Find a little happiness

In the debate about higher education funding and in the context of tuition fees, one of the arguments for fees has always been that a university degree gives a graduate much better career choices and opportunities for earning an attractive income. There is plenty of statistical evidence to back that argument pretty conclusively.

But here’s a curiosity: while it may well be true that a graduate does or could earn more, apparently it does not follow that they are happy. In fact, an Australian team of researchers from Curtin University have found that even relatively happy students become unhappy upon graduating. This is how they put it:

‘…People who gain university degrees … are relatively happy while they are at school and while studying at university. It is upon completion of their degree that the happiness of university graduates declines. This is despite the fact that they do generally achieve better labour market outcomes upon entering the labour force. The inclusion of controls for labour market outcomes in the panel models only accentuates the lower level of happiness reported by university graduates, relative to those with intermediate vocational qualifications. By comparison, apprenticeships stand out as a pathway associated with a pronounced positive impact upon happiness during the training indenture.’

The researchers struggle a little when trying to explain this, and in fact the explanations are really guesswork. What they come up with is that students so much enjoy their lives at university that, frankly, everything that follows is an anti-climax and a disappointment and generates unhappiness. They also suggest that more educated people understand their environment better and can thus see that it’s really all hopeless (I am caricaturing the comments in the report a little here, but it’s not far off). Their more specific findings show that, really, graduates tend to be unhappy with everything, from the state of the economy to the amount of their earnings; they are even unhappy with their spare time activities. In fact, frankly they seem a miserable bunch of people if the research is to be believed.

I am not at all querying the research methodology used here, but still it is hard for me to believe that these findings reflect reality. Since coming across this report I have, admittedly quite at random, asked a number of acquaintances about it; some are graduates, some not. All of them disagreed, the non-graduates most vehemently (though this may be more a statement that since graduates have had such educational benefits that they really really should be happy).

But if the Australian research is right (and if it applies outside of Australia), then maybe we need to look again at the expectations we create in students and at the guidance and support we offer them, both before and after graduation. We are maybe not in the happiness business, but we should be educating people who will find pride and satisfaction in what they learn and in the potential that it gives them. If that is not happening, then something is wrong.

ALFRED MICHAEL DOCKERY, Education and happiness in the school-to-work transition, 2010, Centre for Labour Market Research, Curtin University of Technology

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3 Comments on “Find a little happiness”

  1. Steve Says:

    Learning is incredibly stimulating. Working a nine to five… maybe not so much. Which is why I went back to college. This is my happy period between bouts of office-based soul destruction.

  2. Belfield Says:

    Might some of this be to do with the Australian way of having to pay off college loans & debts when you first hit the working world?

  3. cormac Says:

    could it be that graduates responded to the questionnaire in a more critical, relective way than others? snobbisgh I know, but also a possibility


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