This is a guest post by Stefanie Robel, PhD.
Most of my academic career I have been working toward big longterm goals: my masters degree, my first paper, my PhD, the next position, a Nature paper, a transition into independence grant, the next paper. The list continues… The job as a research scientist is characterized by long streaks of work, seemingly without reward. Oftentimes, we experience a series of setbacks before we advance our projects in meaningful ways. We pull through this by telling ourselves that this present pain is required to accomplish our future mission, e.g. the next paper or position or tenure, and THEN we can relax and be happy. This encourages a life style that is goal and future-oriented.
Doesn’t sound to you like there is anything wrong with that if you want to develop a successful academic career, does it? That’s what I thought too…
Happiness should wait until later
Since I am a driven and disciplined person, the next two things are always lined up while I am still working on my current goal. They build on each other to ensure that I speedily and successfully reach the next step.
But there are serious downsides to this approach: I used to sacrifice everything else while telling myself, that once I reached that next step, I can slow down a bit, enjoy my success and take care of the other things that are important in my life.
These other things include my relationships with family and friends, my health, my personal development. These areas are important parts of my identity, of who I am. Keeping them in balance and nurtured is a key ingredient for my happiness.
So, once I am done with XYZ I will be happy.
Of course, it so happened that once I was done with XYZ there was yet another thing to accomplish. Sometimes, I didn’t even take the time to celebrate a success. I consistently pushed myself into working longer and harder, which eventually led to me losing my motivation, my joy in doing science and in resenting my work and academia. I blamed this on the circumstances, on the system and on superiors who wouldn’t do this or that for me to make my life easier.
Living in the moment is your normal state of being – until you learn otherwise…
How did I adopt this mentality?
After reflecting on this for a while, I figured out when I slowly stopped living in the present moment. I was 12 years old and received training in horseback riding. This was the most important and fun activity during my teenage years. One thing my trainer stressed relentlessly was the importance of foresighted thinking. Always look ahead anticipating what comes next, what lies ahead. This was undoubtedly a very valuable lesson in keeping me safe. Although I mounted a lot of difficult horses in my 20 years of horseback riding, I fell off the horse only twice. One time I fell with the horse because the ground was too slippery for the tight turn that I tried to accomplish. The other time I was caught up in my momentary happiness cantering bareback across a field in a light summer breeze in perfect harmony with my horse. I didn’t see a plastic bag flying around ahead of me spooking my horse, which jumped to the left to avoid the creepy thing while I continued on straight ahead. This could have been prevented easily had I seen this plastic bag ahead of time and anticipated my horse’s reaction. I could have slowed him down, made him aware of the bag or just simply went with his movement to the left.
So, I perfected foresighted thinking not only during my riding, but in every area of my life, always looking ahead, anticipating what could come at me, rarely taking the time to enjoy the moment. Once I started my academic career, this behavior was strengthened by the academic career path and beliefs of others that over time became my own beliefs.
Academia boosts future-oriented living to the detriment of experiencing life
We are trainees for so long… In Germany, you first study a subject for 5 years and then receive your master’s degree, which is a prerequisite for moving on to the PhD training. After 4 years of being a grad student you are still not done, but continue your training for another 4 years as a postdoc upon which you might be deemed ready for a faculty position, but even then your title is “assistant professor” suggesting yet again that you’re incomplete and not quite finished with your education.
In academia – or in fact in any profession – we’re lifelong learners. We are never done deepening our knowledge and developing and refining our skills. On top of this, every day tasks and demands seemingly never end. There is always more we could read, learn or do.
Does this in turn mean, we never have time to enjoy our lives and be happy?? Probably so if you ask for permission from your mentors, advisors or peers…
There is never a good time to be happy
This adopted, future-oriented, behavior that I observed in myself is omnipresent in academia. I have been told more than once that I have to make a sacrifice of time and joy in order to be successful. I remember a conversation that I had with one of my mentors about a former lab member who dared to get married during her postdoctoral training. This was deemed a most inopportune time during which one should focus on career advancement.
Here are some other examples of similar beliefs among scientists:
- You have to work hard to be successful and hard work equals long hours
- If you look left or right you’re not serious about science and hence unworthy of being around in the holy ivory tower
- You need to make personal sacrifices to deserve success in academia
- If life is easy and you’re enjoying your work, you’re not working hard enough
- Taking recovery time is a sign of weakness
- Weak people cant be successful scientists
- You can enjoy the fruit of your hard work and be happy LATER
So, in total there is a minimum of 15 years for academics in life sciences that need to be sacrificed for career development, so that we can THEN start enjoying our lives. However, it seems to me that my more senior colleagues are on average just as stressed out and overwhelmed. Every day, I encounter people who live and spread these toxic beliefs to their colleagues and, even more harmful, to their trainees creating a feedback loop that is counterproductive for everybody’s motivation and productivity.
Make happiness your journey, not your destination
Despite all my future-oriented planning I had never thought in depth about what my life would look like once I am “successful”. Have you ever asked yourself what success means for you and why you want to be successful? What are you really after? What is driving you? Do you want to be admired and recognized as authority by your peers? If so, why? To make it easier to get this next position or the next grant or tenure? If so, why? Do you want have security around your income to support yourself and your family? Do you want to make more money? Why?
Once I did this exercise it boiled down for me to having the financial freedom to fully express myself. I feel fulfilled when I can work with others on solving research questions, when I have time to think about and discuss science, when I have time for my family and for my personal development, when I can contribute to community development and when I can support my colleagues in adopting this same change in mindset.
Most importantly, it showed me that I could have all of that NOW, if I stopped buying into the above-mentioned beliefs, started living my life to the fullest and took the time for the important stuff. I decided to be happy NOW.
This idea of putting life off until we have time is based on the idea that our circumstances determine our state of happiness. Once we have a particular position or make that amount of money, we can relax and be happy. The reality is if you don’t know how to be happy now, you wont know how to be happy later. If you have a contract with yourself that lists all these conditions that have to be fulfilled before you allow yourself to be happy, there will always be the next thing you have to achieve. The best predictor of how happy you will be in the future is how happy you are right now. If you are interested in this topic make sure to check out Robert Holden’s books on happiness.
Happiness is not an accomplishment, it as a state of being. It is up to you alone to chose to be happy and you can do so anytime.