Flourishing -- experiencing an optimal range of overall well-being -- can seem elusive in the face of the seemingly ever-escalating demands of life and work in the academy, and never more so than in the pandemic moment. Yet the concept of flourishing doesn’t mean that we are happy every moment of every day, or that everything or even most things in our lives are going well. Flourishing instead means that we are able to connect to a sense of purpose, to experience self-acceptance and personal growth, and to cultivate our strengths and resilience on an ongoing basis, even in challenging circumstances. If you’re curious about where you are in terms of your own flourishing, take the short flourishing scale developed by Diener and colleagues.
Common Limiting Beliefs and Obstacles to Flourishing in the Academy
Limiting beliefs that impede flourishing are prevalent across the academy, but we can work to identify and change those beliefs. Common limiting beliefs among those working in higher education include:
- We must be available 24-7 to be good colleagues, teachers and mentors
- We must always -- or nearly always -- say yes, especially to advisers, chairs, deans and supervisors
- We cannot afford to make time for breaks or for rest
- If we just work harder or longer, we could eventually be caught up
Because flourishing is strongly correlated with feeling a sense of purpose in our work, lack of clarity about the commitments and projects that are most meaningful can create a significant obstacle to flourishing, leading us to commit to projects that don’t align with our values and interests. Being intentional about choosing projects and commitments that align with our values and priorities can help us achieve a greater sense of meaning and fulfillment from our work.
Cultivating Habits and Practices That Support Flourishing
While obstacles and limiting beliefs that impede flourishing in the academy are common, we can be intentional about cultivating habits and practices that support our personal and professional flourishing.
- Recognize and honor ourselves as whole people, with interests, commitments and communities beyond our academic and professional work
- Set small, realistic, achievable goals that build over time
- Prioritize opportunities for meaningful connection and engagement
- Choose projects and commitments that contribute to a sense of purpose and accomplishment
- Use our values to drive our decisions and commitments
- Make time for regular reflection on what’s working well and what needs to be tweaked
- Pursue opportunities of interest with curiosity without expecting ourselves to immediately be experts at new skills, experiences and roles
How can we make time and space for meaningful connection and work that aligns with our values and priorities? Most importantly, we can cultivate our comfort with saying no and holding boundaries that protect our time and energy for the work that we find most meaningful, as well as that protect our health and well-being. When asked to take on new projects or commitments, we can work to shift our default from saying yes to pausing to consider the opportunity or request. We can use that pause to realistically assess our current commitments and bandwidth and whether a new opportunity aligns with our values and long-term goals. Being intentional about saying no helps us protect our time and energy for things that are an enthusiastic yes.
Being intentional about building habits and practices that cultivate flourishing doesn’t necessarily mean that we must dramatically change our lives or our work. Small changes can build to significant results over time.
- Reach out to two colleagues and schedule a monthly coffee and check-in to cultivate meaningful connection
- Set a limit for how many manuscripts you will review each semester
- Schedule a teaching consultation to discuss how to tweak assignments to retain impact while reducing grading time
- Set an alarm for a midafternoon five-minute meditation break
- Turn off email alerts on your computer and phone and check email during scheduled times each day
Flourishing in the Pandemic Moment
In the context of the intense burnout many of us are experiencing at this point in the pandemic moment, flourishing may seem like a bar too high. Even if we -- quite reasonably -- may feel like it’s simply not possible to get to flourishing in the context of the current moment, we can make small changes that lay the groundwork to support moving the dial toward flourishing over the long run.
Finally, it’s important to remember that flourishing isn’t a one-time accomplishment that we can achieve and then check off our to-do lists, but a state of being that requires ongoing cultivation.
Brandy L. Simula, PhD, BCC (she/her/hers), is a professional developer and a board-certified career, professional and life design coach who works with graduate students, postdocs, faculty and higher education leaders. She currently leads the Office of Faculty Professional Development at Georgia Tech and is a 2020-22 Leadership Fellow of the University System of Georgia. Read more about her work at www.brandysimula.com.