What if happiness could be programmed ? Sitting in a café in Harvard Square, I hear a group of students complaining about their courses, their lecturers and the superhuman amount of work that they have to do. Intrigued by this critical discussion, I approach them and initiate a conversation. These very open five students consisting of three guys and two girls of about twenty years-old who are in pre-med school and are therefore future doctors, confirm my first thought that life at Harvard is very difficult with the amount of intense work and intense competition. With little sleep, having to work late into the night, results which are rarely what one has hoped to achieve, the lecturers no longer give courses and teach in the TBL style; think Team-Based-Learning, meaning working as a team in order to engage students in deep learning, students have not other option but be extremely active in their learning experience.. How can one be happy with such a student life ? Moreover, what is most surprising is that these same students tell me that being happy is having the opportunity to study at Harvard University and to appreciate each day as having the opportunity to study there. In terms of the idea of happiness, they confuse the experience which, in this situation, is an experience of difficult, intense and demanding learning at Harvard Medical School which is perhaps the most prestigious medical school in the world. This is what Dolan (2015) calls confusion between the experience of happiness and the evaluation of what is supposed to make us happy. Does this mean that those students are unhappy at Harvard University? I do not think so because this is what makes sense for them. When one works hard to reach a goal which carries a certain meaning, this brings happiness because it determines a certain idea of happiness. On the other side, having to study something which seems futile and lacks meaning engenders a negative feeling which makes one unhappy. “Many things that one believes which makes us happier are transitory and can even negatively effect us  » explains Paul Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics. If the students associate, for example, coveted access to a university as prestigious as Harvard, they forget about the excess work, the high stress levels and the intense competition which reigns in addition to the cost. There are however activities which always make us immediately happy according to Dolan. Listening to your favorite music, spending 5 minutes more with a friend, helping a student who needs it and experiencing something new are small things which also have the power to slow down the process of time and to make us happy.

Dear students, here are 5 tips to be happy in your studies, inspired by Dolan’s Happiness by Design:

  • Keep in mind the links between the various study subjects and your future profession
  • Regularly set aside a few minutes to listen to music that you love and that inspires you
  • Spend a little more time with people that you love and accord them a place in your life
  • Help your peers who are struggling in their studies as this will gratify you
  • Take new courses, new subjects, new teaching methods as well the opportunity to have new experiences

In his new book happiness by design (2015), Dolan explains that it is more important to change what we do rather than what we think. Paradoxically, helping a peer is an act that we do more for ourselves than for another person, as we egotistically derive a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure from it and it is therefore a source of narcissistic happiness. In conclusion, as Dolan always says, most things that we think make us happy, do not; what makes us happy is concentrating on the person with us and what we are doing which brings us pleasure. I find particularly inspiring this statement from a recognized economist who believes that we should do the (small) things which make us happy and he believes that the recipe for happiness is spending time together rather than material goods.

Dolan, P. Happiness by design : finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life.(2015)