Happiness in Higher Education: One Professor’s Thoughts

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Happiness, the Pandemic, and Higher Education

Happiness. That’s the topic I’ve been thinking most about in the months since I last published a blog post.

Of course, the pandemic forced many of us to think about important issues like work-life balance, meaning, and what we should be spending our time doing. Yes, the pandemic altered personalities. So it is no wonder that it may have altered priorities, too.

The other day, I checked in on Twitter to find a thread by a professor who was expressing signs of burn out. She stated that she no longer felt the joy she once felt in her work. She wanted to find a way to get that back. She is not alone. Like several of you, I have been there. It stinks. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that way. But I’ve spoken with, read about, or have been exposed to many people who are, directly or indirectly, expressing a desire for more happiness from their lives and their work.

Happiness and Sourdough
Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-freshly-baked-sourdough-12035578/

When the world slowed down and people were taking up new hobbies — sourdough bread, anyone? — I realized I suddenly had lots of time and only a few hobbies. Work was life. Life was work.

One of my few hobbies is reading. A family member sent me some books in the mail, one of which was Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. I read it. Wow! So much of how I thought happiness was achieved was wrong.

Where Do Our Ideas of Happiness Come From?

Of course, there are many influences on our views on anything. As a communication professor & scholar, I started to wonder about the media. What role did the media play in influencing my views on happiness? How is happiness portrayed on social media, in music, in films? What does the social science say about what makes people happy? Does that align with what the media portrays? Does the media bolster or harm our happiness?

Social Media and Happiness: Friend or Foe?

You probably heard about the reported negative effects of Instagram on teenager’s body image, particularly among females. In the last few years, a number of studies and reports have emerged surrounding the possible impact of digital media on young peoples’ mental health. These trends are alarming.

We are preparing our students to work in a professional communication field that is currently dominated by social media. Shouldn’t we also be preparing our students to examine the potential impact this media may have on them and their target audience?

One of the most important tasks we face as educators is to help our students live meaningful lives. Happiness plays a big part of that. Let’s not forget that meaning and happiness are closely tied — when we’re happy, things feel more meaningful. When we find meaning in our tasks, it bolsters our mood.

Happiness & Professors

Let’s face it. The pandemic was hard on all of academia; not just our students. As educators, I believe we should be talking more about happiness — it’s role in our lives, how we’re pursuing it, and how we can more readily access it.

If a major purpose of education is to help someone live a meaningful life, and happiness plays a key part of that, then we educators can do well to practice what we preach. We can do this through the study of happiness as well as through modeling placing an importance on happiness in our lives. That means making responsible choices to practice happiness as part of a ‘well-balanced diet’ of managing our lives (If all we did were happy things, I imagine nothing would get graded ever again).

[This begs the larger question, what is happiness. That is beyond the scope of this blog post. If you’re interested in exploring this question, here is a fun read about two common types of happiness]

No, I’m not suggesting that we snap our fingers, forget our problems, and just be (or pretend to be) happy for the sake of the students. Problem solved!

When we think about the stresses, uncertainty, and fear that are so pervasive in contemporary life, feeling happy, or even trying to make room for happiness, can be difficult.

Happiness is elusive. Our moods fluctuate. Bad things happen. Nothing is permanent. Working towards happiness takes persistent effort and there are many setbacks along the way. It is not reasonable to expect to be happy all, or even most of the time. It is not a destination. It is a pursuit.

I’m also not suggesting that we pretend we are professional counselors or well-being experts nor that we try to replace those vital professionals.

What I’m suggesting is that we talk about and examine happiness and its importance to the human experience. Here’s a simple example. At the beginning of the semester, I’ve always set boundaries for when I will and won’t be available to students. I explain why I’m not available at certain times — because I have a life outside of my job. That means I have both other responsibilities and I need space to ‘do me.’ This is a simple model of setting healthy boundaries. I’m saying to my students: “I will not be available at 10pm at night to respond to your email because making space for all the elements of my life are important to me, including the time I take to focus on my wellness. Sleep is a vital part of my wellness.” Perhaps my doing this helps 1 student realize that it is okay to set boundaries to protect their well-being.

I do not know the professor who expressed burn out on Twitter. I don’t know the details of their situation. I am in no position to offer guidance or tips, and I would not presume to do so. I do not have solutions. But I want very much for that person to not feel they way they do. I know that you want the same for them, too.

I am glad that the professor on Twitter shared their experience. It demonstrates their awareness that they have a desire for something to shift in their life. Their actions can help start conversations on issues of burn out and a desire for greater satisfaction. It says to me that we acknowledge that the happiness of our colleagues is of vital importance; that happiness is a team game that we want everyone to do well in.

A Happiness & Media Class

While everyone has a different level of comfort talking about their own experiences regarding well-being, there are other areas through which we can bring our students’ attention to the topic of happiness. For example, we can talk about the role that media may play in happiness. After all, we’re media professors. With that in mind, I had the idea that I should create a class on happiness and the media.

In my next blog post, I’ll tell you a little bit about that class.  I’ll be teaching it in the spring.

May you be happy.

– Matt

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