One of the saddest and scariest things about human beings is how we can work so damned hard for year after year and then derive so little satisfaction when things actually come to fruition. I don't know how ubiquitous this is, but it is somewhat pronounced both in academia and the music world, two fields that typically require a nauseating amount of effort for years on end just to make a bare living.
Consider music. There's an overwhelmingly affecting point in the recent Ramones documentary where the original bassist and songwriter (who later died of a heroin overdose) is reflecting on his bulimia and massive intake of anti-anxiety medication; he says something to the effect of "All my dreams came true. Why can't I be happy?" This isn't just rock music either. There is a small literature suggesting that successful orchestra musicians (with a job market very similar to academia) have pretty low job satisfaction when compared to other fields.
In academia I've noticed in particular two kinds of virulently unhappy successful people. The first is the person who just got tenure and all of the sudden faces an overwhelming existential crises, analogous to when deep sea divers come up too fast and their bodies can't handle the depressurization. That is, at every point prior to tenure, from gradeschool through being an Assistant Professor, there is ususally a ton of outside pressure to do specific tasks to get to the next point. And some people who thrive when being told what to do find it horrifying to be any other way.
This is a weird thing, because the pressure of going through tenure review is itself so harsh. I know plenty of people who actually went on prescription happy pills for the first time in their life during tenure review, only to get off them after the tenure was resolved and move on unscathed. But two people I cherish did just fine during the tenure review only to completely fall apart afterwards. One was institutionalized and is no longer an academic and the other is dead.
I should note that people with families don't tend to fall apart after tenure. I think this has something to do with Woody Allen's line from Crimes and Misdemeanors, "When I grew up in Brooklyn nobody even thought about killing themselves. We were all too miserable." That is to say, the great thing about having a partner and children is that you are never ever in that terrifying existentialist never-never land. From a purely selfish point of view the greatest luxury of parenthood is that you don't get to be selfish any more (I hope to do another post on this at some point, but am actually waiting until I understand Hegel better).
People with families can, however fall pray to the second kind of creeping unhappiness, related to the first, one that can slowly mestatasize over their career until at retirement they view their entire life's work as a waste. Along the way they get to a point where they take almost no joy from anything related to their job. They almost always have relocated their soul to the land of what-ifs, e.g. what if they had gotten a better academic position which would have been more supportive to their intellectual goals (travel money, speakers, course load, entertainment options in the city, etc.), or what if they had done something other than being an academic. Sometimes (and I think this is actually less pronounced in my generation) the what if involves spouse or partner, sometimes to deleterious effect, since that's one thing that can be changed. But then you're still the same crappy person. I mean, you can't divorce yourself.
I don't want to make too much of this though. Everybody engages in such counterfactual thinking, and we must. One has a moral obligation not just to count one's blessings but also to be cognizant of the ways that one's environment can be made better. But there's an insidious sorites series precisely here. And one of the worst things a human being can do to herself is to permanently relocate to the land of what ifs. People who end up doing this end up looking back on big chunks of their life as ailure.
Maybe there's something wrong with me that I spend so much time strategizing to avoid this fate. However, I suspect that a lot of people in my generation have almost to a person thought deeply about the issue. We're the generation who can all tell you exactly where we were when they heard that Kurt Cobain died (me- riding in N. Mark Rauls' car while visiting him in Austin, Texas during the Spring Break of my first spectacularly unsuccessful year of graduate school). Just listen to the song at right. The guy was a perfect chanel for the muse and also widely recognized for being so. But he was irredeemably unhappy? What does this say about the rest of us schleps just dreaming about someday eating a peach somewhere nice? Forget all that nonsense about ragged claws. I just want to enjoy this peach for a few minutes. . .
Unfortunately, I don't know if this is the kind of thing one can really strategize about, since we are dealing with human nature, and freedom remains an almost complete enigma even after the combined labors of Schelling/Heidegger/Nancy/Kristofferson. However, I think that I have noticed that there is one thing in common to both the people who implode after tenure and the people who spend their entire post-tenure life in the unhappy land of what if. They both tend to have very narrow research profiles. [Before saying anything more about this I should note that I know lots of people with narrow research foci who are rocking out in every respect of their lives. So at best I'm claiming that having a narrow research foci might be (I hope in the comments people shed more light on academic unhappiness than I am able to) a necessary condition for living in the land of what if.]
This may be hamfisted, but since narrowness of research seems to me (and some close friends who I talk with about this stuff) to be a necessary condition, part of how I (and friends) have tried to avoid both the academic bends and relocation to the land of what if is to always be learning something new, to always be a student. For example, if I go to an APA I'm more likely to go to a talk on Plotinus than a talk on Dummett, even though I've published at least six papers on the latter and will almost certainly never publish on the former. And I always try to have some project going that may never result in publication at all. Sometimes this is philosophical, but sometimes not.
One consolation is that the non-philosophical passions (for me- punk music, video games, professional wrestling, fantasy novels, etc.; we're all nerds, we all grew up with weird fixations) often end up informing my publications in weird ways. And the philosophical passions that I never thought would yield publications sometimes do (recently aesthetics, and almost certainly German Idealism in the next year or so). But some things almost certainly never will (e.g. medical diagnoses of historical figures, organizational structure of militaries throughout history, decision theory applied to dictators, deconstructive cuisine, etc., etc. etc.). But you can never tell a priori. So I just try to stay uncool in the way of uncool kids who get overexcited about things that lack intrinsic interest to very many other people. If I can hang onto that through all of life's vicissitudes then I will be able to avoid the gravitational pull of the land of what if.
I should note that the Lester Bangs strategy is not perfect, for three reasons. (1) Our field places very strong incentives for one to not only put down a flag with ones name on it in a certain place in dialectical space but also tehn to spend most of ones career defending the flag. Nicholas Rescher is the patron saint of all of us who aggressively follow the muse wherever she leads, but given the size of his genius, I think it's clear that his reputation has suffered by the fact that his interests are so catholic (please correct me if I'm wrong about this). (2) I'm by nature a dilettante. This is not virtuous in itself, just as being a specialist is not in itself bad. And if you are by nature a specialist, then Lester Bangs just can't be your patron saint. (3) At many institutions, you can't really be a diletante prior to tenure anyhow. You want letter writers to say that you are among the top people researching in some narrow area. This being said, for many it is still at least possilbe to keep the passion for things not in your niche alive during your education and time on the tenure clock. Maybe not though (and this may be part of what causes the bends as well).
Anyhow, if you have time, I'd be interested in any meditations other people have for why people can work so hard for something that ultimately doesn't bring them much happiness, and for any concrete strategies to avoid this fate. I'm sure that the Lester Bangs strategy is just one of many.