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Sad Harvard

Via Justin Logan new research backs up what many have long believed -- Harvard students are less happy than their peers at other elite schools.

According to the AP write-up "Students complain that Harvard lacks places where students can socialize and has so many rules that it is difficult to hold a party on campus, where almost all undergraduates live." This thing about social space was an old hobby-horse of mine, and I wrote about it back in my student days. Long story short, I think it's mostly bullshit. Harvard students are unhappy because Harvard attracts lame, unhappy people who make each other even less happy. You could plop a bunch of Harvard kids into the most fun-friendly campus design imaginable and they'd still be lame, un-fun people:

At the end of the month, Arianne Cohen '03 went so far as to suggest that the lack of student center was to blame for her romantic failings. When a person starts making excuses for his lack of dates (I have this funny feeling that more girls would go out with me if I were smarter, funnier, and more physically attractive), it is time to wonder if the flaw lies not in the physical plant of our university, but in ourselves.

After all, when you think about it, don't we already have a student center?

What's that, you say, there's a student center at Harvard? Where? I've got to head down there right away, it must be a really fun place filled with spontaneous social interactions and hot boys just dying to ask me out. Sorry, but no. It's Loker Commons and it's none of those things.

But that's not fair, you say, a real student center would be super cool and even live and breath and do other scary stuff. Well, maybe, but fundamentally it would be some kind of large space where people could hang out and do things like buy food, listen to music, shoot pool, and watch TV, and Loker does all that. Plus it has fly-by and everyone loves fly-by. And still it sucks, and I'll tell you why—it's filled with Harvard students.

To take an example, I last visited Loker a few weeks ago when I and some of my fellow Indy staffers decided to take a break from layout and watch the president deliver his big Gulf War II speech. The Canaday Common Room (another shockingly un-fun social space) was filled with some kind of proctor group meeting, so we headed for Loker, flipped on the TV, and began to watch. Soon enough, a reasonably large group of people had gathered around the set to hear Bush speak and we turned up the volume so those at the back could hear.

The nation was gearing up for war and it seemed like there was a non-zero chance of spontaneous social interaction when some math nerds started giving us a hard time. There's some kind of math homework help group that uses Loker as it's meeting space. When I set out to write this column, I was going to use the perversion of a potentially fun social environment into a wildly un-fun integral solving environment as an example of how terrible you all were and how all the student centers in the world couldn't save me from your unsociability, but then it dawned on me—what, exactly, had I been planning to do in our fair student center? Why, sit quietly and listen to the president, of course. And then maybe get into a discussion about the ins-and-ons of Middle East policy and the possible effects of war on the midterm elections, and that's not fun at all.

And there's the rub. Justin remarks that he's "long suspected a correlation between smart people and general unhappiness," and there may be something to that. Research indicates that when you control for GDP per capita and do an international comparison, educational attainment has a negative correlation with happiness. At the same time, it's simply not the case that Harvard students are hugely smarter than the people at other elite schools. Basically, the admissions office seems to me to put a high premium on psychologically disturbed obsessive individuals who are unlikely to become well-adjusted members of human society. This is really the flipside of the "nobody pushes back" phenomenon Ross Douthat went on about in his Atlantic piece a while back. Very, very, very few people avail themselves of the opportunity to dodge their academic responsibilities in order to slack off and have fun. Instead, they pursue other goals with a pathological intensity. I put in basically full-time hours editing a weekly publication and started a weblog that's grown to some prominence. Everybody had their thing, and it was rarely having fun.

March 29, 2005 | Permalink


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Or they are just more honest.
Is ignorance bliss?

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 29, 2005 3:18:58 PM

"I think it's mostly bullshit. Harvard students are unhappy because Harvard attracts lame, unhappy people who make each other even less happy."

This is basically true.

"Justin remarks that he's "long suspected a correlation between smart people and general unhappiness," and there may be something to that."

This is basically untrue.


The problem isn't that Harvard folk are smart. The problem is that Harvard folk are out of balance and motivated by the wrong goals. The folks at the elite Bohemian schools are just as smart, but seem happier in my experience than the folks at the elite 'straight ambition' schools.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 29, 2005 3:20:45 PM

I agree with you that social space is pretty clearly not the issue, but you don't address the second point of the AP's claim, which I think is much more valid. Harvard has too many RULES restricting when and where kids can have fun. No alcohol in the yard. No kegs in Lowell House. Etc, etc. If these rules don't exist, all these places become the social space we're lacking and no one needs to go to final clubs so much anymore.

I put a great bit of time into having fun when I was at Harvard, and still managed to graduate with a good GPA in CS. I think you've made it perfectly clear, however, that none of your friends were very much fun at all. I had a pretty different experience on that front.

Posted by: right | Mar 29, 2005 3:22:59 PM

My higher education ended some 20-odd years ago (good but not great public university undergrad, elite private law school), but I frequently return to law school for alumni functions and moot court judging and regularly represent public colleges and universities. In recent years, law schools classes have seemed both more careerist AND more fun (and better looking) than in my day. Maybe that's a function of gender parity in the classes rather than the 2:1 male-female ratio back then. With more realistic opportunities for sex, the students develop or maintain social skills and keep themselves in shape. They're obviously wealthier, as well, perhaps a function of cuts in loan programs that I was able to take advantage of.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Mar 29, 2005 3:28:21 PM

To expand slightly:

In my experience, the factor of high correlation in happy college experiences isn't smartness vs dumbness, but straightness vs bohemainess.

Smart folks at Harvard and Yale are unhappy. Dumb folks at Georgetown and Penn are unhappy.

Smart folks at Brown and Wesleyan are happy. Dumb folks at Reed and Bennington are happy.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 29, 2005 3:29:28 PM

Income correlates positively with happiness (to a point). To "control" for income in making comparisons of happiness and (a putative) measure of education doesn't eliminate the possiblity that you are just proving that highly educated people make more money, unless they are unhappy people.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 29, 2005 3:29:38 PM

I feel sorry for these Harvard students. We should all do something to help them.

Posted by: kx | Mar 29, 2005 3:32:14 PM

Well, I say let Harvard have its football and academics. Yale will always be first in gentlemanly club life.

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Mar 29, 2005 3:34:33 PM

I thought Yale, Georgetown, and Penn were all supposed to be respectable enough on the fun meter. The really un-fun places (other than Harvard) are the engineering schools.

Posted by: JP | Mar 29, 2005 3:37:09 PM

Not-so-smart or intellectual, but industrious and dutifully unhappy. Matt Yglesias, closet Calvinist. A man for all seasons.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 29, 2005 3:40:55 PM

Smart folks at Harvard and Yale are unhappy.

One for two, my friend. One for two. Nearly everyone at Yale loves it at Yale.

Posted by: The42ndGuy | Mar 29, 2005 3:48:42 PM

The folks at the elite Bohemian schools are just as smart, but seem happier in my experience than the folks at the elite 'straight ambition' schools.

IME, this is mostly true... I've rarely met a cheerful Harvard grad (there was one, but he was there as an athlete), and tend to attribute it to their choosing the place (insofar as the student really gets to choose among elite schools) to begin with. There's such a mythological significance to Harvard, and I think there's probably a large number of people there who imagined that wandering the hallowed walkways would cure their problems, in some sort of magical-outcome way.

I wanted to go to Brown, myself, but there was just no way to afford it.

Posted by: latts | Mar 29, 2005 4:15:57 PM

Is there a college on the planet where students don't complain about an alleged lack of social spaces? As it happens I attended college at a time (that would be in the 1990s) when there was precious little in the way of authority figures to prevent us from doing almost exactly as we pleased (by the end of my first year I had a female roommate) and things seem to have gotten a bit more authoritarian since then, but are kids today so utterly lacking in street smarts that they don't know how to bribe the often poorly paid security guards to go away with fifty bucks and a dime bag of weed?

Posted by: Robin the Hoodlum | Mar 29, 2005 4:24:04 PM

Aren't you confusing "happiness" and "fun" here? They're not exactly the same thing.

There are plenty of people who have lots of "fun" yet are desperately unhappy, and vice versa.

And, fwiw, why is "fun" always equated with drinking and sex in such discussions? Sure, I like to tie one on as much as the next gal (I like sex, too, but it's only fun if the partner knows what he's doing...). But if these are the only ways you can have fun you clearly suffer from a serious lack of imagination and it's no surprise you're unhappy.

btw, Ms. Cohen's comment comes across as dippy, but I sympathize with her. Sure, I could be a bit cuter, but it wouldn't make that much difference as long as the general run of DC guys remains so terribly un-fun.

Posted by: flip | Mar 29, 2005 4:26:05 PM

I agree with The42ndGuy. People at Yale seemed to be generally happy, and although it certainly had it's drawbacks, overall I loved college, and had ridiculous amounts of fun. Boola boola.

Law school, on the other hand, is a world of not fun at all.

Posted by: Julie | Mar 29, 2005 4:30:46 PM

Ever seen Caltech?

Posted by: Jimmy Jia | Mar 29, 2005 4:33:41 PM

I concur on the Yale point - new haven was awesome, and the campus rules/police were pretty liberal as well.

my impression was that people were generally very happy with the social scene at yale

Posted by: publius | Mar 29, 2005 4:34:30 PM

People do what others expect them to do. If people think that only smart, unhappy people go to Harvard, then if you are happy maybe you aren't so smart. Go to a different school that expects smart people to be happy and things would be different.

It's not the admissions office's fault; it's institutional. Whether to party or study at a school is like a repeated prisoner's dilemma game. Cultures at certain schools don't effectively allow for punishing people who defect to studying.

Posted by: joe o | Mar 29, 2005 4:36:02 PM

Caltech is... it's... the kids here are... sniffle. I weep for them. I was an undergrad at a crappy public school (U of Oregon), and while I didn't love it, there was fun to be had, and despite the cloudy, rainy weather, others seemed to love it.

The kids here, meanwhile, seem to walk along with either a dirge or trance music echoing in their minds, and worry about nothing by problem sets.

Posted by: TJ | Mar 29, 2005 4:40:51 PM

Has it occurred to you that maybe the problem is that Harvard is populated entirely by the sorts of people who decided they'd prefer easy A's and a brand name to an education?

Posted by: Anton | Mar 29, 2005 4:41:04 PM

But unlike UMass-Cambridge, Brown students use off hours to pursue many activites with pathological intensity, but we still have fun doing it. I put in full-time hours as a teaching assistant while taking extra classes and had a blast with the whole thing. So what's the difference? Is your reading load higher than ours? Do we make a point of cutting loose at least once in a blue moon while you stiffnecks at Harvard simply never learned how to have a good time in high school?

The only piece of data I've got is that my sister claims people actually write first and second and sometimes even third drafts of papers at UMass-Cambridge, which as far as I can tell no one at any other college does. This (a) eats into Free Time, and (b) is probably indicative of other lifestyle choices.

Based on your Indy column, people at Harvard are so narrow-focused that they're not really interested in what other bright, passionate-about-their-work, people there age are doing. This is not true everywhere else, and probably is the difference Petey is seeing between "straight-ambition" and Bohemian universities.

JP: well, that depends. The engineering schools are fun, they just have a different definition of fun.

Robin: No one at Brown really complains about the lack of social spaces. And no one uses the Student Center, except maybe to go work out. Improving the quality/healthiness of food is a much more pressing issue. Though, we may be the exception that proves the rule.

Posted by: Nick Beaudrot | Mar 29, 2005 4:45:02 PM

I disagree about CalTech. My best friend went there and I visited to spend a week with her and her friends. Those kids are the smartest goddamn creatures I've ever met, but they also know how to have fun in some batshit crazy, amazing ways. I saw things there that wouldn't ever happen at Harvard or another Ivy.

Posted by: Adrienne | Mar 29, 2005 4:46:05 PM

Here it is, a slow day at work, so I wander over to MY's to see if there's anything I know or care about being discussed. What do I see? Discussions of his high school and his college. What's next? His pesky neighbors? His little brother's lousy taste in music? The annoying habits of the guy in the next cubicle?

I really don't care whether Harvardians are happy or not.


Posted by: ostap | Mar 29, 2005 4:47:10 PM

I know that this is heresy, but I often wish that I had gone to Yale. My grandmother lived in Boston, and I know that I made her happy by going there. It's a small consolation.

One of the awful things about Harvard is that there is no time for conversation. People are too busy accomplishing things.

Posted by: Abby | Mar 29, 2005 4:56:49 PM

Eh, so go read a book ostap, we're having fun knocking on boring Harvard kids here.

Posted by: susan | Mar 29, 2005 4:57:01 PM

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