Happiness of an academic

This post is about my experiences in searching for happiness in academia but much is perhaps relevant for finding happiness in many professions.

My academic life has all the makings of a happy existence. I’m paid much more than I need, I have an incredibly high amount of freedom in my work, I’m reasonably successful (i.e., I publish enough), and my research into happiness and well-being seems very relevant to people outside of my immediate academic circle.

Just because the ingredients are all there doesn’t guarantee happiness.promotionI’m uncertain whether there is that much happiness in academia. The work hours can be long, emails never-ending, there are an array of targets and expectations, there is a hierarchical structure, and it can at times be fairly lonely and isolating. Like any profession there are clear dangers. For the most part, however, I seem to have side-stepped a lot of these potential issues but I’m not sure if this is the case for many academic researchers – even the happiness academics!

I’ve always felt that it is important to try and apply my research to my own life. To make little changes that will increase my well-being. In actual fact I’d like my research to go beyond my-self and initiate changes in how we individually and collectively think about the world and choose to live our lives. But I’m not really sure whether that’s going to be possible so I think ensuring that my research at least helps me to be happy is sensible for the time being.

Status & happiness – can we have both?

Just as it is with any job there are always temptations in academia that offer promise of a better-happier life but that often result in experiences of work that are not so positive.

One of the first papers I wrote was entitled “Do people become healthier after being promoted?” Contrary to our expectations, and in an effort to explain the well-known positive relationship between job status and health, we found that on average people do not become healthier, and if anything promotion may result in the deterioration in an individual’s mental health. We speculated that this could have been due to increased job demands and perhaps less time and energy for important health inputs such as exercise and preparing nutritional food.

ladder climbing
Does that ladder have to be climbed

People (and academics) like status. People also like job security and that seems to allure many academics into their first lectureship. It’s a coveted destination for many PhD students. But when I talk to first time lecturers, even many senior lecturers and professors, it doesn’t sound to me like an easy job – it seems to get easier with time but only to the extent that the high workload becomes easier to deal with. A lectureship brings responsibilities that make it very difficult for academics to spend as much time as they would like on what seems to be their real passion that got them into academia in the first place – their research.

A pay rise is another workplace temptation

Much of my research has attempted to understand whether having a higher income ensures a happy life. Once our basic needs are met it does not. This wide body of research, to which I’ve contributed to, suggests that whilst money may buy some happiness it buys so little it doesn’t matter. Other things – our relationships with others, our mental and physical health, our beliefs and attitudes about the world around us – not only matter much more to our happiness but may be more likely to change than how much money we earn. It is unfortunate that many people believe money is so important for happiness and that in order to obtain “enough” they may be sacrificing the very things in life that are truly important.

“Avoiding” promotion

Thus since completing my PhD in 2009 I’ve remained a postdoctoral researcher and I think that that was probably a wise choice. It means I probably earn much less than I could and I have less status but this choice has given me an immense amount of flexibility in my life. The big drawback is that I have to think about where I might get funding for my research in the future in the full knowledge that there is a strong likelihood I might not be funded. There is therefore quite a bit of insecurity. But then I’ve tried to shield myself from the insecurity by again applying my knowledge of happiness research to my life.

On a path to voluntary simplicity

tent living simple
Life doesn’t need to be complicated

I recognise that I won’t find happiness through money and so I don’t try to. There are other ways to live well. I try to live a life of voluntary simplicity that does not sacrifice happiness but instead seeks to find happiness through a more simple and convivial lifestyle (I like to think of myself as a bit of a degrowth activist – for example by “hitchhiking all the way to happy” or finding “happiness in a tent“) and in doing so I don’t need much to sustain my way of living. This gives me some peace of mind when I’m approaching the end of a funding period. By living minimally out of choice it has meant that I don’t find myself in a desperate position where I have to take a job irrespective of whether it is a good fit. I can afford to wait and in the mean time I’ve often spent time focusing on other areas of life that are conducive to greater well-being – such as working outdoors in nature, walking or riding my bike in the mountains, spending time with loved ones.

I feel privileged and fortunate to have the opportunities that I do. I know that not everyone does. However, there are so many people that have similar privileges, if not more, yet many still give into the temptations of status and money and take actions that neither increase their own happiness nor the happiness of others. In fact these actions may even be detrimental. If you’re privileged enough to make alternative choices then I encourage you to do so.

But what happens when the happiness researcher isn’t happy

I have to confess though that my research into happiness used to bring me much more happiness than it now does. As I expressed earlier I’d like my research to have an influence beyond my-self but I’m not so sure it ever will. I’m coming to realise that to get my research ideas heard I might have to sacrifice too much of my own happiness and well-being. Imagine that – an unhappy happiness researcher! Would I lose credibility? Personally I baulk when privileged politicians give speeches about austerity from golden thrones or when I hear about environmentalist flying from country to country to talk about low carbon economies. I value authenticity (living in line with one’s beliefs and values) and so would our/your happiness.

On route to Rotterdam
Get me out of here. Where are you going?

The happiness researcher feels like he needs to go and find happiness elsewhere

My happiness research has taken me and my happiness only so far. Currently I can’t help but feel that I might do more good for myself and others by taking my-self and my happiness outside of the academic world.



*** Thank you for reading. If you like any of my posts then I’m happy to have them shared or commented upon. Also if you don’t like anything then I’d be grateful to hear that too.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s