How the Science of Well-Being Can Enhance Your Career

I was wasting time on the internet, as one does, when I discovered an intriguing course at Yale University called PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life. Laurie Santos, a professor in the psychology department, teaches smart, motivated, high-achieving students who are living the dream of many as Yale students. But instead of being happy, they were stressed, anxious, grade-grubbing wrecks. And they needed help.

Santos realized that positive psychology research — the study of positive human functioning and flourishing — could help her students become happier, more productive and better equipped to make big career, life and financial decisions. PSYC 157 was born. And through the magic of the internet, anyone can take her class online: via Coursera, as The Science of Well-Being.

I also work with high-achieving students and postdocs trying to figure out what to do with their lives, many of whom are facing big decisions about their futures and nearly all of whom are some level of stressed and anxious. I also have a minor personal obsession with figuring out what science can tell us about how to live a happy, productive life. So, of course, I signed up for Santos’s course.

Positive psychology researchers focus on exactly that obsession of mine: what makes a good life. They aim to understand how the brain works, using a combination of psychology and neuroscience research methods, to give people tools to build better habits, make better decisions and make the world a better place.

And did I mention that positive psychologists believe we can do all that while making our lives richer in meaning and money? Sign me up.

Santos’s course leverages research by positive psychologists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me-high Cheek-SENT-me-high,” in case you’re wondering), Daniel Gilbert, Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky. She culls the best of their studies to help her students learn to make decisions and build habits that have the potential make them happier, more productive and better contributors to their families, communities, courses and careers.

My first assignment as a brand-new Yalie (of sorts) was to take the Virtues in Action, or VIA, character strengths test. Created by Seligman and the late Christopher Peterson, the VIA test asks you to answer 120 questions in 15 minutes to reveal what you’re good at and what defines your character. Its creators argue that the combination of strength and personal meaning that defines the test’s “signature strengths” results makes VIA a powerful tool for guiding career and personal development.

But when I went to create an account on the VIA site, a message popped up to tell me that I already had one. Wait, what? I’d done this before?

It turned out I had, many years ago when I was thinking about leaving my Ph.D. program to start a career outside the professoriate. I knew that the professorial path wasn’t leveraging my key strengths, even though I didn’t yet know quite how to articulate that feeling (mostly I just identified as anxious and unhappy as an academic), and I wanted to pursue a career that did. A grad school friend suggested the VIA test as a tool to figure out what I valued about work and what I’d be happy doing. She found VIA and other self-assessment tools helpful in her own career exploration, so much so that she was able to parlay her English Ph.D. into a dream career at Google. It seems that I had taken the test back then and then completely forgotten about it.

Rather than taking the test again, I decided to review my past results against my current life. I was curious to see if my VIA results had potentially influenced my career path, one that led to becoming a writer and program manager helping graduate-trained researchers find their own dream careers. Both paid me well and made me feel like my career was a calling, something I hadn’t anticipated when I embarked on it.

In The Science of Well-Being, Santos shares two key studies of the VIA test with her students. Both suggest intriguing possibilities for how my test results may have shaped my career development. In one, Shiri Lavy and Hadassah Littman-Ovadia demonstrated heightened productivity and job satisfaction in people whose jobs leveraged their signature strengths. Doing things that you’re good at and care about at work makes you happier, which in turn makes you better at your job.

In another, Claudia Harzer and Willibald Ruch used the VIA test to understand what makes a career seem like a calling or vocation rather than a job. They found that the more people use their signature strengths at work, the more they are able to see their job as a calling. And the more you feel that you have a vocation (rather than a slog of a job), the better you like your job and the better you are at it.

Both studies suggest that having a job that makes use of your signature strengths increases both happiness and success, for both studies also found that having a job that leverages your signature strengths leads to being better paid, too.

And isn’t that what most people want from work? And what many grad students and fellows fear giving up when they choose, or are forced by necessity, to pursue careers outside the professoriate?

With what I’d learned from Santos’s course in mind, I looked closely at my VIA results from when I first took the test. And I realized that I’d found (and crafted) a career that did exactly what positive psychology research said I should do if I wanted a job that I enjoyed, that helped me be productive and felt like a calling: I’d made a career that leveraged four of my top seven strengths. For me, those strengths are:

  • Love: valuing close reciprocal relationships with others. In my job, love looks like building relationships, mentoring, teamwork and lovingly guiding my students and fellows toward meaningful ways to put their own strengths to work.
  • Love of learning: mastering new skills, topics and bodies of knowledge. I feed my love of learning at work by researching, taking courses, attending conferences where I learn about the good work my colleagues are doing to support their own grad students and fellows, and absorbing how other parts of my organization function to help them and us do our jobs better.
  • Creativity: thinking of new and productive ways to understand and do things. Under this umbrella, we find responsibilities like problem solving, process improvement (a.k.a. taking the worst parts of my job and making them awesome in ways that benefit me and the people we serve), and program development. I love this part.
  • Curiosity: finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering. My Ph.D. is in English literature, but my students and fellows are all in the biomedical sciences. Part of my job is to exercise my insatiable curiosity about how research, supervision, publishing and career transition work in a completely different field, and then use those insights to make things better for my students and fellows (and readers like you).

Even though I’d forgotten I’d taken the VIA test, I’m convinced that what it told me about myself had an impact on my career exploration. I moved out of my Ph.D. into a career path that is defined by love — helping other graduate students figure out how to be happy in their careers and lives, even if those look different from what they expected when they started their Ph.D.s.

I also found ways in my day job, and in my freelance writing, to embed opportunities to exercise creativity, love of learning and curiosity. The result has been happiness, productivity and career success. I can only see it getting better from here.

So job seeker, know thyself. You can do that through taking the VIA survey. Or through journaling. Or via another self-assessment like StrengthsFinder, or the exercises in So What Are You Going to Do With That?, or the assignments in Laurie Santos’s online course. You can’t start figuring out which jobs have the possibility to become your new vocation until you first figure out yourself and your signature strengths.

And once you’ve done that, it can’t hurt to explore other ways that the science of well-being can help lead you toward your happiest, most productive career — in the professoriate or out.