And the Pursuit of Happiness

There are currently two significant, measurable side effects of my recent trip to Venice, Italy[1]: A pursuit of preparing cafe/espresso here that tastes like what I made in our AirBnB[2] and an exploration of why it was easier to be happy in Venice than it is here in North Carolina. And while Venice is a beautiful city that promotes feelings of well being — it’s nickname La Serenissima was produced in an era before PR firms generated such titles ad nauseam — happiness is not a place-based phenomenon. Happy people can be happy anywhere and it is partially driven by choice.[3]

I was partially predisposed towards this reflection after reading Frederico Viticci’s “Second Life: Rethinking Myself Through Exercise, Mindfulness, and Gratitude” in MacStories[4], which came out while I was in Venice. I was struck by the parallels between the malaise I recognized in some parts of my life and how his thoughtful approach to technology, which mixed stepping back from some parts of it[5] and embracing others — like activity monitoring[6], was making a difference for him.

This morning, one of the articles recommended by Apple News was Adam Sternbergh’s  “Here is Your Cheat Sheet to Happiness” in The New York Magazine/The Cut, which detailed Yale Professor Laurie Santos’ class on Happiness and Well Being. One of the big takeaways from the article is that we choose our state of happiness and that we can make better choices.

I am no paragon of virtue in this arena. Both Santos’ and Viticci’s work points out many things that I am clearly and demonstrably doing wrong.[7] I won’t bore you with those details here. Suffice it to say that, like many Americans, I have become addicted to the perceived prestige that being busy confers and that I need to reassess how I approach this part of my life.

What I do what to consider here, however, is that these articles have implications for how we value one another in the workplace. As the current Chair of the Faculty Handbook Committee at Johnson C. Smith University, one of my jobs is to shepherd faculty evaluation proposals through a part of the adoption process. It strikes me that one of the engines of our need to appear busy is that evaluation policies put a premium on being busy by requiring us to document our work. There is some truth to the statement that you can only assess what you can measure, but that statement taken alone cuts out the costs of such a world view. What you assess is driven by a value judgement. We assess things we consider important so we can improve them.

One of the truisms of a university faculty, however, is that morale is in need of improvement. Dr. Jerry McGee, then President of Wingate University, once joked in a Faculty Meeting that faculty morale was always at one of two levels: Bad and the Worst it has ever been. Articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed on this topic appearregularly, alternating between hand wringing over the problem and offering examples of how one campus or another has tried to tackle the issue.

What I don’t recall in any of those articles is the explicit statement that our systems for evaluating faculty might be the things that are manufacturing poor morale.

Of course, this issue is not unique to higher education. All recent discussions of the national problem of K-12 teachers leaving their classrooms in droves indicate that such systems, imposed by state legislatures, are the leading cause of this wave of departures.[8] There are indications that it is also true in other fields, although I do not follow those closely.

I suspect that one of my self-imposed jobs over the coming year or two will be to look at how our evaluation system is actively manufacturing unhappiness and trying to figure out how to change that. It is true that we have been working (painfully) to revise our system over the last few years but that attempt has focused on productivity maximizing individual faculty potential by allowing them to specialize on areas of interest and talent. My areas of greatest strength, for example, are not in the classroom. I am not a bad classroom teacher but my greatest strengths lie in other parts of what it means to be a professor. We have been working on systems that would allow me to focus my time and evaluation more on those areas than on others.

Our work has focused on the happiness/morale question as an effect of our systems. That puts it in a secondary role, which will result in it not being the primary thing assessed. That means faculty morale will always be a secondary issue — one that will be less likely to be addressed than how easy it is for a given member of the faculty to produce a peer reviewed article or serve on a committee.

But with better morale, faculty teach better, write better articles, and are more likely to be productive in meetings and elsewhere. That suggests the morale question should be in the causal role rather than being considered as an effect of other causes.

This requires us to rethink the way we assess and value the time being spent by faculty. I would love to tell you that I have it figured out but these are early days in my thinking about this. I do know that simplistic responses like “Tech is bad and wastes time and produces poor results” because technology can save us time — the most valuable of commodities. We will have to be eschewed for more nuanced responses, like the one detailed by Viticci in his article, and that the nuance must be applied across the board. This means that the numbers generated in our assessments must become secondary to the non-reductive analysis of those numbers.

[1] Don’t hate me because my wife worked hard to design and provide for this trip. Yoda’s advice that Hate leads to the Dark Side applies strongly to this post. If you give in to hate, you are reinforcing your own unhappiness.

[2] So far, I haven’t managed it. In Italy, I was using a gas stovetop, which easily produces the correct level of heat for a stove top Moka by matching the size of the flame to the bottom of the Moka. I suspect the electric stovetop I have here produces too much heat, leading to a different flavor — an almost bunt taste. Experimentation continues.

[3] Michael Crichton writes about this in his autobiographical work Travels.

[4] This may be behind a pay wall. I’m a MacStories member. Apologies to those who cannot access it.

[5] Controlling social media, rather than letting social media control you, is a big theme here. It reminded me that I need to invest some time with Twitter’s lists feature to set some filters to help sort through the kind of thing I am looking for at times.

[6] I have been doing some of this and have noticed over the past year that I am happier those days I am consistently completing my move rings than I am those I am not.

[7] The good news is that both point to ways I can fix that and that those decisions are completely under my control.

[8] Despite the requests for respect, legislators — like many trustees and administrators — interpret these concerns and complaints exclusively in terms of pay. Yes, pay can be improved but reading the statements of teachers clearly indicates that the primary issue isn’t the pay. It is the burden of an evaluation system that does not value them.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at