by Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries
Student mental health is frequently found at or near the top of any list of the higher education’s most pressing problems. One way in which colleges and universities are responding is to allocate more resources to provide support and counseling services to better assist students experiencing significant stress, anxiety or a mental health crisis.
It is a step in the right direction, even if critics will claim it is a case of not enough. A small number of institutions are taking an additional and unique, though somewhat controversial, approach. These colleges and universities are developing courses and programs to help students learn to thrive under whatever stressful conditions life may present. Some are described as “happiness” courses, though they tend to focus on teaching students skills, mindsets and behavioral changes that will allow them to better cope with challenges such as peer pressure, course workloads and social media distractions. Other institutions are offering “no tech” and “live like a monk” courses to address technology addiction, a source of student stress and anxiety.
Critics will question if such courses are of real value to students. For students struggling with an existing mental health condition or crisis, they are not intended as a therapeutic intervention. For students dealing with everyday stress, learning coping mechanisms and gaining strategies for finding meaning can potentially help them avoid day-to-day mental health challenges. Despite the questions and critiques, if enrollment data is an indicator, these courses and programs resonate with students. Some might say they are immensely popular. By providing coping mechanisms and a mindset better geared to finding joy and meaning in everyday events, research shows students are less affected by stress and anxiety.
Library workers could benefit in similar ways. The delivery of library services positively impacts the lives of those who directly receive them, as well as indirectly when citizens choose to engage with their academic or community library. It can enable entire communities to achieve a higher quality of life. Library workers can accrue tangible and intangible mental health benefits when they provide service to their communities. I wrote about it in this Library Journal article. But the message I sought to share is often muffled by a much louder one.
My observation is that as a workforce, we tend to focus more on what’s problematic about library work and why it’s an unsatisfying experience. Library blogs and social media accounts that focus on occupational unhappiness attract a sizeable audience. You might say our profession’s current preoccupation is with the library as a low-morale workplace. For the segment of our profession that is experiencing low morale, the research and workshops on that topic can provide a source of affirmation, support and coping strategies. This trend should encourage administrators and co-workers to question their workplace behaviors in order to adopt morale-building practices. How might library workers at all levels of the organization benefit from what higher education is learning and experiencing from its delivery of happiness courses to its students?
I’ve certainly encountered my share of supervisors who were less than kind or downright difficult and unsupportive, along with the occasional co-worker who could suck the joy out of any workday. As a supervisor, I am fortunate to have worked with many incredibly talented, resourceful, smart, and devoted colleagues. Thankfully, those who were less of a joy to work with were few and far between. That said, I’m sure there were more than a few days when I was hardly a source of joy for my colleagues. “Joy” is the operative word here.
What I learned in researching my Library Journal article, is that happiness rarely comes from the sources we typically expect, such as big salaries, beyond a certain level, that enable us to increase our belongings. For one thing, experiences are far more impactful and lasting as sources of joy than material objects. It is rarely any one big thing we buy or experience that delivers long-term happiness. Rather, it’s more significant to accumulate daily, small joys that add up to greater feelings of satisfaction over time. Read the article to learn more about this and why I believe that our libraries can be a source of small joys for ourselves and our communities. I certainly understand that some readers might dismiss this perspective as a form of toxic positivity or dismissive of the circumstances or situations that leave them dreading work each day.
In this column I applied similar principles to suggest that librarians, academic in particular, can find joy in their work. That’s why I was pleased to see this recent ACRLog post on the subject of joy. “Joy is at the Heart of All Meaningful Work: Finding Meaning in Academic Librarianship” authored by Justin Fuhr, speaks to those activities and moments in which academic librarians can find joy and meaning in their work. He advises us to, “Take time to identify areas of your work that bring you joy; get as much as you can out of these moments.” That certainly does speak to the accumulation of the small joys to be found in library work.
Another source of joy for library workers is the relationships we develop with our colleagues and the people with whom we routinely engage. Fuhr writes that, “For me, it’s about connections, supporting our library staff, faculty, and students, and making those dents in the world, making a difference. That brings me joy in academic librarianship, and along with it, meaningful work. Find those moments of joy, revel in them, and bring them to life intentionally throughout your work.” That suggestion certainly resonates with me and I shared similar ideas for academic librarians, although somewhat dated now, in this piece (downloadable version here).
I encourage librarians, academic or otherwise, to read Justin Fuhr’s post, and think about the value of finding small joys in their work. To be sure, we all have aspects of our work that produce stress, anxiety, and general dissatisfaction. There will always be morale-challenging conditions that make library work feel more joyless than joyful. What I think the current higher education trend in happiness courses, and perspectives from colleagues like Fuhr, are telling us is that we can find strategies to help us cope with the conditions that lead to mental health struggles, but also to rediscover or reconnect with what it is about our work that makes it worth doing.
It is easy to dismiss messages of positivity. Instead, consider allowing them to motivate or encourage you to reflect on what is meaningful in your library work and the small joys it creates for those who use your library.