Increasing Well-Being in Academia

Isabelle Augenstein
11 min readApr 16, 2020

Academia is far from the best work environment from a mental health perspective. From reports on high suicide rates among PhD students to burn-out of academics, especially women, the statistics make for rather grim reading. This is no wonder, as academics are under a lot of pressure to produce high-quality research and teaching, while juggling grant writing, service and more, and compete with peers in their respective fields worldwide. Is it all bad news, and are there ways we could increase work satisfaction and lower stress?

I’ve recently spent quite a bit of time reflecting on how we, as individual academics — but also as part of academic institutions, or of research communities as a whole — could apply research findings from positive psychology to increase well-being in academia. I thought I’d share some of these ideas, in case this is useful to anyone else.

Caveat: I am a researcher in Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning. I dabble a little in psychology — my minor during my undergraduate study at Heidelberg University was psychology, and I’ve recently joined a new project on using Natural Language Processing for measuring happiness and well-being (with psychologist Oscar Kjell and computational social scientist Andrew Schwartz). For this reason, I’ve been brushing up on the ‘well-being’ literature. I can really recommend the Coursera course on “The Science of Well-Being” for those who are looking for more reading and practical tips on the topic. However, I am far from an expert on this topic, so please take the following with a grain of salt.

Note also that I’ll be using the terms ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ interchangeably, and without going into detail of how these were measured. There are many instruments for measuring these concepts, and occasionally, findings obtained with different instruments contradict one another. This post therefore restricts its discussion to findings which have been shown to hold repeatedly.

I’ll very briefly summarise findings on well-being below, following which I’ll share some ideas on how these ideas could be applied to academia. Of course there are many more variables, but some of these are outside of our control.

What does the literature say on…

… what makes us happy?

Strong effects are reported for:

  • engaging in activities that lead to our being in a “flow state”…
Isabelle Augenstein

Associate Professor in Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning at the University of Copenhagen