On being happy

What if you could engineer happiness? What if you could redesign your life so that you are happier? With professors in mind, Brian Martin wrote an essay entitled On being a happy academic with this very purpose. He outlines a few elements that you should take into account if you want to be happier.


This is the state of mind you reach when you apply your best skills. For example, when programming, I can literally forget about the rest of the world for a couple of hours. Programming makes me happy. I can also enter a state of flow while writing: I am never unhappy while blogging. Writing research papers is also enjoyable as long as the topic is neither routine nor beyond my grasp. I enjoy writing study notes, as long as I can challenge my students (and myself) a bit in the process.

Alas, part of my job also involves tasks which do not lead to the flow. They can make me unhappy. For example, a single administrative meeting can darken my mood for several days. But even good meetings fail to contribute to my happiness. In recent years, I have worked hard to avoid meetings, or to, at least, protect my mood from them. Politics is especially harmful to me: I work hard to stay out of it. It helps that I need very little from others, beside my salary. Even boring routine work such as grading assignments is better for me than internal politics. Everything I do is geared toward getting myself back in the flow as soon as possible.


A lot of happiness is derived from our social network. In this respect, I am lucky to have a great family with two kids I love. I have also pursued, over the years, research collaborations: without those relationships, I would not have remained so active as a researcher. I have also found blogging to be a great way to meet people without disrupting too much my ability to remain in the flow. I have very satisfying online relationships with people I rarely meet in person.

Helping others

Feeling useful is important. Sometimes I help others by reviewing papers: I can spend 10% of my time reviewing research papers. I try to share as much as possible: I post my software and study notes online. As an academic, however, I have found that it is sometimes difficult to “feel useful”. Almost by definition, much of what we do appears useless. And  it is!


If you are constantly “in the moment”, you may lack perspective. I have found that a great way to be more mindful is to stop working all the time.

What is not included: Do big research grants, papers in prestigious journals and prestigious positions make you happier? I have had both more and less prestigious positions, and, to me, it made no difference. In fact, in going from a puny graduate student to tenured professor, I saw no improvement in my happiness. My happiness was at its lowest while I was running a research group in Canada’s largest research institution (NRC). While I enjoy doing the research and writing articles, I have had the surprising realization that having an article accepted in a good journal could sometimes put me in a bad mood. Mostly, what makes me happy is when people use my work: I derive little pleasure from an article that nobody reads, even if it appeared in a prestigious journal.  Research grants are very prestigious but, in my experience, they contribute nothing to my happiness. And bigger grants are worse: they attract false collaborations and administrative work.

Note: Instead of blogging, I should be working on a grant application right now.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

8 thoughts on “On being happy”

  1. I’m a graduate student, and a big admirer of your blog. While reading this post, it occurred to me that reading and writing papers does not make me happy. Neither does reviewing papers seem fun. I enjoy doing research, which means coming up with a hypothesis, and finding an answer, but not writing it up, or discussing it.

    Is this stuff that you learned to like, or did you naturally like it right from the beginning of your career?

    P.S. : Apologies for the anonymous comment.

  2. Great blog post!

    This is well supported by research in Positive Psychology showing that we derive well being from (in order):

    1) meaningful life (contribution, purpose).

    2) A life of Engagement (flow, mindfulness).

    3) A pleasant life (relationships, minimum standard of living, helping others which also feeds 1).

    Looks like you’re very happy!


  3. Thanks for this excellent post. It closely parallels some interesting ideas from Dan Ariely’s book, The Upside of Irrationality, in which he presents evidence from behavioral economics that the joy we derive from our work is much more closely tied to the meaning we derive from it and usefulness to others than the prestige or monetary compensation we receive in exchange (assuming a baseline level is met).

    This may have some implications in the move toward open science as well, as its qualities are consistent with several of the things you note above. Meaning, embracing the ideals of open science will likely make one a happier researcher.

  4. Nice post, thanks. The link to `On being a happy academic` is broken, could you please fix it?

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