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How my idea of happiness has changed

15 April 2016 Endeavour College of Natural Health

How my idea of happiness has changed

Academic James Arvanitakis had it all – a high flying finance career and all the perks that came with it. His world then turned on its axis when a gap year to a third world country drastically changed his outlook on life.


“My version of happiness used to be a beautiful home overlooking Tamarama Beach in Sydney. Healthy was a word I used only to describe my bank balance and I thought nothing of dining at Sydney’s finest restaurants on a whim. I’d heard of SNAGs (Sensitive New Age Guy) but in the ultra competitive and hyper-masculine culture of the finance industry I proudly considered myself a CHOP (Chauvinistic, Hedonistic, Opportunistic, Pig).

My sense of identity was linked to how much I outscored my colleagues and hit performance targets. I was proud of who I was. Until one day I wasn’t. I had this empty feeling inside me, like I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what it was. I decided I needed a break.

I took a year off to travel and learnt more in that year than I had in my whole life. I saw poverty and beauty, violence and exclusion, generosity and sacrifice. I saw first hand the effects big corporations’ profit margins have on real people through child labour and how entire communities had been displaced in the quest for mining resources.

I saw the very system I worked at was contributing to this brutality. I promised myself I would become part of the solution. I returned home and walked away from the finance sector.

Next thing I knew I was living in Sydney on a fifth of the wage I used to earn. The adjustment was tough but totally worthwhile. I left Tamarama and shared a flat in Newtown. The relief of not having a huge mortgage to service was instant. I was eating noodles for dinner at $7 a bowl and feeling on top of the world.

I surrounded myself with people and communities that were generous, those who believed in borrowing and sharing and giving. I could now sit on the beach and read a book or go bushwalking and feel the wind on my face. I stopped, slowed down and realised there is more to life than making money.

As life got simpler it also got more complex. When you join social justice movements, different complexities emerge. It’s much harder to try to understand a different culture than it is to just expect them to adjust to your way. I worked on indigenous issues and refugee rights and the promotion of issues and a sense of community and dignity. Though more complicated, life was much more fulfilling. Simplicity is now a guiding force in my life.

I became a director of Aidwatch, a non-profit watchdog on Australia’s overseas aid. I undertook a PhD and became a professor in the humanities. I began tutoring and eventually became a part of the management team at Western Sydney University. Today I am the Dean of the Graduate Research School. There is significant responsibility and I deal with many complex issues but I remind myself the mission of what we do is quite simple: deliver an education that changes people’s lives and undertake research that can help solve contemporary challenges. Whenever an opportunity or challenge meets either of these mission goals I will pursue it.

I believe being an educator is an essential element to a more just world. Imagine every girl in the world could read and write and work on a computer. I love everything about education – the research and the teaching, the community engagement and intellectual development.

Since leaving my finance career my friendships have become deeper and I surround myself with people that are generous. My health has improved dramatically. I have seen people I used to work with go through three divorces, people in their late 40s having strokes or suffering from heart disease. That is where I was heading. The mind, body and soul are so interlinked that when you sacrifice one, the others begin to crumble.

I feel a balance now I have never felt before in my life. I can write books and teach classes, I can work across cultures, I can visit universities around the world and share knowledge with generous people, and I can sleep in a way I never could when I was a banker.

Currently on my vision board I have a number of projects about promoting excellence in teaching and research in Australia, India and South Africa. And personally, I want to learn to tango. What drives my life now is balance, not just work and success and material gain.

About James Arvanitakis

Professor James Arvanitakis is a Professor in the Humanities at the University of Western Sydney and the Head of the Academy at UWS. His research areas include hope, trust, political theatre, piracy and citizenship.

James has worked as a human rights activist throughout the Pacific, Indonesia and Europe. He is currently working with the Whitlam Institute looking at issues confronting Australia’s democracy.

Endeavour College of Natural Health

About Endeavour College of Natural Health

Endeavour College of Natural Health is Australia's largest Higher Education provider of natural medicine courses.

The College is known as the centre of excellence for natural medicine and is respected for its internationally recognised academic teams and high calibre graduates. Endeavour offers Bachelor of Health Science degrees and Honours programs in Naturopathy, Nutritional and Dietetic Medicine, Acupuncture and Myotherapy, and a fully online Bachelor of Complementary Medicine.

View all articles by Endeavour College of Natural Health

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