• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Happiness in Grad School

Why focusing on being happy is good for your work.

November 3, 2015

Shira Lurie is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia researching early American political history. Follow her on Twitter @shirby9 and on her blog.




When I got accepted into grad school, I felt like I had just won the lottery. Someone was offering me money to read all day, meet my academic heroes, and eventually write a book - I’d be a fool to pass that up. My elation lasted for the first few weeks of September, but after that, the grind of grad school began to take its toll. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of things I had to do and frustrated that no matter how hard I worked, my to-do list only seemed to grow. I started to set goals for myself that would offer a promise of future relief: I’ll feel better once I have a research topic, I’ll feel better once I make it through the first semester, I’ll feel better once I pass comps. But as I achieved each goal, my stress level remained the same as I set a new target to replace the old one.


Then I watched a TED talk by positive psychologist Shawn Anchor. I was blown away by his research and dropped everything to read his book The Happiness Advantage. According to Anchor and the principles of positive psychology, I had been setting myself up for failure in the search for happiness. By promising myself that future successes would make me happy, all I was doing was continually moving the marker, ensuring I would never actually get there. For my own mental health, I had to stop promising myself future happiness and start cultivating positivity in the present. Aside from the health benefits, the scientific findings of positive psychology suggest strongly that being happy will actually make you more successful. That is, we are at our most creative, productive, energetic, and intelligent when we are happy.


The best part is we can enjoy these results with even the smallest lifts in our mood. For example, Anchor writes that in 1997, a set of researchers tested experienced doctors’ abilities to accurately diagnose patients with similar symptoms. The doctors were split into three groups: one group was given medical statements to read, one group was given nothing, and one group was given candy. That’s right, candy (although they weren’t allowed to eat it until after the test was over to avoid a spike in their blood sugar). The doctors with candy were both more accurate and efficient than the other two groups (Anchor, 47-48). But it’s not just doctors. The same correlation was found by a different study that tested four year old children’s ability to assemble blocks into different shapes. One group was given neutral instructions, while the second group was told to first think of something that made them happy. The second group completed the task faster and more accurately than the first group (Anchor, 46). Happiness leads to success, not the other way around.


Here are a few suggestions on how to give yourself a jolt of happiness throughout the day:


- Place pictures of loved ones around your workspace

- Have lunch with friends once a week - in addition to enjoying the experience, a set plan will give you something to look forward to

- Think of three things you are grateful for each day

- Perform a simple good deed, like buying a friend coffee or holding the door open for a stranger

- Compliment or thank a colleague

- Find time to exercise

- Check out some of Katie’s tips!


Understanding that we are more successful when we are happy is also important for teaching. Armed with positive psychology, you can prime your students to perform well by making your classroom a site of positivity. Try telling some jokes or asking students about their weekends to start off the class. Encourage your students to compliment each other’s work and be sure you are constantly praising their progress.


Grad school and academia are full of future targets. But thinking that happiness lies on the other side of tenure is counterproductive. Instead, we would all do well to remember the elation we first felt when we received our acceptance letters. By focusing on our happiness in the present, we will increase not only our health, but the likelihood of achieving our goals in the future.

[Image by Flickr user scjn and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]


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