Students value happiness, we should too

March 1, 2018

Academic staff can learn from Yale students’ prioritisation of happiness (“Yale students flock to the pursuit of happiness”, News, 22 February). Their record-breaking enrolment in the Psychology and the Good Life course sends a clear message: happiness is important not despite the demanding nature of our work, but because of it.

The high stress, demanding workloads and achievement mindset reported by the students are familiar to most academics – the majority of whom report poor mental health and high stress. Teaching workshops all over the world to academics, we hear much about the damaging effects of the deprioritisation of happiness. Faced with ever-increasing demands, corporatisation, casualisation and metric-driven comparisons, in addition to reduced budgets, happiness seems hollow and impossible to most. Sacrificed for getting ahead, getting a job or just plain getting through, happiness is cast aside by most as trite and trivial.

Yet as we explain in our forthcoming book, How To Be a Happy Academic, the reluctance of today’s academic workers and workplaces to seek happiness contrasts with millennia of scholarship. Far from being trivial, considerations of happiness are one of the most prominent and profound scholarly preoccupations since the first book of Western literature, The History of Herodotus, detailed King Croesus’ quest for happiness. The importance of happiness has since been prominent in the thinking of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Romantics…and of Bentham, Marx, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Klimt, Freud, Beckett and Atwood among many. If happiness is good enough for this cast, avowedly, it’s a legitimate concern for academic workers.

History teaches time and again that it is not the absence of difficult events, circumstances or people that renders happiness legitimate or viable – but the very presence of such challenges that makes seeking happiness so vital. Academic work will never cease to be demanding and serious, but it is this that makes happiness key.

Bailey J. Sousa
Director, International Institute for Qualitative Methodology

Alexander M. Clark
Associate vice-president, research
University of Alberta

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