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The Secret to Happiness…and Good Grades


happinessAwhile back I was listening to the Ted Radio Hour.  The guest was a Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert, an expert on happiness.  He wrote a widely-read book, Stumbling On Happiness, and was describing a common experience he has after people find out about his research.  They want him to tell them the secret to happiness.  Listen to the entire episode here.

According to Gilbert, the secret to happiness is not much of a secret. He says researchers have known for quite some time that prioritizing social relationships, focusing on experiences rather than material things, and being “in the moment” are consistently found to be the key ingredients of a happy life.

But when he tells people this they are almost always disappointed.  He believes this is because they don’t want an answer that requires work, what they really want to know is “the secret”.  They seek the single ingredient they could discover that would magically lead to happiness.

chalkboard gradesHearing this reminded me of a conversation I have  too often with students. Each semester, usually after the first mid-term exam and more frequently as the end of the term approaches, students come to me wanting to know “the secret” to getting a good grade in the course.

As it turns out, the secret to getting good grades, like happiness, is not much of a secret at all.  So, I tell them:  “the secret is to learn the material.”

I am usually met with incredulous looks.  They don’t know if I’m being serious or just being a jerk. But like someone asking for the secret to happiness, the questioner is not really interested in making an effort.  What they really want to know is the secret.  They want a recipe to follow.

getgoodgradesIt is maddeningly rare for a student to come to me with substantive questions, like: “what is the relationship between identity formation and socialization?”  Or, “What does it mean that reality is socially constructed?”  Questions that would indicate that they have at least tried to engage with the ideas they are learning. Instead, most of the time it is “the secret” to a good grade that they are looking for.

What do they expect me to tell them? “Attend at least 80 percent of lectures, never come to class stoned, memorize the list of key terms, and read each chapter in the text book from back to front, and that will be good for a B.”

The notion that there is a secret formula for getting good grades is rooted in our approach to education, where intellectual growth and cultivating curiosity are viewed as secondary to the real goals of the grade, the credits and the credential.  The reason for taking a class has been reduced in the minds of many (probably most) students to a means-ends calculation.  The substance of the course is irrelevant.  The learning and thinking parts of education are superfluous. The value of a class is based solely on whether it allows them to check off another requirement toward the degree.

From the student’s perspective, the goal of each step in the education process is to complete it or, to “get it out of the way” so they can get on with what is really important — making money.  The grade has become the primary goal.  The class and its content are merely obstacles standing in the way.

They pursue “A”s  with the same zeal that they will one day pursue “$”.

But it’s not all their fault.  Students today are the products of a high stakes testing regime in our public K-12 education system implemented to hold schools and teachers “accountable”.  Long before they get to college, the joy of learning has been squeezed out of them.  It starts in Kindeimagergarten when schools begin “teaching to the test” for fear that low scores might jeopardize the school’s reputation or its funding.

Five and six year olds who are naturally curious and creative learn too soon to color inside the lines and that there is only one right answer.   It only gets worse as they march K through twelve.  Students are rewarded when they parrot what the teachers tell them.  And those who resist are often assigned labels marking them as deviants.

By the time they get to college, their love of learning has been replaced by a simple instrumental drive to get good grades. Like lab rats trained to push a bar that releases kibble, they blindly pursue “points” or “extra credit” that will lead to letter grades so they can “get out of here”.  Not only is the joy of learning gone, but the link between the grade they covet and mastering some body of knowledge has been lost.

Which brings us back to the secret to happiness and its connection to good grades.

There is remarkable similarityhappyface between pursuits of happiness and good grades.  First of all,  there is no “secret”.    Stay focused, get into the flow and appreciate the course content and the learning process as an experience.  Don’t get distracted by things you can’t control (like how many questions there will be on the exam or how will getting a 75 affect your grade).  Don’t fixate on the material outcome – students who have worked hard and earned C’s often actually learn more than those who didn’t have to work for their A.   You’ll remember what you learn in a class long after you forget your letter grade.  Finally, treat the class as an experience to be cherished as the privilege it is. Given that fewer than ten percent of the world’s people ever get the opportunity to sit in a college classroom and contemplate the collective wisdom of humanity, they should be relishing the opportunity, not fixating on grades.

Those who spend their time in college zealously pursuing points may very well end up being  the ones who orient their lives to making money and accumulating stuff believing that it will lead to greater happiness. But experts tell us that this is a fools errand, that after a certain point, making more money does not in fact lead to happiness.  Rather, they stress that happy people tend to be those who value relationships and experiences more than material objects.

Nobody wants to be that sad sap who doesn’t understand that money can’t buy happiness.  So why be that student who fails to get an education because all they care about are grades?

c plus grade

3 thoughts on “The Secret to Happiness…and Good Grades

  1. Although I understand the author’s point and can deeply appreciate their wishful thinking, this article misses a really important point:

    Grades Matter. A lot.

    Students are punished for the rest of their lives for not making good grades. Straight A’s can mean the difference between an Ivy-League education and a local community college, as well as all of the variations in between.

    Other respondents also assume that it has to be an either-or choice. Presumably, the students that do have a passion for learning will make high grades, but this is not the case. I’ve always been a passionate student, but when I was in high school, I decided grades were no longer important to me, and that I would just do my best. I learned all the material and basically gave up on doing busy work. Not surprisingly, I didn’t do that well. Although I graduated with 60 college credit hours (equivalent to the first full two years of college), my GPA was relatively low and I couldn’t get the scholarships that would allow me to attend the elite private schools to which I was accepted. Additionally, once I realized my error, I still did some of the meaningless work, but I wasn’t focused on maximizing my grade. Imagine my consternation to be able to discuss all the key concepts intelligently and in-depth to only get a B, while narrowly focused peers got A’s!

    I later attended business school at a top institution with a better mindset. Higher grades got me scholarships and easier access to better jobs. This in turn reduced the debt burden (I’ve had about $200,000 worth of education, most of which I’ve had to pay back myself, delaying marriage, family, home, and many other pretty important life things), allowing me to do more with my life.

    Grades matter a whole lot. Unless you are willing to personally finance a student’s life such that they don’t have to worry about student loans or making enough money to pay for even a subsistence lifestyle, don’t bemoan grades. they can get a student to a stable place in life. Without that, they won’t have the time to consider happiness because they’ll be solely focused on surviving.

  2. Well thought! I think life goes in pursuing one thing after another — chase grades, job, girlfriend, boyfriend, health, youth, etc. human wastes so much time in chasing social constructs which have little or no relation to true fulfillment of life. I see sadness in the eyes of the professors, teachers, who got it all together by dedicating their life to get good grades.

    So the pursuit of happiness, chasing of social constructs to realize they all fail to make us happy for long time.

    Getting A, B, C grade can boost your happiness for few minutes, but then we have face our realself, which is indifferent from all social constructs and good grades.

    Social constructs such as school education of 12 to 15 years of person’s life is wasted on learning maths, history, science, etc.

    In today’s society 22 years of education can be learnt in 3 to 5 years — young person can spend 15 years extra life developing social skills, learning to cope with stress, health, perusing the things which have potential to make them.

    22 years life — majority of it is wasted in Persuit of getting good grades to find out that it was a mirage.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is an enjoyable read and I think it makes a good point. However, I feel that there is an argument to be made for students who actually really do love learning. These students, myself included, not only strive to “make the A” but also have a deep-rooted passion for learning and try to absorb as much academic material as possible. To elaborate, when faced with a course that is either, a) extremely challenging or b) of absolutely no interest whatsoever (math, as an example of both a and b), I find myself focusing solely focusing on making the grade. However, in classes that provide even the smallest spark of interest, I find myself exceeding the basic expectations of the syllabus and doing all I can to really, truly LEARN the material. In classes such as these, I often find myself thinking more deeply about the course content, applying it to my own life, and looking up related information online. I once took a general education course and ended up LOVING it so much that it resulted in my adding a second major. Adding a second major did not occur in the pursuit of “credentials” or even of cultural capital, as discussed in class. I had an academic experienced that shaped and changed my world view so greatly that I could not resist learning more, even if it might further detain me in the post-college “quest for money”….the thing that “really matters.” Ultimately, the point I am trying to argue is that, students seeking only to make the grade (earning points rather than gaining knowledge) is a stereotype. Like any stereotype, it is based on a mostly-accurate generalization of a population. Yes, many students get an education to later make money, please their parents, or meet societal expectations. However, also like stereotypes, there are exceptions to the rule. Rest assured, there are students out there who do actually enjoy education for a singular purpose: the love of learning.

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