Maintaining optimism in a demanding career–or, why happiness is not a waste of time in grad school

My mom is the happiest person I know, and I was always aware of it growing up. It made me proud, for a while. Then I became a teenager, and I started rolling my eyes. A lot. It was easy to make fun of my mom for being so cheery. Then I went off to college and I started to really appreciate her again. But then, I realized that not only was my mom super happy, she was also really smart about being happy–she made choices to make herself happy everyday. She sings in the grocery store. She laughs super loud while watching tv. She gets excited about everything from running into friends to hearing her favorite songs. And you know what? All of that takes work.

I really started to understand the work of being happy and that appreciation has only grown since I got to grad school, where it’s clear that I can either find a way to enjoy this life, or I can let my potentially demanding job choice swallow me whole. I definitely don’t make the more difficult choice every day, but I do try! So this week, I asked some wise grad school friends why happiness can seem so hard in academia. Here’s what we came up with…

One reason that it can be hard to make time for happiness is that it’s easy to say that happiness is a privileged concept–that the only people who have access to ‘self-care’ are also people who have big incomes and lots of free time. These are good points, but I think they also oversimplify happiness. First, if dismantling privilege is your goal, how can you expect your work to contribute to empowering other people if you aren’t taking care of yourself? This line of thinking also 1) tends to tie happiness to money/class (which, yes, we all need the money to be secure, but is also a line of thinking that suggests that underprivileged people can’t be happy), and 2) doesn’t honor that happiness is subjective and can be created in many ways.

Another reason that I think academics in particular (but probably other creative careers too!) have a hard time with happiness is that happiness is not seen as particularly ‘smart.’ It’s chicer to be ironically miserable all the time, and I am so OVER IT. I saw this great interview (or maybe it was a Tumblr question?) for John Green where someone asked what he wished he had known when he was younger, and he said that he wished he had known that happiness is an intelligent pursuit. It’s easy to spread misery, and even easier to make the optimists around us the butt of the joke. It’s harder to elevate others. It takes work. And I think it’s work worth doing.

I wore this tee the week before finals and my students laughed about it 🙂

So, with that in mind, I asked some of my fierce grad school friends what they think helps to create happiness, despite being in a demanding career field. We are by no means experts. But it’s good to reflect. Here was some of their advice:

Distance, distance, distance: Releasing the stress of others instead of carrying it around. Having friends in other career fields usually puts things in perspective for me because everyone’s job (not just academia) can be stressful and these people don’t allow me to think that I’m carrying around a “special” burden in my chosen career (lovingly, of course)!

Be useful: I read this article a few months ago and it’s been in my head ever since, but the point is, sometimes the things that bring us joy are not just the self-serving things we do, but the things we do for others. I try to call my friends, send birthday cards, leave encouraging notes on people’s desks…all of these things take me very little time, but in serving others, I tend to get a little burst of happiness out of these activities as well.

Don’t glorify burnout: It’s easy to end up in conversations that feel like one-upping contests about how busy we are. It’s harder to get out of these conversations, or to talk about what is going well (especially without feeling like a self-centered human). But it’s important! There’s a line between supporting each other through periods of busy-ness and always dumping how busy and emotionally drained we are on each other. It’s ok to move away from people who can’t stop this line of conversation. I have also unfollowed social media accounts that make me feel guilty for not working 24 hours a day for this reason.

Do things that are not productive: It’s hard not to make everything feel “productive,” and I definitely have a hard time doing non-work activities that don’t feel like accomplishments. I run a blog. I listen to podcasts and enjoy feeling like I ‘finished’ something. This is such a constant problem for me that I have been given ‘homework’ by my counselor (ps this is also a huge part of having a good support network that bolsters happiness, for me!) to do absolutely nothing, and it’s really challenging homework to complete! But totally worth it. I like walking with nowhere to be, sitting outside in our backyard, and binge-watching Dateline with no guilt.

Finally, people noted that happiness is not instant gratification: This topic has been well covered online, but several friends mentioned that ‘self care’ is not ‘self indulgence.’ Yes, buying clothes can make me happy for a minute, but some self care is hard–going to the dentist, changing the oil in the car, writing for an hour in the morning even though I will feel less stressed (for the day) if I avoid it.

I know this blog post didn’t require outfit pictures but this thrifted J. Crew tee makes me smile so I thought it was appropriate 🙂 And here are some reflections on my first semester as an assistant professor.

7 thoughts on “Maintaining optimism in a demanding career–or, why happiness is not a waste of time in grad school”

  1. Hi. I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now. Congratulations on your recent career milestones!

    I work in the corporate world, and am not an academic, but what you wrote really resonates with me. I am saddened and bewildered by the number of people around me who tell me that they are unhappy. Life is too short. We all have challenges, but for those of us who are in the fortunate position of being in reasonable health with reasonably healthy loved ones, a place to live and enough to eat, I truly believe that being happy is in many ways a conscious choice. It’s not something that is just handed to us while we passively wait for it. We have to make an effort.

    Looking forward to more posts in the future…


    1. Thank you so much! I agree–I think this is a common workplace problem. Yes to all of this. I am also still learning that it’s ok for me not to feel perfect happiness every day–which used to bum me out. I try to work at it while still being gentle with myself when it’s not working!


  2. Hey Rebecca! Thank you so much for this post, I started my PhD in management sciences in the fall, and everyday I feel I have to be extremely self-disciplined not to verse into continuous panic attacks 😥 I also have a very cheerful and down-to-earth mom, and she is an anchor in those moments (I don’t need to speak to her, just remember her :)), but Gosh is it hard!! This environment can be so cynical at times, it’s a daily struggle! please continue to write on those topics, I feel super encouraged 🙂


    1. Thank you! Grad school is so taxing on mental health!!! Now that I’m done I can’t believe what a difference it has made for me–hang in there! If you ever wanna talk on instagram I am happy to! 🙂


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