Bagg: Happiness at Yale

Are you happy?

Most Yalies say they are. It’s what we do. We value happiness highly here, so depression, in the Yale mind, is failure. Unhappiness is unacceptable.

So Yalies will be happy, by golly, whether they like it or not. After all, if you aren’t happy, what are you spending all that money for? Yale is the best place on earth, we’re constantly told; it’s your own fault if you aren’t happy here! So sure enough, most Yalies tell themselves they’re happy and try as hard as they can to make it so.

But as it turns out, we aren’t as adept with happiness as we are with words, music or sports.

A few summers ago, I came back from a hard run early in the morning, and as I collapsed on the couch in a disgruntled heap of aching limbs, my roommate was just waking up. He began to sing aloud to the same song he played every morning (“Mr. Bobby,” by Manu Chao) and this was just about the last straw. At that moment, singing “Mr. Bobby” was equivalent to hitting me over the head with a cinder block.

“Why are you so [expletive] happy all the time?” I screamed. It was a bit of an overreaction. That’s what happens when you run to violent rap music. Live and learn.

Anyway, it turns out he wasn’t happy at all; like most Yalies, of course, he was trying really hard — but the pieces of the puzzle just didn’t fit. You have to admire his dedication to the cause; he drank a lot, but not so much that he couldn’t do his work. He slept with a lot of women, but not so many that people cast a disapproving eye. He had eclectic taste in music and tortured his roommates accordingly. He was doing a job he loved, and he had good friends to do it with. He was always the life of the party, and he constantly projected the image that he was having the time of his life. I’m sure you know the type.

By any objective standard, he should have been a happy dude. But he wasn’t.

One of the hardest things we have to learn about happiness is that it doesn’t fit the pattern of all our other goals. It’s a skill that must be constantly nurtured, not acquired at any one point. No one realization about yourself, spawned perhaps from a late-night conversation, will suddenly reveal to you the truth about your existence, and the secret to everlasting happiness.

Now, you might say, Yalies have skills. Quite a lot of them, actually. Why is this one so elusive?

Because we don’t approach it the right way. We see it as something to achieve, like a job, or a degree; something you can collect and store, like money, or awards, or girlfriends. We make it contingent on certain events in our lives, and when they happen, we are happy — for a while. But that sort of contingent happiness never lasts.

Rather, true happiness is a habit that involves constant thought and attention, and not the kind of thought or attention you’re used to giving to your goals. Normally when you want something, you ask: “What can I do?” or “Who can I talk to?” or “What drugs can I take?”

This isn’t the case for happiness. It’s a disposition of the mind, which keeps at the forefront of its attention the triviality of the bad and savors every moment of the good. It takes people on their own terms and seeks to understand rather than judge. In every way, it sets expectations high, but not so high that they can’t be met.

We are exceptionally adaptable creatures; this is our greatest strength. But like desperate seniors trying to land consulting jobs, our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. We are such good adapters that our happiness levels naturally adjust to all the material changes that happen in our lives. Our circumstances — good and bad — probably don’t matter nearly as much as our approach to them and the expectations we have set.

If your happiness is contingent upon some form of success, be it financial, artistic, political or academic, then you will never be fully content. Whatever expectations you meet, they will almost certainly rise again, and satisfaction will always be just out of reach. If I only just got one more promotion, had one more vacation, took one more wife, I would be happy. But the chain never ends; there can only be one FDR, one Kant and one Beethoven, so if you keep raising your expectations, you’ll never measure up and you’ll be doomed to unhappiness.

Instead, expect the best from yourself, but prepare for failure. Push yourself to your limits, but keep in mind what’s important: not that you achieve your goal, but that you value your experience.

Sam Bagg is a senior in Silliman College.


  • Anonymous

    So true. One of the best op-eds written in recent memory. Bravo!

  • Football fan

    What a lovely column! Insightful and excellent advice for people of all ages and stages of life. Nice work!

  • fellow senior

    i hold that happiness is fleeting and, therefore, cannot be "everlasting." contentment can be everlasting, not happiness. i think it takes more than "value your experience" to catch some fleeting happiness. it takes accepting yourself and your circumstances.

  • George Patsourakos

    George Patsourakos
    Happiness should prevail for all Yalies, just by the fact that they are students at this prestigious University. Yale students have many of the world's best instructors -- many of whom have had high-level practical experience in their field of expertise. Yale students have a huge variety of activities in which they can participate. Yale students -- especially seniors -- should not let America's slumping economy make them unhappy, since this will come to pass!

  • Anonymous

    If you think that women are "something to collect and store" for status, it's little wonder you haven't found happiness in life. Disgusting.

  • aklein

    This is one of the best pieces of student writing I have read since coming here to Yale. Impossibly high standards, set by ourselves and others, can often seem insurmountable. In the end, I feel that a great deal of achieving personal fulfillment is simply realizing that, indeed, they just might be. Caught in the professional, resumeering rat-race, and the pursuit of nebulous, 21st-century success, we end up going far, but never really arriving anywhere. Sentiments like yours help foster that sense of private, quiet, yet active sense of self-fulfillment, so elusive at a place as competitive and impressive as this. Anyways, bravo, great writing, and terrific insight.

  • @Anonymous

    Perhaps he's kidding, poking fun at people who do see women like that?

  • Anonymous

    great writing, great message

  • Goldie '08

    I was happy at Yale - as Sam and George mentioned, it is easy to be happy there. The real world is a totally different story…the rat race rears its ugly head (and I'm one of the lucky few with a job!)

  • JadedFreshman

    Coming here, I had always heard of Yale as one of the 'happiest' schools (or at least in comparison to the big H.)

    Though I do believe that many people here, especially the freshmen, feel that sadness or unhappiness is out of place and unattractive. The people that I see that are 'happy' all the time probably aren't that happy. People feel pressured to love everything immediately. Some people came here escaping other things. The fact of the matter is that Yale is not a panacea for life.

    However charmed and well-treated we are here, this is not always going to be the case. I appreciate the writer's exposing of the pressure to be happy and the pressure to be the next Big Thing. If we lose this pressure, happiness might come more easily.

  • a sophomore

    well said.

  • JC Fan

    True happiness is not dependent necessarily on circumstances or achievements such as being admitted to Yale. I have found that by placing my faith in Jesus Christ, He offers me peace that passes "all understanding" so that I can experience his joy even in the midst of trouble and bad circumstances.

  • PC

    I feel like this article was stating what was already obvious to most of us. Sure, we're always prepared for failure, but where is the line between cynicism and optimism? Easier said than done, I guess.

  • Anonymous

    I feel like another important this is to be able to acknowledge that the way you are feeling about a given situation is okay. For me, the transition to all the stress of sophomore year (coupled with the complete loss of the kid-in-a-candy-shop feeling) has been really hard, and part of making things feel better has been accepting my own reactions to the world around me. Ditto in our interactions with other people: what if, rather than being absurdly hearty, we were all simply calmly ourselves? For me, happiness has come from mutually supportive friendships that have emerged only when all pretense has been set aside.

  • Anonymous

    what would kant and beethoven et al have said on this subject…caesar? type A, self centered, ambitious (however you define that), ego maniacs like us need to decide the following:

    you can be happy or you can attempt to run as hard as you possibly can and maybe catch/create some pixie dust…and be "great"

    Depending on our set of priorities…this is one solution.

  • Anonymous

    "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time." James Taylor.

    Trite maybe, but true.