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A New Resolution: Happiness First, Grades Second

By Ashley Koo
Cartoon by Ashley Koo

Cartoon by Ashley Koo

It’s that dreaded time of year again. The holiday highs are over, and it seems like all that remains is the pile of homework that you wish were nonexistent. Everyone is grudgingly taking out the same old new year’s resolutions: go work out, get better grades, or sleep more. Of course, all of these things are important, but why not break the cliches? Instead of focusing on the external improvements, why not focus on the internal ones?

Happiness seems to be one of these internal emotions that is so enigmatic yet so desirable. Although we don’t always realize it, the drive for happiness encompasses us, whether it’s through friends, family, grades, money, success. By all means, we could ignore all the uncomfortable talk and return to our predictable resolutions, but alternatively, we could make this year different by shifting our perspectives of happiness.

At South, we often pile the AP and honors classes, clubs, and internships on top of our already demanding schedules. Many of us are passionate about the classes and activities that we participate in, but at the same time, it can be extremely overwhelming to find our own space of happiness, peace, and contentment amidst the hustle and bustle. It’s so easy to be sucked into a cycle of study, eat, sleep, and repeat. While we go through this incessant routine, many of us pursue superficial goals, programmed to believe that aims such as getting good grades are what define our success—and therefore our happiness—as human beings. This is not to say that being goal-oriented and motivated is bad by any means, but when too much of our inherent happiness relies solely on grades, we lose the joys of learning and living life in general.

Many of us (including myself) place a great emphasis on “success” as measured by numbers, whether it is the numbers on our transcripts or the number on our future paychecks. But do these numbers in any way relate to the feeling of happiness that we hope to harness? A 2013 study at the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance concluded that adolescents’ emotional health is far more important to their happiness (satisfaction) levels as adults than other factors, such as academic success when young or wealth when older. Although it is difficult to achieve true happiness, we must detach ourselves from any superficial number and prevent it from defining who we are.

This argument may not be convincing to all because grades can significantly impact our everyday attitudes. According to Christina Hinton, Ed.D., a Harvard Graduate School of Education neuroscientist, happy students tend to get better grades. In her research, she also found what specifically makes students happy: a positive school environment and meaningful relationships that students form with their teachers and peers. The genuine bonds that we build with our friends, teachers, and our studies affect our happiness so much more than grades. Happiness does not necessarily cause students to earn higher grades, but “if you’re happy, you’re more likely to do well.”

Besides forging relationships and thriving in a favorable environment, what else allows us to maintain true happiness? Researchers at the University of Minnesota have tracked identical twins who were separated as infants and raised by separate families. The research concluded that humans genetically inherit a surprising proportion of happiness—around 48 percent. So if about half of our happiness is predetermined in our genes, what about the other half? It might seem that one-time events, such as getting a new car or an Ivy League acceptance letter, will permanently bring us happiness. Some studies even suggest that personal events control a big fraction of our happiness—up to 40 percent at any given time. But these bursts of happiness are more short-lived than we expect, dissipating within a few months. So this means that we shouldn’t rely on these temporary instances of pleasure. This leaves just about 12 percent of happiness that we can control. The researchers at the University of Minnesota also found that our decisions to pursue four basic values–faith, family, community, and work– determine this 12 percent of happiness. Although it may not seem that much, in the grand scheme of things, it contributes a great deal to our overall happiness.

But even with the extensive research that has been done already, there isn’t an exact formula for true happiness. We do know that locking ourselves to a path on which grades are the only potential causes for fleeting happiness will ultimately lead to unhappiness. If we all want sustained happiness, we shouldn’t rely on external, unreliable factors to determine such an important part of our life. Rather, we should balance our lives by doing things we love, spending time with family and friends, and giving back to our community. That is a step in the right direction.

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