Alumna finds happiness by degrees on campus, in life

Special to Western NewsGillian Mandich, BHSc’07 (Health Promotion), MSc’12 (Rehab Sciences), PhD’19 (Rehab Sciences), has a message for nervous, over-worked students slogging through their degrees right now: Make time for gratitude, regardless of circumstances on any given day.

Gillian Mandich is relentlessly upbeat.

It’s not that she has led a carefree, stress-free life. It’s just that Mandich, BHSc’07 (Health Promotion), MSc’12 (Rehab Sciences), PhD’19 (Rehab Sciences), works hard at happiness, having trained herself to treat it as a necessary state of life, not a fleeting state of mind.

With regular appearances on CTV’s The Social, Mandich examines and explains the science of happiness to audiences across Canada. And the more she teaches the essence of wellbeing with her audiences – she calls television “a whole bunch of classrooms, in people’s living rooms”– the more she learns.

And her lesson for nervous, over-worked students slogging through their degrees right now is this:

Make time for gratitude, regardless of circumstances on any given day.

“One of the most profound things I learned is that happiness is not a destination, it’s a practice. We have to work at it. Motivation and inspiration wane, depending on what’s going on in your life. We need those happiness reminders and those practices to keep us going.”

Mandich earned her doctorate last spring, having been hooded by her mother, Health Sciences professor Angie Mandich, Director of the School of Occupational Therapy in the graduate program in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“That was like one of those 10-out-of-10 moments,” the younger Mandich said vividly recalling the sights, smells and sounds of that ceremony. “It was special day. When we work towards a goal and you have to put your nose to the grindstone, you’re celebrating all that hard work.”

She initially started research into childhood obesity before realizing she was looking mostly to identify factors influencing health. “That’s how I found happiness research.”

It’s also meant a reframing of her own attitudes. When people initially asked how her studies were going, Mandich would say she was “getting through” her PhD. Then she realized the irony of studying happiness without seeking joy in every day.

“We can, in any situation, look at the bad things and look at the good things. I’m so grateful, looking back, at the process of the PhD.”

And it’s true she didn’t enjoy analyzing every word and comma of her dissertation. “Not every day is butterflies and rainbows, but if you tap into what you love, that will help bring happiness

She said some books advise on the secrets to happiness – decluttering, says Marie Kondo; seize the moments, says Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project – but Mandich said few have done the science to understand what makes people happy, or not.

She advises people to discover what makes them feel best about life – it’s usually experiences, not good grades or possessions – and to spend a couple of minutes thinking of them when they wake up each morning.

The eldest of seven children, Gillian was a pre-teen when her mom first started working on her PhD in Kinesiology. Together, the family juggled schedules for studies and sports so that Angie could reach her goal. Gillian took charge of much of the homework help for her siblings. And along the way, they all learned first-hand the importance of education.

Now the family, collectively, has 12 degrees from Western.

Angie Mandich, Associate Director of Convocation, has hooded her children during Convocation eight times.

“Education has certainly been a vehicle to lead to success,” she said. Like happiness, education is also a process, and Angie said she continues to learn from her students and her children. “That’s how we grow and think and develop ideas. That’s what education does for you. I love that Nelson Mandela quote: ‘Education is the most important weapon which you can use to change the world.’”

And her eldest daughter’s PhD exemplifies the discipline required to earn any degree, she said. “It teaches you to be persistent and to continue to follow your dreams in whatever you do.”