In August, a report by Rand Europe confirmed what many had long suspected: that academics face a greater mental health risk than the population at large.
This week, academics from five disciplines ranging from philosophy to neuroscience share their insights into how the search for happiness should be conducted – if it should be conducted at all. We will publish one a day from 2-4 October.
Available now: the full #HEhappiness feature, including all the individual perspectives (including the one below)
Julia Revord is a doctoral student at the University of California, Riverside’s Positive Activities and Well-Being Laboratory. Its director, Sonja Lyubomirsky, is professor of psychology.
It is no secret that many academics struggle with well-being. From Socrates to Freud, Newton to Nash, brilliant scholarly minds have often tackled formidable intellectual challenges only to realise that their greatest obstacle was the darkness of their own psyches. The double whammy is that unhappy academics are also missing out on the proven benefits of improved health, higher income and happier social lives that stem from having a brighter outlook.
Over the past two decades, our laboratory has investigated what makes people happy and what habits happier people share. This has allowed us to identify simple strategies to boost happiness in daily life. In some cases, the most effective approach is to change the circumstances causing unhappiness, such as binning that lousy partner who makes you feel miserable about your love life. In other cases, it is more effective to target your mindset. In other words, you can change either the way you think about yourself or how you think about your circumstances.
Also in this series
Regarding the former, targeting particular personality traits and habits is one possible path. Most simply, you can exercise more; frequency of physical activity is associated with improvement in life satisfaction. Counselling can also help; targeting traits of anxiety or depression might be useful, especially when problems seem too great to tackle alone.
Changing the way you think about your circumstances is also achievable. Many academics see their jobs as callings rather than as merely a means to pay the bills; people who think this way reporthigher job satisfaction. Moreover, many academics are, objectively, doing just fine; professionally and intellectually, they are succeeding at a high level.
But it doesn’t always feel that way. One reason is that academics (like most other people) are prone to comparing themselves with colleagues and subject peers. Comparison – whether it is h‑indexes or promotion trajectories – has been shown to be toxic to happiness. It isn’t that glum people compare themselves with those doing better while happy people compare themselves with those doing worse: happy people simply don’t compare themselves with others at all – and happy academics are probably spending all that extra psychological energy applying for grants.
Dealing effectively with failure is also crucial for academic happiness given the continual knock-backs that even the most successful experience. For this, practising “self-compassion” is important: treat yourself with kindness and recognise that negative emotions and failures are part of the common human experience. In addition, try to adopt the “growth mindset” theory popularised by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In contrast to those with a fixed mindset, people with a growth mindset believe that their traits – such as their intelligence level – can be improved through practice. In that sense, failure is an opportunity to learn from mistakes, so it is nothing to be ashamed of.
Meditation can also help. Near-countless studies have found that it decreases negative feelings and increases mindfulness. Although daily meditation can be practically challenging, it might be one of the most empirically supported strategies for long-term changes in emotional processing.
When addressing the less savoury aspects of your life, changing your actual circumstances – not just your perception of them – is also important. Perceived social support and number of social ties are both robust predictors of health, longevity and happiness. Loneliness can increase the risk of depression, as well as inflammation and susceptibility to disease. The academic life often lends itself to long hours alone in scholarship, but you should prioritise important relationships; after all, a longer life means more time to publish.
Academics might also want to consider easing up in the promotion rat race. We humans have a remarkable capacity to get used to any positive changes. So when you attain something really good – a well-matched partner, an engaging colleague, a grant renewal – you feel an immediate boost in contentment. Unfortunately, however, a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation means that it is usually short-lived. Thus, the cliché is true: unless you are very poor, live in a war zone or have an abusive spouse, in the words of the poet William Cowper, “happiness depends, as Nature shows, less on exterior things than most suppose”.
Above all, don’t forget to overlook what is going right for you. Counting your blessings or writing gratitude letters might seem hokey, but a flood of research has found that such activities make people feel happier, more connected, more inspired and even more humble. Savouring, which can be as simple as pretending that this month is your last living in your city, can make a difference: people who naturally savour tend to report higher life satisfaction, value fulfilment and intensity and frequency of happiness. And emailing your thanks to a doctoral adviser who saw your potential when you were at your lowest, or to a former student who led you to an exciting research question when you felt stuck, will make you realise just how fortunate you are.
The full HE happiness feature has now been published.