Bryan Caplan  

Happiness Research at a High School Reunion

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I've never been to a reunion, and don't plan to start. Compared to my present, my past is very depressing. But perhaps I'm just not as resourceful as Michael Blowhard, who has a long post of pithy observations on the human condition inspired by his last reunion. Highlight:

I couldn't formulate any generalizations at all where gals and life-satisfaction went, come to think of it. (Aside from "Don't become an alcoholic.") ... Where the guys clustered in easy-to-identify groups, for the ladies happiness seemed a flukier, one-by-one thing...

By contrast, the pattern behind the guys' life-happiness rankings stood out clear as day. Namely: Now that we're in our early 50s, the calmest and least-troubled guys are the ones who are working in technical fields. Without exception, these old classmates are now mellow and happy souls. They have the contentedness of people leading comprehensible, satisfying lives, lives characterized by finite obligations and dependable rewards.

At the other end of the mood-spectrum are the angst-ridden bunch: namely, guys who long ago fell in love with the arts. (I count myself in this group, by the way. I'll talk about them / us in the third person for the sake of convenience, though.) The guys in this group are jumpier and more tormented. They may perhaps have known giddier highs, but they've also experienced darker and more frequent lows, as well as far fewer steady, count-upon-able stretches.

Can any other folks who attend their high school reunions confirm or deny?


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
eric writes:

Wasn't that the theme of the Great Gatsby, you can't go back? I think it's a balance, not avoiding one's past, and not being ashamed of one's past, but not dwelling on it. And losing 20 lbs and driving 10 hours to meet someone you haven't seen in 30 years is dwelling on it.

Giovanni writes:

Mr. Caplan, Why is your past depressing?

I suspect you won't tell us, but I would love to hear that story.

Troy Camplin writes:

My guess would be that the stable ones went into technical fields, whiile the unstable ones (I'm guessing most if not all are at least a little bipolar, like myself) go into the humanities and the social sciences. The latter are trying to figure themselves out. The former are fine with who they are.

Lord writes:

How about the ones no longer working in technical fields? Less happy, or happiest of all?

Lauren writes:

I wouldn't be caught dead at a high school reunion, but coincidentally this past summer I got together for a couple of days in NYC with a bunch of high school friends. We'd gradually reconnected via the internet in the past couple of years and decided to see if the spark of friendship would rekindle face to face.

Though the sample was small, I'd have to say that it did not confirm Michael Blowhard's experience. For the males, being in the arts definitely didn't correlate with being more angst-ridden. (It didn't for the females, either, but that mirrors Blowhard's experience.)

Ticking off the people in the group, I'd have to report that, for males and females alike, the degree of angst-riddenness was correlated with how poorly or well one's job matched with the kinds of paths the person had seemed directed toward back in high school. The more accurately I could have predicted in high school that a person would end up in the kind of job/field the person was in today, the happier the person seems today. Roughly, achievement in the field of your choice correlates to happiness.

Maybe then, the explanation of Blowhard's experience is that men with an interest in the arts on average feel more pressured than women to take jobs outside of the arts instead of actually pursuing what they most love (whether or not they give in to that angst-creating pressure). In his article, he continues:

Most [of the art-oriented males] are still caught up in the "doing my art" vs. "keeping up a day job" plight.

I suppose I should report that this self-selected group of friends were almost all the angst-ridden, high achieving sort in high school. Those of us who were most angst-ridden then still have that character trait now, but thankfully it's mellowed in all of us to being more a tool for observing the world than a self-conflicted behavioral show-stopper.

And I'm happy to report that by the end of the wonderfully long day of Broadway, river-walking, dinner, and a roof with an unforgettable night view, every one of these friends was again emotionally recognizable to me, with a comfortable core of still being the person I knew so long ago, yet having grown into a fascinating adult amidst the buffeting challenges of experience. Of course, though, none of us feels like an adult yet. The essence of life is that you're never quite there yet.

Lauren--in my non-Editor's hat

Lord writes:

The difficulty is one of numbers and categories. I would assume doctors are satisfied but are too small in number to form a category and accounting and finance and perhaps teaching would tend to be lumped with technicians. I am somewhat surprised arts would be sizable enough to form a category. I would guess most end up in areas unrelated to anything in school and these might be grouped under arts for lack of any better designation.

"Like so many contemporary philosophers he especially enjoyed giving helpful advice to people who were happier than he was." --- Tom Lehrer

I was reminded somehow.

jb writes:

I'm about to hit the 20th year since high school graduation, and I'm actually eager to see everyone. Maybe it's because they teased and tormented me in high school because I was awkward and nerdy, and now, having 20 years of fairly significant achievement in technical fields, I'm actually reasonably pleased with the me I have become.

I'm imagining, Bryan, that your and my stories are fairly similar - uncomfortable youth, hard work & creative intelligence, and then a justifiably successful career path that follows. To me it seems like a great reason to attend a reunion, especially a 20th or (eek) 30th, to really close the book on that chapter of life.

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