In preparing to write this edition of Notes from the Field, I was given the opportunity to reflect on my life and my career as I considered the joys and challenges I face. At first, I thought of my professional life where, like many other university faculty, I often find I don’t have enough time in a day to do all that I need to do. Better yet, I often find myself walking a certain tension between the things I have to do and the things I want to do, which are not always in alignment. Like most jobs, mine is not without elements that I would prefer not to do such as writing accreditation reports, responding to countless emails, or going to meetings that I’m not particularly interested in attending. I generally find myself thinking, “I wish I was working on what I’m passionate about,” but the reality is that I have to attend to those less desirable tasks to do my job well and be a constructive member of the university community. Unfortunately, I found myself doing more of the less desirable tasks than the ones I wanted to do such as working with students, researching, writing, and advocating for an improved K-12 educational system.
Then I found myself looking into my core, thinking about why I decided to pursue a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction. I had been a relatively successful teacher with a tenured job in a school where I loved the diverse population of students I worked with – and I mean diverse in every way (racially, ethnically, linguistically, socioeconomically, etc.). While I love what I am doing now as a teacher educator and scholar, I thought about why I decided to leave that all behind. For answers, I unexpectedly turned to the admissions essay I wrote when applying to the University of Denver C&I program almost 13 years ago. In it I wrote:
In obtaining a PhD from the University of Denver I fully intend to affect change. It is my deepest desire to improve student success and help advance all, but specifically urban environments, by working with individual schools, districts, and with state and national level policymakers. I intend to utilize qualitative and quantitative research to further the accomplishments of all schools across the United States. Concurrently, I seek to empower teachers by providing them with a voice in this endeavor, encouraging them to become a part of the conversation instead of being given solutions. It is also my ambition to affect change through teacher candidates by teaching at a university. In engaging myself in a myriad of pursuits, I wish for nothing less than changing the landscape of education in the United States.
I was struck by the ambition in my younger self and even further struck by the fact that I still feel that way 13 years later. In fact, making schools better for our kids, our teachers, our communities, and our country still gets me out of bed in the morning. We all need a sense of purpose in our lives. So many of us find it in our careers, which I believe is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the sense that it drives me, gives me reason to work harder, and makes me feel as though what I do matters. I have found that the majority of educators are there because they want to do something that has impact, that will make the world a better place, even if in, at times, seemingly small ways.
However, there is a cost that can come with being so single-mindedly driven professionally. We can lose a sense of balance with other aspects of our lives. It can cause us to forget to call a good friend or to spend more time with our families, and maybe most concerningly, to take care of ourselves. To achieve a sense of inner peace and happiness, we must have a sense of balance in our lives that cannot be attained by working 15 hours per day, answering emails on our phones until we go to bed, or ceaselessly thinking about what we need to do at work tomorrow.
This new reality has had some startling effects. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one third of workers in the US have chronic work-related stress (2013). More specific to education, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and advocacy group Badass Teachers (BAT) surveyed of over 5,000 teachers finding that two-thirds of educators find their jobs stressful (2017). A 2014 National Education Association (NEA) poll found that nearly half of the teaching force was considering leaving the profession due to stressors outside of their immediate control. Further, we are currently facing the worst mental health crisis America has ever seen. The Centers for Disease Control report that suicide rates are at an all-time high while a recent report commissioned by Blue Cross Blue Shield found that depression rates are rising dramatically. What this data suggests is that we have to get serious about balance in our lives, but what does that look like?
A Student of Happiness
Without getting overly personal, about a year ago I came to the realization that I was incredibly stressed and deeply unhappy with how my life was going. Despite pursuing my professional purpose and experiencing some level of success, I just wasn’t happy. I was tired, anxious, and felt like I always had something hanging over my head that I had to do. Worse yet, I felt like I wasn’t really present with my wife and two kids, I had lost touch with several good friends, and I treated family obligations like a chore. I saw my life as a big “To Do” list and finally came to the conclusion that this was just not tenable or acceptable. After one particular moment of overwhelming anxiety and unhappiness, I decided to make finding balance a priority.
I dove into everything I could find on happiness, inner peace, mindfulness, and balance. I listened to audiobooks on the way to work, podcasts while I worked out, read articles at night, began following blogs on the subject, and even joined some social media communities related to these ideas. Currently, I’m even taking an online course on the science of happiness. I’ve become an avid meditator and can say after all of this, I feel completely different. I have become a student of happiness, seeking how to maintain my drive and passion for what I do professionally with a healthy, happy personal life. While I most certainly do not have it all figured out, I would like to share some of what I have learned here.
An APA report (2016) highlights research-based strategies for finding better balance in life which I have learned and applied in my own life:
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is about being aware of our thoughts and in the present moment. This includes finding time to meditate at least 10 minutes every day. You could use a guided meditation app on your phone, borrow a guided meditation CD from the library, or play one on YouTube. Taking this time to pay attention to our thoughts and to just be has proven one of the few ways we can train our brains to be present, in the moment, where life really happens. By spending our time worrying about tomorrow, we squander today and, in the process, stress ourselves out.
- Make happiness a priority: It is so easy to get caught up on our day-to-day responsibilities or our endless “To Do” lists and to forget that we want to be happy. It’s important to note that being happy doesn’t mean that we are constantly laughing and smiling like some drunken hyena, it means that we feel peace, contentment, alive, and in the moment. Happiness is also not the fleeting moments of joy we feel when something outside of ourselves happens, a feeling that invariably passes. Happiness doesn’t just happen, it isn’t something we are born with, it’s something we work for. Making that a priority is critical to achieving it and being freed from the whims of good and bad things that happen to us, outside of our own control, that often determine our moods.
- Move: There is increasing empirical proof that the health of our mind and our body are connected. If you can exercise to the point of being out of breath three times per week for 30 minutes per session, you are doing what is optimal for your physical and mental health. If that’s too much, take a walk. Just moving has shown to reduce anxiety, improve depressive symptoms, and improve cognition.
- Remind Yourself of Your Professional Purpose: No one is advocating for placing no meaning in one’s work. After all, we want balance. Doing work that we find meaningful has shown to greatly improve our moods and gives us a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Journaling or simply writing down periodically why we do what we do is a great way to remind us of our bigger purpose beyond the loaded, unanswered inbox of emails we are dreading.
- Connect with People: Seeking support from and fostering relationships with others (professionally and personally) has been found to be critical to well-being. Those relationships can also serve to give us a sense of purpose while helping us reduce stress and experience enjoyment.
- Use Positive Psychology: Positive psychology might well have at its philosophical core the notion that as one thinks, so shall s/he be. Using mindfulness, we become aware of our thoughts and rather than trying to fool ourselves into thinking we’re happy about something when we are not, we seek out aspects that are positive. This approach, while certainly not easy to implement at first, has been found to boost resilience and a greater sense of well-being. In short, if we think about what makes us angry, we are going to be angry. If we think about things that make us happy, we are likely to be happy.
- Get Outside: Fellow DU C&I alum Christy McConnell might fall out of her chair when she reads this because I once said we should pour cement over grass, but being outdoors has proven to improve mood, cognition, attention, and a sense of well-being. I have personally felt the effects of this as I have embraced being in nature. I might not be a backwoods camper, but I love to take a walk in the park or sit by a beautiful pond; it does for me what the research says it will. I’m happier, more attentive to others, and healthier.
- Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself: Negative self-talk is a part of how our brains are wired so it’s important to be cognizant of that fact and to challenge negative self-talk. It’s important to take stock of all that you do that is good, recognizing that just being, is enough. Writing positives down periodically in a gratitude journal can be a great way to remind yourself that you are important, valued, and loved. This practice has shown to greatly improve mood, reduce stress, and foster a deeper sense of contentment.
Now Go Do it
Whether you are a graduate student, a DU alum, a faculty member, or you just happened to stumble across this article, you have a choice to make. You can put this article down and say, “Oh, that’s nice” or you can act. The ideas I’ve shared are not mine and to be honest, none of them were all that novel to me. I’ve heard it for years: “Happiness is a choice,” or “You’re as happy as you decide to be,” or some other such well-meaning witticism. However, if you really want to achieve your professional purpose, if you really want to feel a deep sense of contentment in your life (and why wouldn’t you?), you have to decide to act. Pick one strategy from that list and start there. Do it for a day, then maybe a couple days, then a week. Before you know it, it will become part of your daily life. You are retraining your brain to select a happier lifestyle where you can enjoy the day-to-day moments of your life and be far less stressed about the 122 emails you have to respond to. None of this is rocket science, but it’s up to you to act. Now go do it!
American Federation of Teachers and Badass Teachers (2017). 2017 educator quality of work life survey. Washington, DC.
American Psychological Association (2016). Research-based strategies for better balance. Monitor on Psychology, 47(7), 45.
American Psychological Association. (2013b). 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey. Retrieved from http://www.apaexcellence.org/assets/general/2013-work-and-wellbeing-survey-results.pdf
Blue Cross Blue Shield (2018). Major depression: The impact on overall health. Washington, DC.