March 10, 2010

The Happiest Place to Fail

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Our winters are dark, cold and dreary, but Iceland’s are even colder, and that hasn’t stopped the country from consistently ranking at the very top of the charts for the World Database of Happiness. Happiness may not seem quantifiable, but World Database researchers measure it by regularly asking citizens of more than 95 different nations the same question: All things considered, on a scale of one to ten, how happy are you? Iceland’s ranking turned more than a few heads. It lead several researchers to travel to Iceland and try to understand how people that spend six months of their year in total darkness could be so happy.

What did the researchers find? Icelanders buy the most books, have the highest life expectancy for males and get nine months of paid maternity leave that can be divided between mothers and fathers however they choose. Interesting, but probably not the secret to their happiness. Many behavioral psychology experts, including Harvard Business Review blogger Peter Bregman, point to a different explanation for the phenomenon. For people living in Iceland, that age-old adage “try, try again” really rings true. According to Bregman, “Their culture doesn’t stigmatize failure … so they’re willing to pursue what they enjoy.”

If the reason why Icelanders are so happy is because they don’t stigmatize failure, are we Cornellians doomed? Far above Cayuga’s waters, grades constantly give us feedback on our performance, and repeated failure results in probation or even dismissal from Cornell. Does this mean that the mere existence of grades has put us in a position where failure is inherently stigmatized and our intrinsic desires to learn are destroyed, making happiness impossible? That sounds depressing, but it’s not quite true — don’t transfer to Brown for their pass-fail classes just yet.

You know the feeling of turning over a test and sighing with relief when you see a 91 (or maybe a 71 if you’re taking organic chemistry) circled at the top of the page. Glancing around the room, you see the girl next to you and can’t help but notice her obvious disappointment. “That sucks,” you think. Curiosity gets the best of you, and you crane your neck to try to see her paper. Then you see the cause of her distress: a 91. UC Berkeley researcher Martin Covington explains that grades are not necessarily the root of the problem; it depends what grades mean to the individual and their personal definitions of success and failure. Your joy over your 91 and your neighbor’s anguish over the same grade is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Why does it matter how people view a grade or how they define failure? Two researchers, A. Elliot and J. Harackiewicz, suggest that there is an important correlation between either striving for success or attempting to avoid failure and the resulting levels of intrinsic motivation and enjoyment.

The researchers examined how the desire for success compares to the desire to avoid failure by looking at the performance of University of Wisconsin students on a puzzle-solving task. They told some students that they were being given the opportunity to demonstrate that they were good problem solvers and told other students that they were being given the opportunity to prove that they were not poor problem solvers. Some students in a control condition were also given neutral instructions.

This subtle difference in the wording of instructions was critical — but not for the students’ performances. The subjects in both groups exerted equal amounts of effort and performed equally well on the task. The difference between the conditions was not apparent until a “break” during the experiment. During the break, the researchers left the subjects in a room with some magazines, more puzzles and alternative reading material. The subjects in the failure-avoidance group (those who were told to prove that they were not poor puzzle solvers) were much less likely to choose to work on the puzzles, representing a lack of intrinsic motivation toward the task.

This has particularly interesting implications for the education system. Readers of Harackiewicz and Elliot’s paper are led to question the success of rigorous programs — the type in which “C” means are commonplace — in fostering active, passionate, intrinsically motivated learners. While students in these programs might still be highly motivated to study hard and learn the material, the emphasis on avoiding failure may affect students’ intrinsic motivation to expand upon on their passions both during and after their formal education.

So, an engineering student working hard to beat the mean in Intro to Geotechnical and Engineering Analysis may be discouraged from participating in the 100+ MPG Challenge now and in other extracurricular pursuits later.

While we can’t flip a switch to change the way Americans — or even students here on campus — view failure, it’s easier to work on your own definitions of failure and success than to pack your bags and move to Iceland (or Brown). If you are someone who usually would try to scare yourself into success, focus instead on adjusting your mindset, setting attainable goals and working towards achieving them, rather than letting the thought of a B- on your philosophy paper weigh you down. It might seem silly, but it’s probably the most effective way to operate in a grade-oriented system.

Icelanders greet each other with a phrase that roughly translates to “come happy,” and they part by saying “go happy,” like a constant reminder that happiness is a critical and worthy pursuit. Let’s take a few lessons from Iceland: buy lots of books, look for a job where the norm is nine months of maternity leave (even if you’re a guy), focus on success rather than failure, cut yourself a break about what it means to fail and — most importantly — come and go happy.  RLD

Original Author: Emily Weinstein