October 1, 2021

BEARD | Happiness 101

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How can I be happy at Cornell? Better yet, what does happiness in college even look like? 

For me, a quick answer would be  a good grade on the Spanish prelim I’ve been dreading. That would certainly take some stress off my shoulders. But, that still doesn’t answer the question. Does a good grade on a test make me happy? Let me pose this scenario differently. Do good marks on a single exam give me more day-to-day life satisfaction than, say, a consistent workout regime, good relationships with my friends or even just healthy habits? For you, the answer may vary, but for myself, I’d say that any three alternatives would make me happier than an “A”. So, maybe the question of happiness is  harder to answer than it seems. 

Why am I rambling on about happiness? Well, it’s been on my mind a lot recently. Not because I’m undergoing some kind of spiritual awakening or anything of that nature. Rather, I’ve been mulling it over because I’ve been academically obligated to. Seriously, for the past five days, I’ve been tasked with keeping a daily happiness diary where I report up to fourteen times a day how happy and how anxious I’m feeling at any given moment. To all you engineers and STEM majors feeling a little jealous right now, yes, this is a real class assignment and, yes, it’s for a grade. Eat your heart out.

Good-natured ribs aside, the diary was a project assigned to us as part of my European Politics class’s unit on world happiness trends. Similar to the observational studies that produce country data , our diaries asked us at episodic moments in our day to categorize our general happiness and anxiety levels on a scale from zero to ten. Throughout the week I had moments as low as a four and as high ten but overall, I averaged about a seven-and-a-half for happiness. 

What was more insightful, though, were the patterns that emerged throughout my week. Exercising, isolated moments with friends, dinner with my roommates and moments of purposeful activity consistently scored the highest, grabbing eights, mostly nines and a few tens. 

On the other hand, finishing a good interview, getting a good grade on an assignment or finding out I made it into a new club seemed to underperform at the seven-level. They were still happiness-inducing but not to the same extreme. Big picture accomplishments that should’ve been making me jump for joy weren’t eliciting that response. This posed another question: At a school fueled by high (and sometimes over) achievement, what could make me happier than success and accomplishments?? What can I glean from this to be a “happier” person?

I’d say the clearest conclusion I drew is that consistent little wins made me happier than the achievement of a large goal. Going back to the grade example, instead of setting an end-product goal of an “A”, I say “my goal is to study twenty minutes each day”. Accomplishing something like that is not only more attainable but allows me to be happy seeing growth rather than focusing on some far-off result. Focusing on instilling success-inducing habits can be more satisfying than the success itself. Outside of school, it was important for me to find a community of people who I care for and care for me. My happiest episodes came when I was sharing a moment with someone else. Even if it didn’t have the sparkle of a new job, I found that it was these minutes I spent together with people important to me that made a lasting impression on my day. 

Now, my self-evaluation isn’t designed to be taken as advice. But, maybe my musings can offer you some advice on happiness. I’d say that at the bare minimum, our happiness diaries were an interesting foray into reflection. “Am I happy?”, is a question we don’t get to ask ourselves enough as college students. We’re told to shoot for the stars, get high-powered internships and earn good grades because those are markers of success, but success and happiness are not one and the same.

For  me, it was the stuff in between achievements that got me out of bed in the morning. Acing Happiness 101 may mean something else for you but don’t forget it’s a survey course. Don’t plod along without asking the right questions. “Does this make me happy?”, “Am I happy now?”, these are questions whose answers may require a little bit more thought than anticipated.

Brenner Beard ‘24 is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached [email protected]Agree to Disagree runs every other Friday this semester.