Few things were more daunting to me when I started my lab than the sheer number of surly, sarcastic and downright angry academics. Folks who never smiled, waved, were happy to see you or hear about something you were excited about. Instead of collegial discourse, there was a steady grumble of committees, responsibilities, discord about space or money or who did what to whom.

It was baffling to me. Why were these professors with so many bright and talented students, folks who had invitations to speak around the world, just so dang angry?

A decade or so later, I see the same people, grumbling about the same problems (or maybe they got new ones?), cornering people to share their gloom. They are just older, more miserable versions of themselves.

Stop here: If you are looking for the blog where someone tells you how to turn your colleague’s frown upside-down, I have no idea. I am a firm proponent of the idea that one takes their complaints up the ladder, not down. I don’t want to hear anyone senior to me complain. Ever. I don’t get paid enough. Students? Trainees? I’ve got an open door policy. Bring your woes! 

Because we are friends, I’m sharing my five-step process of finding joy and joyful people when your local pool of colleagues seems to be perpetually miserable.

  1. Is it better than you think? Check yourself. If you are leaving work feeling stressed out by unhappy colleagues, think hard about who is bringing you down. Your encounter with one or two miserable people may be making a lasting impact on you, but if that’s out of 100 encounters a day with other normal folks, it’s really not that bad. People who are empathetic are particularly attuned to internalizing the disasterification narrative of the angry academics. Not only is this miserable, it also leaves empaths more closed off to interactions with the 98 or 99 potentially positive people in the rest of their day. I can’t tell you not to be empathetic, but at least know if you are.
  2. Prepare your defenses. Boundaries are like chocolate. You can’t have enough. You smiling and saying hello to everyone may be normal for you, but to an angry academic, you may be the only person that still says hello (for good reason!).  Change it up and stop dropping any bread crumbs that look like you want to listen. If their office is by the elevator, take the stairs. If there are no stairs, jump out of a window. (Protip: I can’t parkour, but I have a pen and a notebook at the end of my desk and I stand up and leave if someone comes for an unwelcome visit).

How far away is the next building over? Maybe you should know to escape grumpy colleagues.

3)  Learn to run.  Honestly. See them coming down the hall? Smile and nod, but don’t stop moving. I was fortunate enough to have media training early on and know that you say a lot by continuing to walk. Stopping for anyone is an invitation to talk.

4)  Up your positive encounters.  Now that you’ve dumped a few hundred pounds of emotional vampire dead weight, it’s time to focus on the other 99 people you see a day who have the potential to make you love coming to work again. Plan time for you during the day. Talk a break with a walk to get some perspective. Invite normal people to lunch. Like, actual lunch. At a restaurant where they serve food. Update your lab posters, websites and business cards so people know who you are beyond your small corner of campus. Get more undergrads in the lab. They are hilarious and balls of enthusiasm. Do an online fundraiser for kids STEM and meet cool scientists online. Start a journal club with fun people you know, even if they are in different fields. Some of my best collaborators are chemists and physicists. They are weird AF, but they are kind and smart and we’ve come up with some super cool ideas I could never do on my own. Go. Find your tribe. 5. Recommit to not being a sourpuss. One of my BFF’s, Nicola Grissom, gave me a huggable sloth and an amazing book about being awesome that I keep by my desk. I would encourage you to write her and ask her to send you these things as well. After that fails, you can surround yourself with other great things that make you feel happy when you have to be in your office.

And here’s a last bit of advice: know when it’s time to throw in the towel. If boundaries aren’t working, your sanity and productivity is flagging and you’ve even next-leveled things to your boss, you may not have a problem with a person. You may have a problem with a culture. Maybe the culture of your little corner of academia is actually the culture of your university?

This is a big deal, as is your everyday happiness. Take them seriously.

Got some additional advice? Thoughts about taking on folks who are intent on being joy kills? I’ve got a whole section below called Comments for such things!

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