Imagine one day, an all-powerful genie appeared before your eyes with the ability to grant you three wishes. Think for a minute or two about what you would wish for – don’t limit yourself in any way. Done? Okay. Chances are that your three wishes fell into these categories: success (fame, power, respect), resources (money, time), or connection (family, friends, significant other). Indeed, research has shown that these three goals are highly valued by people from all walks of life, making it unsurprising that they probably also top your wish list. That being said, these studies also reveal another goal that seems to supersede these: happiness.

Intuitively, happiness ought to be the most important goal for everybody. After all, who would want to be rich, successful, and loved, but deeply unhappy? Yet surprisingly few wish for happiness in the “genie test”. The most common reason behind this is that people expect success, resources, or love to bring them happiness. Although this isn’t necessarily wrong, the logic is flawed: Why ask for eggs, flour, and sugar when you can just ask for the cake? Thus, it seems that despite a general consensus that happiness is the most valuable goal, we seem to devalue it. This “happiness paradox” has the very important ramification that one might unintentionally spend their days sacrificing happiness in favour of other more hubristic or material goals.

Photo credit: Austin Ban via Unsplash.

Balance Work & Play

Unhappiness, in the form of depression, seems to be especially prevalent amongst individuals in intellectually challenging careers. A 2015 study at UC Berkeley found that 37% of their MSc candidates and 47% of their PhD candidates were considered depressed, while a 2014 Guardian survey reported that 66-78% of respondents in academia experienced depression. In contrast, overall rates of depression in the general US population have been reported to be around 7%. These observations suggest that the academic population might be particularly susceptible to the phenomenon and repercussions of devaluing happiness. Accordingly, a shift in mindset from one that maximizes productivity and results to one that weighs them equally with happiness would be highly beneficial to academics. The great news is that improving one’s happiness also improves productivity. Studies have demonstrated that happier people (assessed via multiple measures, typically thoroughly validated surveys or stress hormone levels) are more creative, better leaders, and are more resilient to hardships. That is to say, while maximizing productivity may provide short-term successes (ex. having more data to cram into your committee meeting slides), maximizing happiness will serve you better in the long run with regard to holistic success (ex. your positive demeanor makes you stand out at a networking event, eventually landing you a job).


[H]appier people are more creative, better leaders, and are more resilient to hardships.”

Fortunately, there are many strategies one can employ to enhance day-to-day happiness. For one, simply realizing that we unintentionally devalue happiness can be actionable insofar as making decisions when productivity and happiness are at odds with one another. In addition to this, two more “happiness strategies” of particular relevance to academia are worth discussing: pursuing mastery over superiority and practicing self-compassion and gratitude.


Pursue Mastery Over Superiority

Comparing yourself to others is a natural (and sometimes useful) tendency, but it also can be incredibly harmful when it leads to the pursuit of superiority. Unfortunately, the current academic (and arguably social) infrastructure emphasizes superiority in its metrics. From a young age, academics have been socialized by the vices of comparison – from marks, to scholarships, to extracurriculars – which become deeply internalized and tethered to self-esteem. While the need to be “better” than others can be an initial impetus for change and hubristic pride does provide some happiness, it’s not a sustainable source. The problem lies within the fact that the benchmarks for one’s status relative to others are typically subjective, ambiguous, and taken without context. These benchmarks inevitably result in the perception of inferiority to your peers, which can translate into poorer self-esteem and lower happiness – commonly manifested as “imposter syndrome”. The need for superiority also undermines productivity – the self-imposed pressure of wanting to be better than others has been shown to make you less creative and more susceptible to insecurities. Thus, the pursuit of superiority leads to an arms race with one’s peers, all the while fostering insecurities that undermine creativity and happiness. This double-edged nature of superiority indicates that it is not a sustainable, long-term source of happiness.

Rather than superiority, one’s time is much better spent focusing on mastery. As it turns out, having mastery of something is a deep-seated need we all have. Mastery is most readily developed when we are challenged at a ‘sweet spot’ wherein our available abilities lie just below a goal’s required abilities. For example, a chess player would accrue skill most rapidly facing a player ranked just a bit higher than himself as opposed to a Grandmaster. Unlike the pursuit of superiority, the pursuit of mastery is inwards-focused, has clear benchmarks (your skill yesterday), takes into account context, and nurtures your productivity. Despite the fact that someone with greater ability will likely always exist, those who focus on mastery are still happy because they have improved relative to their past self. This mindfulness of one’s own unique strengths and weaknesses, coupled with goals and action plans for improvement, is a much more consistent and sustainable source of happiness than chasing superiority. Yet, this is easier said than done. Practicing self-compassion and gratitude are two excellent strategies one can use to help pave the road to mastery.

Photo credit: Luca Upper via Unsplash.
Photo credit: Luca Upper via Unsplash.


Practise Self-Compassion and Gratitude

Studies have shown that we are much more compassionate to the failures of others than to ourselves. Importantly, this means we make ourselves feel insecure, lowering our self-esteem and happiness, as well as making us susceptible to chasing superiority. As an example, think about how you would treat your friend if they were late to meeting you due to work. You’d probably console them, saying that it’s not a big deal and you understand things happen. Ultimately, they’re here now and safe – all that’s really important. Strangely enough, the story we tell ourselves when we are late is much different. We would tend to attribute our lateness to inherent deficiencies: we’re clumsy, have poor time management, we’re lazy, etc. Clearly, this type of story is severely detrimental to self-esteem. Thus, one strategy to improve self-compassion is to treat yourself like your friend; it’s important to realize that negative self-talk is not an effective motivator.

What happens in the opposite circumstances – when you work super effectively and arrive early? We tend to tell ourselves a rather hubristic story, one that suggests we have unique gifts and are better than others, and we take credit for all our success. This type of story is also dangerous as it strengthens our instinctive nature to pursue superiority. One effective strategy to mitigate this risk is to express gratitude to those who helped us be successful. Perhaps your experiment was expedited because the lab tech prepared the necessary reagents the day before. Or perhaps it was the support of your significant other, whose charm allowed you to push through an otherwise tough day. In expressing gratitude, we think of others as equals, directly alleviating notions of superiority. Moreover, several studies demonstrate that expressing gratitude strengthens social bonds, and as you might recall, connection is something people typically wish for from a genie. Thus pursuing mastery, being self-compassionate, and expressing gratitude form a strong triumvirate that ward off the dangers of superiority and acts as a healthy source of happiness.


[P]ursuing mastery, being self-compassionate, and expressing gratitude form a strong triumvirate that ward off the dangers of superiority”



A commonly touted rule of becoming a master is 10,000 hours; that’s about 20 hours of practice per week for a decade. Of all the things we’re interested in mastering – science, art, money, sports – shouldn’t we be a bit more concerned about mastering happiness? Clearly, we have several tendencies that seem to jeopardize our own happiness, from devaluing it, to adopting happiness strategies that are not sustainable. And as research indicates, happiness is functional. There are few ways you could as dramatically improve your work life, your relationships, and your own holistic self, as being happy can. Therefore, instead of—or perhaps in addition to—seeking mastery of all these various domains, we should seek to master another: the pursuit of happiness.


Many of the concepts in this article were adapted from Dr. Raj Raghunathan’s book “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?”. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I highly recommend reading his book.

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Spencer Zeng

Spencer is a M.Sc. student with the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto, where he also completed his undergraduate studies. Now at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, his research examines mechanisms by which leukemic cells subvert the immune response. Spencer enjoys weight training and struggling with badminton in his spare time.

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One thought on “The Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Thanks Spencer. Really nice piece. Are the rates of depression really that high in academia? I wouldn’t mind seeing the citation on that.

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