In Search of Truth and Happiness

I recently found myself at the King’s Arms pub at Oxford, across the street from the newly opened Weston Library, where works such as the Gutenberg Bible and Dorothy Hodgkin’s drawings of the structure of penicillin are on display. I was there discussing happiness with Michael Plant, a DPhil student in philosophy studying this very subject. While my life at Oxford revolves mainly around working in a biomedical lab up the hill, it’s these moments I came to Oxford for, when the magic of the city of dreaming spires truly works its way into the mind through a pint in hand.

The conversations I had with Michael revolved mainly around the topics of life satisfaction and happiness: what I’m trying to achieve with this website, and Michael with his projects. Recently, Oxford ran a series of pieces on happiness, one of which featured Michael. Though addressed from various fields and perspectives, the issue of happiness seems to boil down to some pretty simple things:

  1. The way you think: Michael’s piece focuses on research that has shown time and again that our patterns of thought (as opposed to material gain or life circumstances) influence our levels of happiness. Briefly, human being are incredibly adaptable to both terrible as well as great situations. This is known as hedonic adaptation, and it means that despite what happens to you in your life or what you gain or lose, your baseline levels of happiness will roughly self-correct. This, along with bad affective forecasting, the ability to predict (and remember!) what does and doesn’t make us happy, point to a different approach towards life satisfaction. Things that change the way we perceive our lives, such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy, go a longer way in helping  us achieve long-term happiness.
  2. Pursuing meaning and morality: Though a meaningful life might not equate to a happy one (an important semantic distinction in the field), the two are tied so close together that scientists have trouble removing confounding when studying the two. Both Professors Jeff McMahan and Will MacAskill argue in their pieces that examining your life within a meaningful context and having an impact on those around us are ways of increasing overall life satisfaction and health.
  3. Interacting with community: As part of this series, Dr. Bronwyn Tarr explains how her research explores dance as a powerful tool for building communities and increasing individual levels of happiness. Other groups have argued the same benefits from singing in a choir. Whatever the activity, it seems that interacting with a community in a cohesive and relaxing way is hardwired into our social code as a gregarious species.

So how do we apply this as scientists? During our discussion, Michael suggested that perhaps the issues in life satisfaction in the sciences were so prevalent because we place the search for objective truth above the search for our own personal happiness. In other words, unsatisfied people in other careers look for change; scientists stick around because they’re told the only path to meaningful success is by gaining a PI position.

In another blog post, author Velica explores the myriad of reasons people join and continue in science. Among these are listed the pure love of science and a sense of duty, which fit perfectly with tips one and two above. Unfortunately however, Velica points out the truth that despite what we tell our funding agencies, “most academic research will not have a direct impact on people’s lives. At least not in the short term.”

Of course, Velica also points out two other motivators which, taken to the extreme, can lead down a path to extreme unhappiness and dissatisfaction: the needs to be the most intelligent person in the room and to climb the career ladder:

“While chasing career achievements is a necessity, there is today an excessive pressure to make this the predominant drive in science, squeezing out any vestiges of other motivations. Even worse, when taken to the extreme such pressures can lead to the dark side of scientific misconduct.”

I liken the desire for high-impact publications and post-doc or PI positions to laypeople’s desire for money and power: as a scientific society, we’ve become addicted and obsessed, and have tied the accumulation of these things to our self-worth. If we take the tips above into consideration, along with anecdotes from highly unsatisfied and stressed postdocs and PIs, we can see that a change in attitude is needed if life-satisfaction is desired. Granted, the culture and system unfortunately self-select for this behavior because it is rewarded with grant money and positions. Changing these attitudes will take time and great conscious effort. However, reaching a level where we once again publish what we research instead of research to publish doesn’t seem so farfetched. Just remember how you felt during your first discovery or “Aha!” moment.

Because the searches for truth and happiness need not be mutually exclusive, taking small steps can go a long way in your personal life.  I suggest going through the essays linked above or the free Science of Happiness course for a more in-depth look at these topics, as well as checking out Michael’s app (Android only at the moment) to track what makes you happy during your day. The cherry on top: studies in other fields have shown happiness drives creativity and productivity. A happy scientist is a better scientist. And when all else fails, there are always the evening trips to the pubs and bars with your labmates.

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Fátima Sancheznieto

Dr. Fátima Sancheznieto, PhD has recently completed her postdoctoral training at the UW-Madison school of medicine, where she studied mentor training interventions and STEMM training environments. Fátima became interested in the science of training when, during her PhD, she was trained in peer support by the Oxford University counseling center and began advocating for systemic and cultural changes in academic training environments. She has served on a working group for the Next Generation Researchers Initiative at the National Institutes of Health and is currently the President of Future of Research, a nonprofit organization that advocates and empowers early career researchers. Her current research continues to focus on studying the training environments of early career researchers.

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