November 8, 2008

Don't Worry. Be Happy.

I assert that high school seniors have too much stress in their lives. One of my classes this term is composed of some very high achieving and intelligent business students. Their ACT scores are all in the 30s, and their GPAs are equally high. They're very involved with extra-curricular activities. On weekdays, they attend school during the day and go to their part-time jobs at night, leaving very little free time.

But the biggest cause of their stress is the enormous decisions that they need to make about their futures. The students in this class are applying to several colleges and trying to decide where to go and what to do once they get there. This is a constant topic of conversation for these students. They know that this one decision can have a major effect on the rest of their lives. This decision is consuming them.

Most of the blame for this stress can be placed on parents and teachers. For their entire lives, we have been harping on them about how important college is and how big this decision is. We're always telling them to achieve more, to do better. We're telling them that they need to be in organizations and take leadership roles in order to have a leg up on the competition. We're telling them that they need the highest grades, the best test scores, the most friends, and the longest resumes, and that if they don't, their futures are ruined. They've been over-scheduled since the time they could walk. We have been watching and criticizing their every move. No wonder they're stressed.

Please, let's take some pressure off of these kids. Let's stop telling them from the time they're in diapers that they have to be the best at everything. Let's tell them the truth about college. The truth is that controlling for other variables, life satisfaction has absolutely no correlation to where you go to college (pdf). It does not matter how prestigious your school is. The truth is that many people end up getting jobs outside of their major areas of study. The truth is that these students will not just have one career in their lifetimes (pdf), but that they're free to change careers when their interests change.

The truth is that human beings are generally not very good at predicting what will make us happy. We greatly overestimate how happy we'll be about good decisions and how disappointed we'll be about bad decisions. In reality, people are very resilient and will be about as happy regardless of which choice they make.

Seniors: Relax. Smile. Take a deep breath. You'll be fine!

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