Increasing Well-Being in Academia

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…

Strong effects are reported for:

Some of those are not necessarily what we might think:

How could these findings be used to increase well-being in academia?

Below are some of my ideas related to: reflecting on one’s achievements; looking for a new position; and, day-to-day work life. I’m sure there are many more, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

As academics, we are asked to reflect on our achievements all the time — research councils ask for publication lists with bibliometrics, university PR departments want to know how many papers were accepted at A* venues, performance reviews are coming up, etc.
This makes it quite easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one’s main aim should be to maximise these measurable indicators of achievement. However, not only does this by itself not make us happy, it also leads to poor science — see e.g. this recent study on impact approximated by the number of citations vs. scientific novelty, which shows that bibliometrics and novelty only sometimes overlap. Put differently: it is easy to adopt the mindset of being extrinsically motivated, e.g. writing papers to increase one’s h-index or get grants, rather than harness one’s internal motivation, e.g. to write papers to further our understanding of the world and because one enjoys the process.

In addition, one’s scientific environment — at one’s own institution, but also worldwide — provides many so-called reference points, which directly influence how well we think we should perform in terms of measurable performance indicators. If, say, most of one’s colleagues had three papers accepted at a certain venue, but one only had two papers accepted at that same venue, this would decrease one’s happiness, whereas having two papers accepted, while most of one’s colleagues only have one paper accepted, can even lead to an increase in happiness. Social media can really mess up one’s reference points in that regard, because typically, only outstandingly positive performance is self-reported.

So, what can one do about this?
The first step is to be conscious of these effects and to question one’s own thought processes. What is the motivation behind embarking on a certain research direction? Is it that it would be a ‘low-hanging fruit’, i.e. easy to get published to bump one’s performance indicators, or is it because it would fundamentally further science and is something one is truly passionate about? It can help to write down one’s main scientific goals and regularly re-examine these to make sure one has not inadvertently deviated from these for the wrong reason.
Next, one should be very conscious of one’s reference points and try to avoid them as much as possible. One solution often advocated is to quit social media; if this is not possible, one should at least minimise usage. Forming a community centered around discussing important science without referencing performance metrics can also help. This has the additional benefit of strengthening one’s social connections, which is shown to increase happiness. Institutions can also help with this, by promoting truly novel work, instead of promoting how well their researchers are performing in terms of metrics (see also Goodhart’s law). And of course, any scenario in which researchers are evaluated could focus on their contributions to science as opposed to these metrics.

A typical academic moves institutions, cities or even countries several times within their career. What are some of the things not to look out for in a new position?
I’ve seen many people focus on identifying the top institution for their own field, thinking if they could get a position there, it would significantly increase their career chances and therefore their happiness. As research shows, this is somewhat of a fallacy. Getting what one might perceive to be the perfect job does not inherently increase happiness. Moreover, working at a competitive institution means that one is surrounded by unattainable reference points, i.e. other researchers with very high measurable indicators of achievement (number of papers or citations, grant income, etc.), and thereby actually decreases happiness levels.
A similar fallacy is to look for a position with a high income. Again, research shows that a high income per se doesn’t make us happy, and that we constantly adjust how high a salary we think we need as our salary increases throughout our life and our reference points change. Perhaps this is less of an issue in academia, especially for early-career researchers, as salaries do not tend to be very high in the first place.

What should we look out for then?
A very important criterion should be to find an academic position where one can spend as much time as possible working on the tasks one enjoys most — i.e. has a lot of intrinsic motivation to achieve — and where one has a lot of freedom to define one’s own agenda and can engage in activities that lead to being a flow state. And yes, I realise that a decent proportion of positions that fit this description will be at highly-ranking institutions — the point is though that we should not aim for a position at a certain institution purely for their rank on one or the other university leaderboard.
One factor that is often proposed is the desire to work in a stimulating research environment. From a well-being perspective, such an environment can help us with our personal growth, strengthen our sense of what the purpose of our work is, and provide social relationships. These are all components of what’s referred to as eudaimonic well-being, high levels of which have been shown to reduce stress.
Next, one could look for a position where one would likely form strong social ties with others, or where one already has strong social ties. Cities, institutions or research groups that, for instance, give off the vibe of everyone having lunch alone at their desks are a red flag in this regard. Institutions with lots of good collaboration opportunities are a positive.
As research shows that commuting make people unhappy, and spending time in nature makes people happy, finding a position where one can live close by and where there’s lots of greenery should also be a priority.
A more controversial and radical suggestion would be to look for a research environment in which one would perform well, relatively speaking, in terms of performance indicators, a colloquially known “big fish in a small pond” setting. This could e.g. be a university where one’s research area is not so well-represented yet, or where the rest of the department has a different publication culture.

Most of us are not currently looking for a new position, so how could positive psychology research inform our day-to-day decisions in our current job as academics?

Let’s consider the following scenario (which, let’s be honest, is sadly not too atypical for a faculty member): a quick look at one’s calendar in the morning indicates a bunch of mandatory meetings and/or high-priority, but unexciting tasks to plug through. So, one tries to get these over with as fast as possible, buys a quick lunch, tries to spend as little time as possible socialising, then arrives home from work in the evening feeling exhausted and uninspired.
While research shows that it’s best to get not-so-fun tasks out of the way in one go, there are still small things one can do to increase one’s happiness at work. These include: taking the time to strengthen one’s social connections at work, eating a nutritious lunch, being kind to a colleague by helping them with a small task, taking a small break for exercise, an afternoon nap or a mindful walk.

PhD students and postdocs often face another problem, which is that there’s very little structure to their work life. They typically work on one project with abstract goals and have to find ways to self-manage their time. This freedom is good for well-being, but are there only benefits to it? Can it, for example, lead to poor structures and routines? Institutions don’t typically require PhD students to be present at work at all times. This can lead to people working from home a lot of the time, which is has a negative effect on their social connections. Some also adopt eccentric sleeping rhythms, procrastinate, or over-work themselves.
Even though it takes effort, it can be beneficial to superimpose some structure onto one’s working week. What can help in this regard is to have regular meetings with other researchers, for instance for reading groups. It’s also helpful to set oneself small, achievable goals each week.

An additional area of day-to-day work life to rethink is: which, and how many, tasks to take on. According to research on flow, it is most rewarding to take on tasks that harness a lot of one’s skills and are also challenging; for me personally, this would be coming up with new research ideas or supervising PhD students. On the other end of the spectrum are low-skill non-challenging tasks like filling in forms. Just for the fun of it, I’ve drawn a diagram visualising where I’d position some of my most common work tasks.

Now, it is of course impossible to escape low-skill non-challenging tasks altogether, but it is typically possible to at least affect this a little bit by saying no to certain tasks. For instance, coordinating large projects comes with management-related challenges that some enjoy, but also typically with a high administrative load and additional emails to answer. No one is forced to coordinate projects, so this is something every researcher is free to decide on their own. Reviewing papers can be challenging in a good way, but only if the paper is related enough to one’s research interests. I’ve found that my personal enjoyment of writing grant proposals depends a lot on what type of call it is. Fellowship proposals are enjoyable to write, as they require a lot of creative thinking, but innovation-focused projects can be either too easy to write or be too much outside of my comfort zone, as they require more in-depth knowledge of applying research in industrial settings. Teaching is also something that can go either way — teaching something one already knows a lot about can seem to not be very challenging, so it helps to either update teaching materials with new insights one has to read up on, or to try using new teaching methods.

Regarding how many tasks to take on, I’d argue that it’s beneficial to plan one’s time such that there’s some time left for creative thinking. A heuristic I use for this is: if I wouldn’t feel like I’d have the time to take on a new task proposed to me the following week without feeling stressed or compromising too much on time for creative thinking, I decline the invitation.

Some research institutions have schemes to use research funding to reduce one’s teaching or internal service responsibilities — or sabbaticals, where one can take a break from all institutional responsibilities for a certain period. This is a good example of using money to buy oneself some free time (creative thinking time, that is, not actually free time), which should increase happiness.

Another theoretical finding to take into account would be the stream of research on signature strengths, which shows that activating our own idiosyncratic strengths increases our happiness, and going against our signature strengths can decrease happiness. This could also be relevant when thinking about whether or not to take on a new task, say, one that involves leadership. For someone uncomfortable with leading, this would probably not be the best task to take on, unless there is an adopted personal strategy to develop these skills. Adopting a growth mindset, the belief that anything can be learned, can also be helpful when faced with new, difficult tasks one has little experience of tackling.

Last words

Consciously increasing one’s well-being can take a bit of effort, but it is doable. Spend some time reflecting on what is rewarding for you personally, and try to incorporate more such activities, as well as general happiness boosters, into your daily life. Case in point: I wrote this blog post in an effort to increase my mood, because I enjoy writing and sharing knowledge, after I felt a bit down earlier today, and it really helped. I hope it’s useful to some of you. Feel free to leave a comment below, I’d be interested in hearing your opinion on this.

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Oscar Kjell for his detailed comments on this post and for encouraging me to share it with others. Thank you also to Leon Derczynski and Barry Norton for their helpful feedback.

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

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