The Happiness Track in Academia

by Elisa Uusimäki

Dr Emma Seppälä tackles modern myths of success in her recent book The Happiness Track (HarperOne, 2016). Seppälä’s work is highly relevant for academic communities: she has a PhD in psychology and works as a science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and as a co-director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project. In her book, Seppälä identifies six myths of success that are prevalent in contemporary western culture:

  1. Never stop accomplishing.
  2. You can’t have success without stress.
  3. Persevere at all costs and work to exhaustion.
  4. Focus on your niche: by focusing exclusively on your field and becoming an expert in it, you’ll know how to best solve its problems.
  5. Play to your strengths – do what you do best and stay away from your weak areas.
  6. Look out for yourself and your interests so you can successfully outperform the competitions.

Sounds familiar? Probably, but be critical of such claims. Drawing on recent research in psychology, Seppälä questions the value of these myths. In order to provide a healthy and viable option, she proposes six sustainable keys to happiness and success:

  1. Stop chasing the future and live/work in the present moment: you are most productive (and charismatic) if you focus on the task or conversation at hand.
  2. Step out of overdrive and tap into your resilience: you’ll reduce stress if you train your nervous system to bounce back from setbacks. Thus take a breath and ease into your body.
  3. Manage your stamina and save mental energy by remaining calm and centred instead of engaging in exhausting thoughts and emotions. Do things that make you feel positive, turn what you are doing into something you want to be doing, remember the big picture, practise gratitude, and detach from work when you are not working.
  4. Get more done by doing more or nothing: idleness, fun, and irrelevant interests make you more creative and innovative. They are needed for breakthroughs. Thus diversify your activities, make time for silence, and engage in play.
  5. Enjoy a successful relationship … with yourself. Be good to yourself and avoid excessive self-criticism. We learn from mistakes. Talents and strengths can be developed – the human brain is built to learn new things.
  6. Understand the kindness edge and strengthen your compassion muscle. Self-focus creates blind spots, ruins relationships, makes you weak in the face of failure, and damages health and emotional well-being, while supportive relationships with colleagues increase loyalty and commitment.

Seppälä’s theses are obviously helpful for us in academia who struggle with several on-going projects and whose work is often characterised by the bizarre combination of stress, freedom, and creativity. For us in the humanities, a field that has long been known for solitary work, it is also good to be reminded of the power and beauty of working in a community towards a common goal.