Why #HEhappiness is so elusive, and 5 ways to find it

After years of focus, diligence and sacrifice, you now hold a sought-after academic post. It’s probable that your whole life has been leading to this point. But perhaps, like many others, you have found a gulf between the life you hoped for and the one you now lead.

The strain of a long hours culture, poor work-life balance and the growing casualisation of the sector can lead to toxic working environments – and even the desire to drop out completely. On top of that, unhelpful patterns of thinking or behaving so common in over-achievers – such as perfectionism and impostor syndrome – can erode both your ability to perform effectively and your physical and mental well-being.

While the mental health crisis amongst undergraduates may have hit the headlines, silence still shrouds the issue of poor mental health amongst career academics, with men in particular often finding it harder to speak up and seek help for a problem.

In a study for the Higher Education Policy Institute, Dr Liz Morrish found that referral rates of academics to counselling services – both self-referred and by a third party – rose by a sobering 77% between 2009 and 2016.

In a context like this, happiness can seem hopelessly elusive. But it’s a subject of academic study across a range of exacting disciplines – from philosophy to neuroscience. The results of years of research into happiness and how to generate it can help boost its levels in HE today. Drawing on that learning, here are five ways which could help you find and promote #HEhappiness – both for yourself and for your colleagues:

1. Challenge outdated and damaging views such as the mantra that academia will always be a high-pressure field, and that those who can’t handle it should give up. Be part of a sector-wide solution by refusing to perpetuate unhealthy attitudes and practices. You could start by speaking to people close to you, such as a mentor, trusted supervisor or your peers. Then add your voice to the wider debate – check out #PhDBalance and #AcademicChatter for inspiration.

2. Nurture your network – both professional and personal. Research can be solitary and isolating, so being intentional about building community and social connection is vital to happiness. Combat loneliness by seeking out the benefits of collaboration at work, and ensuring you ring-fence time with family and friends outside it. 

3. Remember why you are an academic. Take time to recall all that you value about what you do – whether it’s an unshakeable passion for your topic or the opportunity to shape the minds of the next generation of scholars. Your research is contributing to the sum of human knowledge – perhaps for bold and important purposes, such as the Global Goals.

4. Practise self-care. When pressure seems relentless, it can be all too easy to overlook the value of rest, renewal and recreation. But investing in self-care can significantly boost your resilience and positivity. Make time to:

5. Start planning. As a new decade begins, why not ask yourself a few key questions about your future: what would you like your life to look like in five years’ time? What will bring you greater happiness? It could be time to consider the challenge and stimulus of an international move or a career-refreshing sabbatical.  

Finally, it’s worth remembering that, in a sector in which poor mental health is so prevalent, the importance of treating your colleagues and yourself with compassion and kindness cannot be underestimated.

Further reading and listening

Mental Health During your PhD‘ poster series by Dr Zoë Ayres

Dr Christopher Boyce, Research Fellow at the University of Stirling’s ‘Adventures in Happiness’ blog

Yale professor Dr Laurie Santos’s ‘Happiness Lab podcast

‘The mental health of PhD researchers demands urgent attention’ – https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03489-1

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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