Why do people pursue college degrees? There are literally billions of ways to answer that question, but they all distill down to one answer: a degree is associated with improved opportunities to find success, security, and status--important features of an idealized life. In other words, we pursue college degrees so we have a greater likelihood of being happy.
In many ways, degrees can help us find happiness. Colleges provide infrastructure and methods for systematically sharing absolutely vital knowledge and skills across generations. Students can acquire the grammar and vocabulary of languages, the principles of cell biology, methods for statistical analysis, and theories for critiquing literature and poetry, for example. A college degree is proof that its bearer has built important abilities through formal training and their abilities have received experts' endorsements. A degree enhances employment opportunities, which offers better chances at financial stability and all of the benefits that come with sufficient resources. A degree also enhances expertise, which offers better chances to do meaningful, satisfying work. Purposeful work is a strong predictor of happiness.
A college degree is important, useful, and significant. A college degree is not a passport to a happy life.
In fact, well-meaning adults frequently pressure students to sacrifice their well-being in pursuit of idealized academic and professional accomplishments. This achievement pressure places a huge and harmful weight on emerging adults, according to education researcher Richard Weissbourd. He notes, "Achievement has, in many cases, become the chief goal of child-raising—and this intense focus threatens to make children both less happy and less moral." Over-pressured students can develop distorted personal priorities and struggle with significant mental health difficulties.
A 2018 class at Yale University offers students a chance to correct this distortion in their own lives. Psychology professor Laurie Santos's "Psychology and the Good Life", with 1,182 students enrolled, is "the most popular course in Yale's 316-year history." Dr. Santos uses positive psychology and behavior modification techniques to help students to shift their perspectives and their actions in order to facilitate contentment, connection, and balance in their lives.
“'In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,' said Alannah Maynez, 19, a freshman taking the course. 'The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions — both positive and negative — so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.'” Dr. Santos hopes that this course will both help the students who take it and help to reform Yale's achievement-oriented culture. She plans to offer the class to the public through Coursera in the future.
When this course is publicly available, I will encourage all my students to take it--and I will take it myself. We must commit our time, talents, and labor to cultivating well-being in ourselves and in younger generations. Achievement and ambition must be tempered with connections and contentment. Strengthening those capacities is just as important as earning a college degree. As individuals and as a society, we cannot simply leave our happiness to chance.