The desire for happiness in academic life.

“Happiness is consistently described as the object of human desire, as being what we aim for, as being what gives purpose, meaning and order to human life. … Do we consent to happiness? And what are we consenting to, if or when we consent to happiness?”

—Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, p. 1

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In her book The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed writes about happiness from a position of what she calls “skeptical disbelief in happiness as a technique for living well” (3). Her premise is to critically consider how happiness is imagined as “what follows a certain kind of being” and becomes associated with “some life choices and not others” (The Promise of Happiness, 3). She questions, in other words, how the wish for happiness is based on value-laden ideas and actually functions in a state of continual crisis as one experiences the constant disappointment of not accumulating enough of it. She helps us to question how we might uncouple happiness from such values as wealth, marriage, and social status. What if one chooses to pursue work that does not pay well, for example, because of the intellectual stimulation that it promises? If this choice produces financial difficulty, is one choosing not to be happy, as a result? The notion of choosing happiness is a problem, Ahmed argues, because “the demand for happiness is increasingly articulated as a demand for a return to social ideals, as if what explains the crisis of happiness is not the failure of the ideals but our failure to follow them” (The Promise of Happiness, 7).

So what if we in and around the academy find ourselves, in Ahmed’s words, “unseated by the table of happiness” (Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects), 1)? What if we experience an “inappropriate affect” by feeling disappointment in something that is supposed to make us feel happy (Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects), 1)? For one, we might need to explain and perhaps justify the source of this disappointment (For instance: “I am not happy with my decision to pursue an academic position because it did not bring me the fulfillment I thought that it would. While I finally have some financial stability, I do not have intellectual satisfaction or a supportive community around me.” Or, “Finishing my dissertation feels like a let down. After I felt relief, I didn’t feel the happiness I thought I would because I now see that I have more hoops to jump through and this scares me.” Or, “After leaving graduate school to focus on my family or because of a bad experience, I don’t feel any happier. I now feel longing for my former intellectual life and I don’t know how to get it back.”) I am basing these hypothetical situations on multiple conversations that I have had with friends, colleagues, and audience members at professional development seminars I have organized and participated in. What they collectively point to for me is the reality that making certain decisions in academic life for the pursuit of happiness often produces an inappropriate affect in Ahmed’s sense; they do not always bring happiness—rather, they sometimes bring disappointment in the absence of happiness that was expected to arrive.

Why is this? Ahmed suggests the following: “When we feel happiness in proximity to the right objects, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. You become alienated—out of line with an affective community—when you do not experience happiness from the right things. The gap between the affective value of an object and how we experience an object can involve a range of affects, which are directed by the modes of explanation we offer to fill this gap” (Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects), 1). The best example I can think of here that I have personally experienced is the stress that comes with taking on a tenure-track job. In many ways, this is a privileged stress: it is not one caused by poverty and precarity in the academic system. However, I still felt stressed in my job most of the time (especially at first) and this was compounded by the fact that I expected this position to bring me happiness (“when I get a full-time job, then I will be happy”). What if the “then” doesn’t follow the “get”? Sometimes I did feel happy, but sometimes I didn’t because I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t see straight. And while I think this is the case with most professional work (for who is happy 100% of the time in their work life?), the precarity of full-time work in the academy couples disappointment with guilt when such a position doesn’t bring the happiness we perhaps feel it should.

I often had conversations around this issue at conferences immediately after taking up my job, when friends and colleagues would comment on my good fortune at finding tenure-track work following grad school. I agreed. But then if I expressed concern about not knowing what to do next (“I am struggling to write my book” or “I don’t know how to manage a full-time teaching load” or “I am worried that I will not produce enough to get tenure”), my feelings were often met with disbelief that I was expressing something other than complete happiness in my position (“I would know what to do if I were lucky enough to be in YOUR position!”). But what if you don’t know what to do? Is part of the pursuit of happiness in academic life acknowledging your disappointment with a socially appropriate rationale for dissatisfaction (“my politics don’t mesh with my department” or “I feel isolated from friends and family” or “I am not used to living in a small town” or “my dissertation wore me out to the extent that I never want to think about it in another form”)? In my case, disappointment surrounded me whenever something was hard—a class that seemed to be running off the rails, my inability to carve out time for research and writing, or my difficulty in understanding how my department/faculty/university worked at a basic level. Of course, much of this was simply taking the time to figure out systems and schedules; these same scenarios don’t cause me the stress they once did.

I wonder, though, about more prolonged experiences with disappointment and what this does to one’s emotional well-being. What if you really do feel constantly unfulfilled by what you are doing (while I don’t feel this way, I know that many people I have talked to do on a daily basis)? Keguro Macharia recently wrote a poignant article on his decision to quit his tenure-track job because of such a prolonged feeling of disappointment in the academic system in which he worked (and it is worth reading it in its entirety):

“Most often when I talk about building a life, I have meant something closer to saying that I cannot imagine—or desire—a life here. And this, it strikes me, is a much harder thing to confess. After all, the academy tells me what I should desire: tenure, full professorship. Indeed, the academy provides at least a 20-year plan: undergrad, grad (10 years); tenure track through tenure (5-7 years); and if one is on a fast train to somewhere, one can achieve full professor within 5-7 years of achieving tenure. All of these come with immense benefits, and because of immense luck, I have been in a position to benefit from what these might mean. Being located in a research institution provides privilege and access: from here, the gaze is always upwards. Were I more conceited, I would say that my momentum is steadily propelling me upwards in what might be very rewarding ways. Given this scenario, why quit?

I’m not sure this is ‘the life’ I want to imagine. I worry about any life that can so readily be ‘imagined.’ Where is the space for fantasy, for play, for the unexpected, for the surprising? …

A tenure track job at a research university is the goal, the promise, especially if one receives a degree from a research university. It demonstrates that despite all obstacles, ‘the system works.’ We need to believe this desperately. Absolutely. Without questioning.”

(On Quitting)

What if we start to question this system (for whatever reason)? What will it do to our expectation of happiness within it? Do we need to have different sets of expectations for happiness in academic life, especially if we do not obtain the object of our desire (a tenure-track job)? And what if obtaining that object fails to make us happy in the way that we expected it to? When will we start being happy, then? What do we need to “get” from academic life in order to find happiness after what we thought would bring it fails us? I know these are difficult questions, and I don’t necessarily pose them because I personally feel dissatisfied or unhappy in my life (in fact, currently, I feel the opposite). But I want to think about the fact that it’s important to try and find fulfillment where we are at (even if this is temporary) rather than only where we hope to be, and after what we hope to get.

While following Ahmed I want to resist the troublesome notion that happiness is a choice, I also want to know: how do you pursue happiness in your academic life?

Sources:

Ahmed, Sara. “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects).” Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert. Special issue of The Scholar and Feminist Online guest edited by Mandy Van Deven and Julie Kubala 8, no. 2 (2010): 1-8. Accessed http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/ahmed_01.htm.

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Macharia, Keguro. “On Quitting.” The New Inquiry. May 3, 2013. Accessed http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/on-quitting/

8 comments
  1. Margrit said:

    Such great points, Erin! I have a post brewing on the ways in which professional critical thinkers (humanities academics, feminists, etc.) discipline and police each other by putting each other down. Your audience’s comments about the audacity of still having questions and anxieties after being lucky enough to get a TT-job is part of that work of disciplining and prevents, I think, both open conversation and genuine community, because it makes us think twice, thrice, and many more -ices about any public statement.

    • Yes, Margrit! Policing the open conversation (combined with not wanting to or being afraid to admit your disappointment, I think) is what makes many people feel such isolation after achieving success (not just after getting TT-jobs but after accomplishing many, many other difficult things in academia). It also sets up the false expectation of happiness to begin with.

  2. am I getting really old or is this font a bit small? Think about the eyes of your aged, computer-strained, 30-something audience, Faculty Orientations!

  3. I’ve thought about happiness a lot over the past few years, and it always seems like the more I’m thinking about it, the less I’m actually experiencing it. Once I think “This is lovely – I am feeling so happy!”, I’m focusing on the fact that I’m happy and not on the experience that brought that thought to mind. I also came across this recently, (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/478028-i-actually-attack-the-concept-of-happiness-the-idea-that) about the concept of wholeness vs. happiness.

  4. TW said:

    Another great post! I wonder myself if the words ‘happiness’ and ‘satisfaction’ are necessarily synonymous here – I have certainly felt ‘satisfied’ when I achieve success in my academic life (getting that grant, finishing that dissertation/article/chapter, then having it accepted by my peers), but was I necessarily ‘happy’? And was it temporal – are we speaking of fulfillment, a long-term feeling within us, or momentarily giddiness when that thing is achieved/successful, which soon passes as we fret about the next thing on our plates? Should we be experiencing a different kind of ‘happiness’ as intellectual elites? In my present (privileged but temporary) position, I feel ‘lucky’ and satisfied. For now. But my ‘happiness’ is connected less with my professional life now than with my personal one. I am satisfied with my job, and happy at home – but are these the same things?
    Sorry, I like questions:) Discuss!

  5. Chantal Richard said:

    Thought-provoking post Erin… on the one hand, I agree that we must stop and think about our choices though it is not always possible/realistic to do so. On the other hand, anyone who has been through some trauma in their life, be it illness, death of a loved one or other tragic events, will probably agree that happiness is when nothing bad is happening in your life. Sort of like good health – we don’t appreciate it until we get sick. This tends to be my view: if everyone I love is happy and healthy and things are going along as they should without any major obstacles, this is happiness to me. Are my expectations too low? Is my definition of happiness limited to the absence of unhappiness? Perhaps… though the occasional endorphine-filled joyful moment is welcomed, a quiet satisfaction with one’s accomplishments and the knowledge that my loved ones are safe and well is sometimes more than enough.

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