Instructor Self-Care: How to Get (Much) More Out of Your Positive Experiences

Posted January 11, 2017

By Robert Biswas-Diener


The end of term is a stressful time. There are countless papers to mark. There are students eager to challenge the wording of each item on the final. Deadlines to submit grades. During the crush of work that comes at the close of the academic season a few instructors have been known to complain. I am one of them. I have made jokes about doing my grading at a local bar and I have dished on my students’ failings. I have to admit, however, that complaining about my work and about my students has done little to boost my quality of life.

It is ironic that I so easily fall prey to the temptation to kvetch because I am a subjective well-being researcher. That is, I study happiness and know a fair amount about which behaviors and thinking styles are most likely to pay happiness dividends. In this post, I would like to share with you just one of the many practical suggestions that have emerged from studies on happiness. I do so now—at the beginning of the academic term—so that you have the mental resources to hear the message and use this information to manage stress months from now at the end of the term.

The tip I would like to share is deceptively simple: it is savoring. Simply put, savoring is the act of mentally extending a pleasant moment. Instead of gobbling down a chocolate, for example, you can stretch your pleasure by taking your time and letting it melt in your mouth a bit and appreciating the flavor. The same holds true for your teaching. Instead of focusing on every late student or every bungled Power Point slide you can start cataloging everything that goes right.

Interestingly, experts in savoring suggest that this phenomenon takes a unique form depending on whether you are focusing on yourself or on others. When the focus is internal we call that form of savoring “basking” or “luxuriating.” These are your proudest moments. They include the e-mails you save from grateful students or that minor brag about how you really helped guide someone at this morning’s office hours. When the focus is external, on the other hand, we call that “thanksgiving” or “marveling.” Examples include appreciating a particularly astute comment in class or being awed by an exceptional piece of student writing.

Taking the time to catalog pleasant moments and to share and remember them has been shown to boost happiness (Bryant & Veroff, 2007). This line of positive thinking is the counterpart to so-called “dampening” strategies. That’s right, we all engage in ways of thinking and behaving that drive our happiness right into the ground. Two of the most common dampening strategies are: 1) “fault finding” (spending time noticing and complaining about all your students do wrong and how difficult your job is and how little you get paid and…. Well, you get the idea); and 2) “negative mental time travel” (remembering all the unpleasant moments such as how you made a mistake on the syllabus or how the class was so confused when you tried to explain misattribution of arousal or how you rescheduled to meet a student at office hours and then he didn’t even show up!).

Don't short change yourself on happiness. Take the time to acknowledge and savor the little successes that you have throughout each term. [Image: petukhov.anton,, CC BY 2.0,]

Right now, fortunately, you have a clean mental slate. The term is just beginning and you have countless opportunities ahead of you to log many positive and pleasant experiences. I am not suggesting that you pretend life is exclusively pleasant or that you ignore problems. Not at all. Instead, I am recommending that you take the time—even during the stressful moments at the end of the term when self-care is the first thing to fall by the wayside—to appreciate the many wonderful moments, awesome teaching and student contributions that are really why we are all instructors in the first place.


Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.