2.4 The Search for Happiness

Life and experience of each of us can be so diverse that is often difficult, if not impossible, to describe them in general terms. It is only by drastic simplifications that we can describe general reasons and motivations for important choices, such as that of choosing to pursue a university degree, choosing a new job, or moving to a new town or country. Rational motivations are often present, but can be also biased by less  fathomable aspects. Important choices are often influenced by a complex web  of personal experiences and factors. Unconscious feelings, hidden aspirations, subtle external pressures, our family, moods and one’s temperament all act as driving forces in deep, unsuspected ways.

Despite such an intricate picture, an important principle that can be found often and drives the choices of many is the search of happiness. We apply this principle nearly every time we make a choice, from the small choices of everyday to the big important  steps in our life. What wine should I buy for tonight dinner? Will a certain red wine meet with the taste of my guests and therefore satisfy my need of appreciation? If I make the right choice, my guests will be pleased and in turn I will feel happy by the end of the evening.  On a grander scale this happens for more important choices.  Will I be happy if I move far away from my home-town to take a job or study at university? Will I still have the chance of being happy by making new friends and inviting  them for dinner? Or will I be happy in different ways by pursuing and studying the subjects of my interests? Will I be happier if I stay here where I have already all I need?

When we think of starting a PhD, a many-year project that will drastically change our lives, are we considering only aspects such as the topic of our study, the salary, the facilities at university? Or do we interrogate ourselves on deeper questions  such as that of whether our choice would make us happy? Very likely, a well-pondered choice is based  on general issues related our general mood and happiness more than a number of details. When choosing to start a PhD, in many cases it is because we think that, with respect to other options, that is what we feel will make us happy. I asked the question to my friend T, whose story was told in a previous section. I asked what were the aspects he had considered when he was choosing between a PhD position in Lausanne, and a research job in industry in the Netherlands. Was it about career prospects? Money? The country where he would have preferred to live? The type of job? He said that he considered all the aspects I mentioned, but in the end, he confessed, he chose what he felt  would make him happier. Another person at his place might have made the opposite choice for exactly the same reason, for the way with perceive happiness is different for each of us.

Here one could ask if happiness could  not be more easily achieved by other means than doing a PhD. For example one could imagine that a happier life would be associated with jobs that pay more money, or that allow one to have long holidays in beautiful destinations, or jobs where one meets successful men and women, or travels much, or again where one is respected for covering an important position. Those jobs could be certainly appealing, but happiness is not always achieved with precisely the same means by everyone. Indeed many different jobs, even simple ones, have appealing sides, and thanks to the diversity in taste and inclinations, young people can pursue happiness along very different paths. Doing a PhD, despite some drawbacks, could represent for some a way to happiness just as much for others could be to posses money or driving an expensive car. Appealing aspects could be the challenges felt in  being appointed a position where the main task is contributing to human knowledge in some original way. A researcher strives to discover new things, wants to use his or her skills and intelligence to assert ideas, believes, personality. A researcher can see oneself as an artist, as a creative mind, as an independent thinker and free mind, as a member of an advanced scientific community. A researcher could draw pleasure from reading and discovering new concepts, from understanding how certain things work, from discussing and brainstorming with people with similar interests. All those ideals commonly associated with academia could be appealing beacons to attract people in their search for happiness

If the choice to start a PhD is then driven by evasive reasons such as the search for happiness, how can we hope to draw a general principle that capture the essence of such an important choice? The answer is perhaps that there is no essence or general principle, but rather there are many situations, many stories that constitute small pieces of a greatest puzzle. Each story is an interesting human story, and each contributes to unveil facts and contingencies. It is worthy sometimes to leave a descriptive, general approach and delve instead into particular stories and cases, to ask our friends and be amused by how differently everyone thinks or acts for their own happiness. The example I know best, and the one I can more carefully report here, is that of my own choice.


2.5 A vicious cycle

From the transcript of my undergraduate studies, anyone would have guessed I was a mediocre student. My marks were in the average. After three years of studies, I lagged considerably behind the schedule with my study programme.
Despite all that, I never considered myself dull. On the contrary, I liked to think I was quick in grasping concepts. I often found myself catching the meaning of the lecturer’s words with ease. I enjoyed attending many lectures: understanding new concepts and ideas made me feel elated. Classes were very large, with hundreds of students. Occasionally I would sit in the rear of the room, among the less interested part of the audience, sharing their boredom and dejection. Other times instead, I would advance to the first rows, and stuck around the small group of outstanding students, those handful over hundreds, admired and even feared by the others for their unmatched brightness and and unforgiving sharpness. I liked to be among them. They were terribly enthusiastic about everything, and used to discuss all topics at length in the corridors, at pubs, anywhere. They were indefatigable workers. Boredom never touched them. They were simply exuberant. They saw opportunities everywhere. They discussed the power of ideas or how to start a company. By hanging around them, intellectual challenges presented continuously. Their exuberance was contagious, and I shared their enthusiasm.

Yet, exuberance is not all. When facing an exam sheet, more than enthusiasm and intuition, discipline is what makes the difference. The discipline to prepare myself thoroughly on the subject is what I had still to learn. On the exam day, those topics I had not studied would reveal the gaps in my preparation. Insecurity would creep in. Knowing A and B to perfection did not make up for not having considered C. Yet, even with some gaps in the preparation, one can handle and pass exams. What I needed was more trust in the system. I had to learn the power of devotion and discipline to excel in all respects.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, things started to unravel in the wrong way, and before I knew, my university performance was going downhill. As I came to know how exams where conducted, I got terribly disappointed. The procedures during examinations were extremely arbitrary, and marks had a tremendous variation according to chance. A top mark in a written exam, for example, had to be confirmed by an oral colloquium. But if the professor was busy, an ill-disposed assistant, never seen before and never to be seen again, would make his appearance and turn down top marks into fail or low marks. It happened to many of my classmates, and it happened to me too. And it happened more than once. These aleatory procedures were indeed against the official academic regulations, according to which oral examinations had to be carried out by three members of the staff. But those regulations were never put in place. Students had no tools to complain, except that of retaking the exam at a later date. The more determined and stubborn students would indeed often retake exams to compensate ill fortune. But not all had the guts and determination. The struggle against chance soon started to have an impact on me, especially on a subtle unconscious level. Rationally I knew that perseverance and constant effort would prevail, that one bad mark could be fixed by other good ones. I knew that in the end the good student prevail over chance. But the repeating of unfortunate blows, inaccuracies, petty disputes over marks, and the contemptuous attitude of professors progressively undermined my trust in the system. Although I recognised that doubled effort and determination would take me through, a listless attitude and demotivation started pervading my days. My effort would double, but my belief in the effort would halve. My enthusiasm was faltering. In addition to that, as my marks got lower, lectures, who would frequently enquire students on their average marks, would appear more and more unreachable. I often felt being treated with lack of respect, or being dismissed because of my marks.

My exuberant friends of the first years had successfully applied for scholarships abroad, and left. I started devoting myself more and more unwillingly to my studies. I struggled on my books. No matter how much I studied, my mind was unfocused. I drifted away continuously. I did not believe anymore in the educational function of the university. I didn’t believe I was leading anywhere. My effort was now aiming at gaining the degree, the piece of paper. My marks got worse, my dreams of excellence were far gone, far as those brilliant students who went away. I had entered a vicious circle.

In that period, not all was gloomy and sad. When I had no faith in the university, I cultivated a number of other interests. I started playing guitar and improved very quickly. I even made new friends among professional musicians, spent hours in recording studios. I took up the hobby of photography. I read a lot, and wrote poems which I would share with equally minded young “artists”. Without being fully aware, my desire for success and appreciation was causing a change in my interests that shifted further and further from my university courses. Whereas university would give me a feeling of inadequacy and oppression, my hobbies gave me satisfaction.

Yet, my attempts to find an escape in hobbies were risky. I was not a professional musician, nor a photographer or a poet. Those fields take years of dedication. I was simply a student who, as many other classmates back then, had been demoralised and inhibited. My university education had become a battle. Me against the power of lecturers and what I convinced myself was a hideous system. Perhaps I shared some responsibility in this, but I now know that those academics who treat students with scorn, or express careless judgements with disdain and derision, fail miserably in their educational task. Whilst their task is to stimulate the intelligence and desire of knowledge of all students, they instil insecurity and dislike for their subjects. They cause remarkable damage to the lives of their students by dismantling their self-esteem, choking their enthusiasm, and seriously compromising their chances of success. I was surely meant to be one of those unfulfilled personalities, an enthusiastic teenager turned into a despondent, languid adult. But something very lucky and unexpected happened to me. Something that saved me from a mediocre future, and drastically changed my life.