Happiness in the lab, part 1: What is happiness?

by Luis P. Prieto, - 5 minutes read - 989 words

Being a Ph.D. student and being happy sometimes feel like two incompatible states. However, we all know someone that seems to enjoy greatly their work, even their dissertation work (heck, I have to confess I’ve been one such annoying person myself sometimes). What things make people love their work? Apparently, an entire branch of positive psychology has been delving into this question for decades. This post is the first of a series that adapts insights and practices for greater “happiness at work” from a massive open online course (MOOC), to the work life of doctoral students (and academics more generally).

Yellow square happy smiley

User:Jathin.d [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Back from holidays! Re-charged or depressed?

I am back home after a long summer hiatus that included conferences, working in the peculiar “summer mode” of many universities (when you don’t have to teach, have less meetings and maybe can concentrate more on new or dangling research projects), and some actual holidays away from email and other connectedness. There is a strange feeling of reset. Like a blank slate, the new academic year is full of possibilities, new things to explore… but also the dread of old commitments, meetings and other stuff I have put off, still waiting to ambush me in the next weeks. This kind of “post-holiday blues” is, I guess, quite normal as we contrast the relative freedom of schedules and actions during holidays, with the restrictions and routines of our usual work life.

However, these feelings also reminded me of a bigger question I’ve often pondered: given the limits to our autonomy that work life represents (and since autonomy seems to be essential for happiness), can we really be as happy and fulfilled at work as we are on holidays?

It turns out there is an entire branch of psychology (positive organizational psychology) dedicated to that kind of question. In the last months I have been doing a massive online open course (MOOC) from UC Berkeley called “The Foundations of Happiness at Work” which introduces you to many basic concepts in this area. While the course seems rather geared towards human resources professionals, it also has some interesting topics for the individual worker (and thus, to doctoral students and supervisors as “research workers”). To answer the question above, I will try to distill and adapt some of the most actionable insights from this course, in this and the following posts.

Happiness at work

I can already feel some of you raising a skeptical eyebrow when reading the title above in all its fluffiness and squishiness: how can you define, or measure something as subjective and personal as “happiness”? Psychologists (and philosophers) have been trying, though. A lot. In the course, the instructors make the point that happiness is not about momentary positive emotions, pleasure or hedonism, or being in a perpetual state of cheerfulness. Rather, they provide a working definition taken from S. Lyubomirsky’s work, “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile."1 Still fluffy, but probably most of us can agree that these are things we generally want.

In the course, they also make the case that workers in this state tend to be more creative and more productive, thus creating benefits for the organization’s bottom line. In a similar way, I think the supervisors among us can probably agree that Ph.D. students in this kind of “happy state” are likely to be more productive as researchers than depressed ones (not to mention the fact that it is more ethical to want people to be happy, rather than the opposite). Nevertheless, in this series of posts I will focus on the individual, personal perspective on how to achieve such happiness at work, not the organizational view of how to create a research lab with this kind of atmosphere (which is also interesting, but maybe for a later post).

Diagnosing: How happy are you in your (research) work?

One interesting thing they do in the course is they give you self-diagnose tools (in the form of research-validated questionnaires), to assess yourself regarding the different ideas and constructs of interest. For example, take a minute or two to do the following questionnaires, answering the questions from the point of view of your research/dissertation work:

How did you do? If you scored high, good for you! maybe you don’t need many of the tips and practices I’ll mention in the next posts (maybe you do them already!). If you scored low, then read on, you may get some useful ideas on how to improve your sense of happiness at work. Back when I did these questionnaires some months ago, I scored around 4.7 out of 7 – not too bad, but certainly a lot of space for improvement!

Acting: Looking for PERKs in your research work

Another interesting feature of the course is that it proposes actions or practices to improve this sense of happiness at work. These actions are gathered around four main areas, four pillars of increased happiness at work, which go by the acronym “P.E.R.K.” (probably, the pun was intended). The next post will focus on the first of these pillars…

Can you guess what the P stands for (as something important to make you happier in your work life)? How did you score in the general happiness at work questionnaires I linked above? Let me know in the comments below!

  1. Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin. ↩︎

  2. Cammann, C., Fichman, M., Jenkins, D., & Klesh, J. (1979). The Michigan organizational assessment questionnaire. Unpublished Manuscript, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. ↩︎

  3. Lyubomirsky, S., & Lepper, H. S. (1999). A measure of subjective happiness: Preliminary reliability and construct validation. Social Indicators Research, 46(2), 137–155. ↩︎

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Luis P. Prieto

Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.

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