How to be happy: a sociologist's view of #HEhappiness

What brings joy? This week, as part of our week of articles on #HEhappiness, academics from five disciplines address this most difficult of questions

October 3, 2017
Statue covered in pigeons
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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)



David Bartram, associate professor in sociology at the University of Leicester and co-editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Are you happy being an academic? Some people find that question hard to answer. I don’t. I love my life as a teacher and researcher. And while my own happiness is not the only important question about my career, it does matter, to me – and why shouldn’t it?

But happiness is a controversial notion, especially among sociologists. Some people think of happiness expectations as oppressive, or at least as neoliberal “responsibilisation” (the transfer of responsibility for resolving problems from institutions to individuals). And much of the research is based on quantitative analysis; one might indeed be troubled by seeing happiness reduced to a single response on a survey questionnaire (although I do it in my own research exploring whether migration results in greater happiness for migrants).

More to the point: it probably seems intuitively obvious that if we want to improve happiness, what’s needed is to deal with poor and deteriorating work conditions. Autonomy reinforces happiness, especially at work; powerlessness undermines it. So reviving professional autonomy in research and in the classroom is surely a necessity for any institution that claims to care about its employees’ well-being. Ending salary erosion might help, too.

The problem is, there’s virtually no chance of reshaping Western universities in ways that would genuinely support employees’ happiness. Institutional leaders all pay lip service to it, but the narrow limits are all too apparent. No one is going to restore faculty governance to make academics happier.

Also in this series

A neuroscientist's view of #HEhappiness
A psychologist's view of HE happiness

The things that universities do in the name of staff well-being are, by contrast, sometimes downright cringe-worthy. One institution (I’ll name it privately if you write to ask) recently held an event featuring smoothie-making, yoga stretching, herbal-tea drinking and personal development reading. It’s beyond parody, and it gives well-being a bad name, especially among critically minded people.

So do happiness studies have anything to offer? Yes – but you might not like it. For people who already enjoy relatively favourable circumstances (and let’s face it, that includes most of us), one way to reinforce happiness is to moderate your expectations. For instance, aspiring to change one’s circumstances can end in disappointment even when the aspiration is achieved. That’s one way to make sense of the idea that “money doesn’t buy happiness”. If you really want more money, you’re probably making invidious comparisons with others who earn more than you do – and you’ll likely continue doing this even if you get a pay rise. That way of thinking (and its consequences) surely extends beyond money.

Now, findings of that sort are exactly what lead some people to perceive happiness studies as having limited value. It sounds like a road to resignation and fatalism. It takes pressure off those who wield power, suggesting that the path to happiness is in no small measure a private one. There’s some affinity here with venerable religious perspectives (especially Buddhism), but that is likely to be small consolation to mostly secular academics.

I genuinely don’t mean to preach a doctrine of resignation. Even on grounds of happiness, we should continue to fight for the restoration of faculty governance and respect for professional judgement. (What else are they paying us for?) And there are other reasons to work for social change, at work and elsewhere: happiness is not the only form of the “good life”.

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However, private seething doesn’t strike me as a necessary or beneficial component of a social change agenda. Public seething is useful, perhaps – but best to deploy it as a strategy, a performance, rather than letting it become who you are.

A final thought: the path to happiness is sometimes an indirect one; the single-minded pursuit of it can be self-defeating. Some authors, such as Svend Brinkmann in his recent polemic, Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, urge us to ignore our own happiness and do the right thing. But these options might be more complementary than contradictory. Doing the right thing can contribute to personal happiness.

So be generous with your students, even if you think they’re uninterested and callow. You can’t know your eventual impact on them, and you can likely get satisfaction for yourself by offering them more than you think they deserve.

The full HE happiness feature has now been published.

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