What research shows about how to be happy

A good friend of mine recently recommended a podcast episode that I listened to over the weekend, Arthur Brooks discussing his book, Strength to Strength, on Oprah’s Super Soul podcast. As I expected, I found it timely and so I went and actually bought the book as well.

Arthur Brooks is a social scientist who studies what makes people happy. To summarize what he learned (I’m summarizing a whole book in one sentence here, so my summary lacks certain details and nuance), he found that the more “successful” a person is at their career, the less likely they are to be happy over their life.

Yep. I mean, this is nothing completely new here, but it’s still important to hammer home this message over and over and over again, until it is fully internalized. Our society tells us that we are supposed to seek out money, power, prestige, success, and that this will bring us happiness.

But it does not.

And actually, the research shows that what DOES make us happy is having our life focus on four essential components – faith, family, friends, and work in service of others.

Some people might wonder what exactly “faith” means – I haven’t read that part of his book yet, but I expect it to mean that it is healthier to let go of the need for certainty, to be okay with the unknown. After all, life is full of uncertainties and unknowns, and that is some scary shit, and so we try to put blinders on to the unknowns and we try to exert control over our lives (either in our work, our family, ourselves), exert control in a way that is not necessarily healthy. So, letting go of the control, being okay with the unknown, that is what having “faith” means to me.

And of course, I don’t need to talk about why family and friends are so important. After all, I happen to believe that nurturing CONNECTIONS with family and friends is what this life is all about. And this is an idea that many others have as well. That being said, it is definitely true that I have spent a decent amount of my own life prioritizing “success at work” over “nurturing my relationships with my family and friends.” And so I am done with that. I have to remind myself every day sometimes of this new priority. But it’s a current life focus.

And then finally, “work in the service of others” – almost ANYONE’s job can be “in service of others” if we frame it that way, if we remind ourselves of our intention of being in service of others. I have been working on being more intentional about this as well. Every day, I remind myself that my ultimate goal in my work these days is to support the people that I work with. Whether it be the people in my lab, that I help mentor and teach and support them as they learn to be scientists and then move on to grad school or med school. Or perhaps it is the fellow faculty or staff members that I am supporting by the diversity, equity, and inclusion work that I’m doing, that helps to encourage the culture of my Department to be more respectful, understanding, and compassionate. However, I remind myself that my goal is NOT to publish “as many papers as I can,” or to “make myself as well-known as possible in my field,” or to “give as many talks as I can,” or “get as many awards as I can.” My goal is NOT to be the “best” professor that my students have ever worked with, whatever that means, at the cost of my relationships with my family and friends. Obviously, if I do my job well at supporting my lab members, then I WILL end up publishing some good papers in my field. But that isn’t my GOAL. My goal is to support my lab members to be healthy, happy, contributing members of science.

I will say that this philosophy isn’t necessarily so “new” to me. I actually did start my lab with this idea and it has always been an important tenet in my lab. But still, more reminders are important, especially in academia, where the culture can be so competitive and toxic and everyone is comparing scientists and judging them. It’s so easy to feel unworthy, that we are not good enough. And in the past, I had definitely wanted everyone that I worked with to think that I was the “best” at whatever it was I was doing. And so that is what I am working on letting go these days. The need to strive to be the “best” at what I am doing…even being the “best” at supporting my lab members. I want to do good by them, but this desire to be the best, in order to be successful, was not actually bringing me happiness.

And at the end of the day, I would MUCH rather be “happy” than be “successful.”

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