By Brian A. Boecherer
The definitions of success, wealth, and happiness (and their relationship with each other) are confusing for many in society, but for high school students making their way through a world of transitions, they are even more difficult to locate on a map. Students hear and read countless times that getting into a good college will help them get a good job and good jobs will make them happy. In these engagements a “good job” is infrequently defined, but we have all seen the supplementing graphs in such articles and presentations that show which jobs make the most money and the rest is up for interpretation. The relationship between success, wealth, and happiness can be confusing for students as they plan for life after high school. What does success mean? Is it a concrete thing? A destination? With the pressure to validate one’s successfulness at every turn, we grasp for measures that satisfy a listener and reinforce the conception of success with narrowing variability. Is success and happiness the same as a high-paying job? This is an important conversation to have when helping students to develop their goals for the future. What is the role of happiness in student success?
Over the years I have been struck by multiple conversations with students where they choose the potential for a high salary over their own preferences (or even exploring their own preferences). One vivid example occurred when I taught a First Year Experience course at UConn. On the first day of class I would go through the traditional round robin of student introductions, learning names, where each student was from, whether they were a UConn ECE alumnus, and their current major. During the procession one student announced he was going to be a business major to which I asked…
“What interests you about business; which areas do you want to explore?”
“I want to make money,” the student responded.
“What will you do with the money once you earn it?”
“I will be rich.”
“Then you will be happy?”
“It’s better than being poor.” A response met by polite chuckles from others.
“You should look into being an accountant, they make a lot of money,”
another student chimed in.
At the time, it never occurred to me to ask the student, “How much money do you need to be happy or to consider yourself a success?” I explored some answers to that question much later, but wish I had been better equipped to offer the conversation to my students when I taught the course.
According to research on the relationship between money and happiness, we find a statistically significant relationship between the two, but the evidence also shows that after a point the relationship bears diminishing returns. When looking at the happiest countries in the world, the Scandinavian countries rank highest in terms of happiness and well-being. They also rank among the richest. Causation? The numbers by themselves do not show the whole picture. The respondents in the study reported their happiness was based on having a comfortable standard of living, the freedom to make life choices, supportive social networks, good health, and trust in their government (United Nations World Happiness Report, 2021). Certainly, the first two variables may equate to wealth, but not necessarily.
Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert, also confirms that money plays a part in happiness. While happiness scores go up as salaries go up, the correlation does not last past a certain point. When your annual income gets between $40,000 and $70,000 a year, the research attests, “you’ve bought almost all the happiness you can get.” (Gilbert, D., American Psychological Association, 2010). After that, happiness comes from other sources, and thus, a comfortable standard of living is more of a foundation, than the source.
In terms of how we can support our students when navigating their time of great transitions, there is a large body of research that clarifies the conversation on happiness. The two things that matter the most are strong relationships and a sense of meaning and purpose. These two variables interact, as pursuing something that is purposeful often puts us into the orbit of likeminded individuals, helping us to develop deep and lasting relationships.
With students reporting higher rates of loneliness than ever before, the best antidote is re-centering students with conversations about what makes them happy. Ask students, “What are your passions and how do you plan on pursuing them during and after high school?” Research suggests that defining one’s passions is not easy for students and they revert to answers like, getting into a good college and getting a good job. These vagaries avoid self-exploration. As parents and teachers are a student’s best sources of advice and leadership, reflecting and sharing critical points in our own life story, is a key tool to help them unlock their own understanding.
In addition, as Dr. Martin Seligman, who founded the field of Positive Psychology suggests, it is vital to show students that meaning and purpose must be internally defined, not defined by others. That is, while there are many global issues that need our attention, being active on these issues or becoming a public leader should not be the absolute standard by which we define success or find purpose. Joining clubs, helping in your local community, advancing issues as we self-determine, and pursuing academic interests and hobbies are all part of a meaningful life. Being engaged and exploratory is to be passionate. The connection between passion and developing relationships is also clear. A simple Google search shows the millions of articles, ranging from academic journals to men’s and women’s magazines, that discuss why people who are passionate about something attract others. Passionate people never seem to be bored or boring to others. They have stories to tell, information to share, and are hungry to learn more, which requires communication. Passionate people are magnets for teaching, learning, and unlocking opportunities for themselves and for others.
Targeting happiness as a goal is also not the same as advocating for poverty. With such a diverse economy, following one’s passions often results in financial gains. The objective is to put the horse before the cart and advocate for passions leading to a comfortable standard of living, rather than a standard of living leading to happiness and fulfillment. Breaking the over-simplified and often extreme wealth-happiness conception may not be easy. Part of the issue is that the feeling of financial security is hard to define and when the world is less stable (since the Great Recession), money seems to be the best buoy on a rough sea. According to a study conducted by Ameriprise Financial in 2019, only 13% of Americans with at least $1 million of investable assets felt wealthy. Six in 10 of these same people define themselves as “upper middle class”, while 25 percent identify as being “middle class.” (Ameriprise Financial, 2019)
Talking to students about the basics is the best approach in helping them include happiness, passion, and purpose as part of their student success plan. We are all afraid of admitting to what we don’t know. When a student can’t find a “satisfactory” answer to what things they are passionate about or what may give them purpose, the easiest deflection is over-simplification. The world is more complicated than ever before and with each generation the transition to adulthood is tougher. Let’s help each other by starting the discussion, sharing the statistics we do know, and leaving time for reflection and revision.