roll their eyes. There are watered-down offerings that don’t deliver what they promise. There are concentration-based techniques created by monks for monks which are almost impossible for the over-caffeinated urban worker to practice. But there’s also Vedic meditation, a 10,000-year-old practice that originated in the north of India. It requires no crossed legs, no laser focus and no serene, mountain-top setting. You don’t need to go to Nepal, or Thailand, or some far-flung place to learn how to do it. It was created by everyday people for everyday people. And it can restore satisfaction, meaning and productivity to the workplace.
Despite what some believe, meditation doesn’t lead to uncritical thinking or blissed-out inertia. Nor will you start to feel a powerful urge to give up your possessions and head out into the wilderness. Rather, what meditation brings about in those who do it is a kind of roundedness. It calms the overtaxed amygdala (the brain’s alarm centre), reducing the output of adrenaline and the stress hormone, cortisol. And at the same time, it allows for the development of self esteem, trust and empathy, which have little use to the person in a semi-permanent state of fight-or-flight and short-termist industrial thinking. It improves our memory, focus and ability to solve problems, and makes us instinctively more collaborative and socially fluent. Physically, it has a host of benefits, from stronger cardiovascular and digestive function to a more robust immune system.
It seems counter-intuitive to say that in our effort to do more, we’ve ended up doing less. But if you always play a stereo at full volume, you’ll eventually break it (and start a war with your neighbours into the bargain). We’ve been doing everything in our power to give our maximum, when in fact we would be wise to give our optimum. The answer is not more; it’s better.
But this won’t happen by itself. If we are to solve our workplace woes, whether we sweep streets, serve coffee, or trade stocks, we should embrace meditation as a means for restoring balance in our minds and a meaningful relationship with work. And as a happy side effect, we’ll become more satisfied, more purposeful and more physically healthy, too.