Absence of failure may be the key to real happiness

One of the defining features of a life at Tech is that there is a surplus of activities we can use to occupy our time. Some of these are more or less mandatory (homework, projects), and others are voluntary (clubs, part-time jobs), and yet others are purely social (spending time with friends, going to parties). Finally, let’s not forget those critical pursuits of sleeping and maybe even exercising.

The famous comment about the Tech lifestyle is that you can only choose any two pursuits among sleeping, studying and a social life. But in reality most people need to somehow strike a balance between all three extremes, because all are required to be satisfied, or perhaps even happy, with life at Tech.

This is already difficult in itself. But I wonder: is simply balancing the three enough for happiness, or are there other factors involved? The question of happiness is one I’ve contemplated quite a lot of late, because during my current stint in Kazakhstan I’ve found myself feeling substantially more pleased with my life than I generally do in the hustle and bustle of Tech life.

While I tend to like Kazakhstan in general, I can pretty safely discount the possibility that the chief contributing factors to this level of satisfaction are my “wonderful” apartment or the incredibly high local standard of living. After all, I still desperately miss having a dryer in my house. Likewise, while I have been fortunate enough to meet lots of fantastic, interesting people here, my social interaction with friends back home was no less fulfilling.

So for me, the question still remains: what is responsible for my happiness here, and what can I do in order to maintain that level of happiness when my time in Kazakhstan comes to its inevitable end? Human happiness in general is a remarkably tricky subject: countless books have been written about it, and many of the conclusions defy expectations.

Arthur C. Brooks shatters many happiness stereotypes in his recent book, Gross National Happiness. Among these, he claims that work makes most people happier (and that most Americans like their jobs) and that having more money does not make a person happier unless their chief use of that money is donating it to charity. Perhaps most strikingly for me personally, he points out that marriage tends to make people substantially happier, while the birth of children has the opposite effect on most couples.

While Brooks is a notable conservative pundit and some aspects of his book seem to be politically motivated, many of his thoughts and conclusions are worth paying attention to.

In an article he wrote for The American magazine, Brooks notes that while money indeed cannot buy happiness, there is a notable correlation between wealth and happiness. His hypothesis for the reason? The cause of richer people’s happiness is not the money they have earned but the success they have experienced on the way to those earnings.

At the same time, a recent article in The Guardian highlighted Iceland as one of the happiest nations on earth, despite its geographic isolation, harsh climate, and the fact that it has the highest divorce rate in the world and the highest percentage of women working outside the home.

In that case as well, success seems to be the overriding factor. Iceland’s economy has been growing rapidly and relatively steadily since World War II, but that growth has particularly ramped up in the past decade. People have greater opportunities, excellent, accessible education and healthcare, and perhaps most importantly, a widespread can-do attitude. On the whole, at least by recent standards, Iceland is one of the most successful nations in the world. If Brooks is to be believed, and I’m inclined to accept his hypothesis, it’s not surprising that its people are so happy.

But what happens if we apply that hypothesis to our life at Tech? If we follow the same logic, is it really surprising that those of us who are at Tech often find ourselves feeling less than chipper? After all, our Institute is well-known for its 36 percent test averages and its rather low 3.0 requirement for Dean’s List status—aspects of the Tech experience that speak volumes about the ease of succeeding here.

If that is the case, perhaps what is making me happier in Kazakhstan is not something special I have here, but the absence of the crushing force of failure back home.

That said, I’m not suggesting that we as an Institute need to succumb to the sort of grade inflation that plagues many other universities just to make our students feel happier.

Rather, I think that we, the students, need to keep in mind the fact that success and failure at Tech are not measured by the same scale as usual, and to look at our achievements more positively—even when that success is scoring a 50 on a test with an average of 36.