In the wake of the financial crisis, University of Texas professor Robert Prentice proposed an overhaul of business school rankings based on long-term happiness rather than post-MBA salaries.
“Any sensible person would rather be happy than rich,” Prentice wrote in 2009. “Those who choose to attend business school on the assumption that an MBA will help them change jobs, make more money, and therefore be happier are very likely misinformed.”
Prentice advocated for an outside-in change to the system, but as students, what if we chose to approach business school with the goal of learning to be happy instead?
Happiness isn’t everything in life but it is worthwhile. Happiness allows us to be better versions of ourselves. It strengthens our relationships and enhances our communities. It boosts creativity, focus and productivity.
I wonder where HBS would fall on Prentice’s happiness list. No Ivy League university, including Harvard, was featured in The Princeton Review’s 20 happiest student bodies of 2016. A 2014 Gallup poll of 30,000 college graduates found that alumni of selective, private universities are no more likely to be happy than those of less selective schools.
Fortunately, economists and psychologists have investigated this area further. Happiness starts with genetics. According to the Acton Foundation, we each have a “happiness thermostat,” set at birth, around which we will oscillate for much of our lives. However, shifting this thermostat up or down is within our control.
Factors that improve long-term happiness include maintaining loving relationships, regularly expressing gratitude, choosing jobs that give us control and variety, and avoiding persistent sources of displeasure such as long commutes and noisy living conditions.
We can also avoid placing our faith in the wrong factors such as professional accomplishments, income that exceeds basic needs, and temporary windfalls or setbacks, such as winning the lottery or losing a job. After such an event, we quickly acclimatize to a “new normal.” The changes in happiness are merely short-lived and we soon revert to original levels of happiness.
In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert observes that people consistently expect the same wrong things to make us happy, “even though the last ones didn’t and even though others keep telling us that the next ones won’t.” We often have to learn and re-learn these lessons, imagining that we, or our circumstances, are somehow different.
“If you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people,” Gilbert writes of this phenomenon.
Especially with happiness, it is wise to assume that we are average, and use that as a baseline to prioritize and make decisions.
In another insightful read, The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that we are also less happy precisely because of our enviable position in life.
HBS students enjoy the luxury of choice. This applies to our choice of career, where we live, our friends, even our romantic partners. In making these choices, we become what Schwartz terms “maximizers,” rarely accepting less than the best imaginable outcome. On the surface, this seems optimal, even responsible. It’s what separates us from unenlightened, underachieving versions of ourselves.
But if our goal is to live happily, it’s debilitating.
Contrast maximizers to “satisficers,” those who “settle for something that is good enough,” not worrying that there might be something better out there. Schwartz and a colleague reached sobering conclusions as they studied these two groups.
“Maximizers found better jobs, with higher starting salaries,” Schwartz writes, “but they were less satisfied with their jobs, less satisfied with the job search process, and less happy, less optimistic, more anxious, more stressed, and more depressed than satisficers.”
Prentice’s words echo in that conclusion – “Any sensible person would rather be happy than rich.”
“Settling” can be an uncomfortable, somewhat offensive notion for high-achievers. But settling doesn’t necessarily translate to having low standards. It means being comfortable with not hitting the bullseye every time. When satisficers miss, they shrug and move on. Maximizers fret and fume even before they take a shot, unable to free themselves from the shackles of “the best,” not realizing that the very act of demanding the best erodes their satisfaction with the ultimate outcome.
As we continue this year, I resolve to learn happiness. To experience gratitude. To accept that in important ways, I am average. To be okay with “good enough.”
This year, I’ll settle for happiness.
Robert Carpenter (HBS ’18) worked in strategy consulting and real estate development in Houston, Texas, before starting at Harvard. He previously attended Texas A&M University, where he was editor in chief of the student publication, The Battalion. Robert is a fan of racquet sports, ice cream, and Calvin and Hobbes.