Three steps for scientists in the pursuit of happiness

It’s the beginning of a new year and a great time to set new life and career goals. Although we all have different goals in life, the number one goal for everybody should be the same: to be happy. It might sound trivial, but if you think more about it, it’s not. Do you like your job? Are you happy with your research topic? Are you having fun with your lab mates and colleagues? Do you like where you live?

Nathalie Oulhen in her lab (Photo for illustrative purposes. Always wear closed-toed shoes and proper attire in the lab.)

For me, happiness is freedom—from standards, ideals, and fear of the future. The last few months of 2017 were stormy for me, and I had some big choices to make. For this reason, at the 2017 ASCB|EMBO meeting I talked with Career Coach Rita Friedman about how to face work issues. I asked Rita what she thinks scientists struggle with the most. In her perspective, for scientists happiness is linked primarily to their work environment and culture, including the level of independence, and the creative opportunities that come with a project. “I know many scientists who put in long working hours, but I don’t usually see scientists who feel frustrated by the number of hours they’re working,” Rita says. “More likely, a recent grad might feel constrained by having finally finished school only to find herself being told she doesn’t have enough training to get the job she wants, a postdoc might be undervalued and underutilized by his PI, an academic can have trouble navigating a politicized and competitive tenure track, or a well-established scientist may feel limited by the number of opportunities in her location.”

A great example of a scientist with a happy life and a successful career is Nathalie Oulhen, an assistant professor at Brown University. Nathalie is the happiest scientist I have ever met, and she has always been for me a model of how scientists can publish really well while being contagiously happy in the lab. I asked her advice to understand her key to happiness. “For me, happiness is friendships, adventures, and challenges. I like to meet people with different interests, different opinions, people who come from different countries,” Nathalie says. “I’m a happy scientist and a happy person, but it doesn’t mean that my life is always perfect; it only means that I don’t let my problems control my life.” I have always imagined life as a big fresco of some kind of epic scene. If you stand too close you can see all the little details, and probably lots of errors. But take some steps back, and look at the whole view: You can see the harmony of the scene, and soon all the small details become invisible. Nathalie agrees with me that sometimes we tend to overthink our problems (looking at the small details), instead of focusing on the good parts of our life (the harmony of the whole scene). As Nathalie says: “We should always ask ourselves: Will this problem still matter in one year? Or in the near future? Will it affect my life? And the answer will probably be NO in most of the cases.”

After my talks with Rita and Nathalie, I share here my top three steps toward happiness.

Step 1. Realize that happiness starts when you choose to be happy. Happiness doesn’t grow on trees. I started to be happy when I decided I wanted to. Improving your happiness in your everyday life involves commitment and good planning. Do you feel overwhelmed by too many problems? Do work issues cloud your happiness? Rita suggests making a list of actionable steps to address your concerns. “If you feel isolated in your work, maybe you don’t actually need to pack up and move. Maybe you want to find professional associations to join or conferences to attend where you can connect with other people in a meaningful way,” Rita says. “If you are not getting the results you were expecting in your research, maybe you want to take a woodshop or painting class totally unrelated to work where your efforts will lead to a finished product. If you are bored at work, maybe you can ask a colleague in a different department if you can help with a project that would be a new type of challenge for you. As you try new things, take stock of what worked out and what didn’t, and plan your next steps to keep improving your happiness.”

Step 2. Accept that happiness is when you do what you’re good at, not what you’re supposed to do. Happiness is freedom—, particularly from our social and mental constraints. There’s a constant battle between what we are supposed to be because the society we live in tells us it is right, and what actually matters for us. This duality forces us to make choices based on goals that are set by others, not by us. Everybody has different ambitions. Unhappiness comes when your choices are based on the prestige or the power you might get from a certain job position—because you think people around you will respect you more—instead of taking into account your passions, the scientific environment, or the job location. When making a professional choice, ask yourself this non-trivial question: “Will this choice make me happy?” Nathalie’s advice is to “never settle for a job or a hobby that doesn’t make you truly happy. The world is full of great opportunities and fun things to do.”

Step 3. Remember that happiness is also when you feel accomplished. Find hobbies that fulfill your life outside the lab and make you feel like you have accomplished something, even when that cloning didn’t work again! Don’t know how to start a new hobby? “I sometimes find hobbies by reading my emails or looking on the Internet, and I just register and go for it,” says Nathalie. “For example, in 2017, my hobbies were mostly Taekwondo and art.” For Nathalie, one of her hobbies has turned into another career. “One of my friends is a children’s book illustrator, so I decided to take the children’s book writing class at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) to write scientific bedtime stories that my friend could then illustrate.,” Nathalie says. “I work on sea urchin development in the lab, and I wrote a children’s book about a sea urchin and a sea star. I have ideas to write more stories about other animals, and the goal is to teach real scientific facts to little kids through a fun bedtime story.” Nathalie is now working on a book that will be published soon.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of dedicating some of your daytime hours to your hobbies, instead of pipetting. A new hobby can also inspire you in your everyday lab life and make you a better scientist. “At Taekwondo, I’m learning how to kick but I am also learning self-control and confidence,” Nathalie says. “My classes at RISD are teaching me how to become an artist but they are also indirectly helping me improve my communication and presentation skills for scientific conferences.”

Final reminders

Another important reason why I think we need to work on developing our own happiness is that our mood strongly affects our everyday life—and the lives of the ones we spend time with. As Nathalie says, “I love to see people happy, and I do my best to help them stay happy. Everyone is dealing with problems at some point in their lives, and helping people to be happier makes me happy. I do my best to be kind and helpful to everyone. If I can help someone and make their life easier, it makes me happy.” Do not neglect your own happiness, because being happy improves your life as a human being and your career as a scientist, and, even if it is not immediately apparent, it also has a huge impact on the people around you. If something bothers you, if you are an unhappy scientist, now it’s time to act! What are you waiting for?

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Margherita Perillo is a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, where she studies germline stem cells in development using primarily the seastar as model system. Previously she was a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College where she studied nuclear positioning at the neuromuscular and myotendinous junctions. She earned her PhD from the Open University of London working at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Napoli, where she studied cell-type evolution. Email:; twitter: @Marghe_Perillo