Why do we make choices we know have a good chance of making us miserable?
I’ve long been wary of what I call the “And Then What?” trap. I see it all around me, and it goes something like this:
A parent makes it their mission to get their child into the best preschool in their area. That school funnels the child into the best K-12 prep school, outside of which they participate in the ideal mix of extra-curricular activities. Starting in, say, third grade, the parent begins shelling out a small fortune for tutors and weekend tutors as well as private coaches and classes to make sure the child has an edge over all the other children, and everything will line up for admission to Princeton, maybe Amherst or Stanford. Upon graduation, the child, now a young adult, lands a six-figure job that will soon afford them a beautiful home and a beautiful second home, vacations to all the right places, and a driver who will arrive each morning in a black Mercedes to shuttle their 2.5 children back and forth from their top-rated preschool.
And then what?
Well, apparently, misery. As well as anxiety, depression, and possibly lifelong feelings of dissatisfaction and discontent. So why do parents buy into it? Why do they feed their children into it? Why don’t they choose to adopt a different system of beliefs that has a much greater chance of bringing them happiness?
In general, I’m not interested in anyone who claims to know how to make people happier. It all feels a little hucksterish, a little scammy. But I am very interested why people choose to live in a way, to have their children live in a way, that they know will almost certainly result in more misery than joy. So, when I heard that a podcast called “The Happiness Lab” did an episode about why getting rid of grades in school could vastly improve students’ well-being, and one called “The Unhappy Millionaire,” not only did I listen to them, I listened to them back-to-back.
The podcast is hosted by professor Laurie Santos. In 2018, she taught a class at Yale called “Psychology and the Good Life.” Nearly one quarter of all undergraduates enrolled, making it the most popular class in the university’s three-century history. In the first month of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 600,000 people signed up for the free online version of the course, called “The Science of Well-Being.” As of May 27th, 2,536,355 people had enrolled.
The Yale syllabus says the course begins by introducing some misconceptions students may have about what makes for a satisfying life, “We’ll see that many things we think matter for our happiness — wealth, material possessions, and even good grades — simply don’t. In fact, recent studies suggest that these goals may even undermine our sense of well-being.”
In the episode of her podcast called “Making the Grade,” Santos discusses the origin of the letter-grading system (A-F) and the deeply damaging effect it has on students, who are also constantly bombarded with other equally harmful “extrinsic motivators.” These are rewards from outside forces, such as likes on social media or a buzz from a Fitbit praising them for reaching 10,000 steps. These rewards stand in opposition intrinsic motivation, which means you do something simply because you love it not because you’re going to get a gold star at the end that will move you that much closer to admission to Princeton.
Santos discussed one particularly dismaying study of sixth graders which found that when children were working for grades they did worse, felt worse, and aimed lower. Overall, she explained, “Grades can take experiences that our minds normally find really enjoyable and turn them into a source of dread.”
On the podcast, Tracey George, Director of the Good Life Center at Yale, shared a memory from seventh grade, which she attended at a private school outside of Cleveland. A girl she knew was crying in front of her locker, shaking with fear. George asked what was wrong. The girl replied that she’d gotten her first low grade — a “B” — and was terrified it would mean she wouldn’t get into the Ivy League school she’d already decided she wanted to attend. She was 12-years-old.
When asked whether high levels of anxiety, stress, and fear were just an “Ivy League problem,” George said no. “This is an American thing. This is our country and how we are approaching education. It’s really detrimental and is breaking students down.”
Santos cited a national survey in which more than 40% of current college students reported they’re too depressed to function. More than 60 percent experience overwhelming anxiety and more than one in 10 said they’d seriously considered suicide in the last year. George says the result of students “wrapping up their sense of value and purpose as a human in their grades” not only does severe psychological and emotional damage, but also physical damage, ranging from headaches to digestive issues.
I know, I know, you’re thinking — not my kid. My kid is fine. They get so much love, so much attention, they want for nothing. Why would they be depressed? That’s not going to happen. My kid will fall in the “right” percent, the healthy percent. And if they don’t, we’ll get them whatever help they need — psychotherapy, medication, a private meditation teacher. We’ll throw money at it and it’ll go away.
If I told you that research showed your child would have a 40% chance of getting Covid-19 if they got on an airplane tomorrow, would you let them do it? How about a 60% chance of getting the inflammatory syndrome associated with Covid-19? I’m guessing not. Then why are parents so confident they’ll beat those odds when it comes to anxiety, depression, and suicide? It must be that they believe getting their kid into a “good” college is worth the risk of continuing down one particular road, worth continuing to tell themselves that their child will be just fine even though overwhelming evidence tells them that is not true.
In the podcast, Santos speaks to Alfie Kohn, an author and educator, who is described by Time magazine as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades [and] test scores.” His ideas were powerful enough that Oprah Winfrey had him on her show twice in one year back the 1990’s. (If you were alive in the 1990’s, you know that’s a big deal.) Kohn is hardcore, coming right out of the gate to Santos with, “If you’re asking should we just get rid of grades– yes. Grades poison everything we touch.”
Kohn says there are three overall effects of grades: They undermine students’ interest in learning, they lead students to try to avoid challenging tasks, and they lead students to think in a shallower or more superficial way. He calls for a radical overhaul, telling Santos, “You can’t improve the system by merely tweaking the way grades are done. You’ve got to get rid of [them], which a number of schools have done.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, in an effort not to compound the stress students already feel, four Ivy league schools — Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth — have adopted a form of mandatory pass/fail grading, while the other four have implemented an opt-in to pass/fail. More than two dozen colleges and universities have announced that the S.A.T. test would be optional for applicants seeking to enroll in 2021. To that I say a most enthusiastic, “Right on.”
Santos is aware of the contradiction in being a professor who doesn’t believe in grades teaching at a university that requires her to grade students. But because she’s in the thick of it, she believes she’s in excellent position to help change the thinking around grades at Yale, and in the educational system at large.
In my own small way, I think I am as well. Allow me to explain: My husband and I send our child to a private school, the same private school I and my three siblings attended. We chose to roll in a high-rollers world. We own it, and, so far, don’t regret it. That’s because, despite all the keeping up with the Joneses nonsense, the superficial fanciness and one-upmanship, I remain convinced that the core mission of the school endures — and that is, first and foremost, to produce ethical and responsible members of society. Good people of good character, who know right from wrong, treat others with kindness, have an open and curious mind, value justice, service, inclusion, and diversity, especially of ideas.
But this core mission has become a bit obscured of late, a bit muddled. It’s still in there somewhere, but you have to dig through some layers to get to it. For example: When I was a student there, the school was not the pressure-cooker it is today. Of course, kids had some stress over where they would go to college, they might’ve had an S.A.T. tutor for a few months, but none of that was the center of our universe. We spent our weekends hanging out, not following a spreadsheet of activities curated to impress an admissions officer.
But here we are today with hundreds of schools, including mine, that have become pressure-cookers. Rather than agreeing as a community, as a society, to turn down the heat, put on the brakes, and take a serious timeout to examine what’s going on here, most schools have decided the answer is more “wellness” education. We’re still going to stress you out bigtime, but we’ll give you tools to manage the stress… that we’re causing.
So-called progressive schools, like mine, are also bumping up against another problem, another point of confusion for kids. These schools teach kids that success lies in being altruistic, but the world at large tells them to look out for number one. The school says if you want to be happy, pursue your passion. The world says screw that. If you want to be happy, pursue a paycheck.
That brings us to the second podcast episode I listened to, “The Unhappy Millionaire.” For this one, Santos interviews Dr. Clay Cockrell, a clinic social worker and psychotherapist based in New York, who works with the ultra-wealthy or as he says, “the one percent of the one percent.” The biggest problem Cockrell sees among his patients is that they feel trapped in “golden handcuffs.” They don’t want to give away their money because they love having it yet it brings them “so much unhappiness and isolation and guilt.” (You’re not exactly feeling the sympathy, I know, but stay with me.)
Santos explains that because of this trapped feeling the super-rich fall victim to the same fallacy most regular folk do, thinking that if they can just get some more money their problems will be solved. “This one guy had 500 million dollars,” Cockrell says, “but had a sense that once [he] hit that billion — that’s when things would really change… They’re searching for happiness… People don’t believe me… but after living in this world, working with these people, I understand money is not going to buy you happiness. So be careful what you wish for.”
Santos also speaks with Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, professor, and author of the New York Times bestseller “Stumbling on Happiness,” who says, “It turns out when people get exactly what they want, they’re not always happy. When they get the opposite of what they wanted, they often are.”
Within that finding lies great opportunity. Every one of us is now living through a time when we are pretty much getting the opposite of what we want. We’re stuck at home, our kids can’t go to school, everything’s closed, cancelled, called off. But in addition to everything the pandemic has taken away from us, it also gives us a chance to rethink everything– how we educate, how we parent, how we live, what we want, what we need, who we are. On a philosophical level, I think Covid-19 may have descended upon us because we must rethink everything. This is our shot, maybe our last shot, to get with the program before Rome falls. Let’s not give it away.
What can we do?
Like Santos, I acknowledge the contradiction in the choice I’ve made with regard to education. I chose a private school even though that school is moving in a direction I don’t like. But rather than burn the system down, I want to use my position from within it to call out what’s broken and work to change it. That starts with me and my husband walking the walk on all of this.
We want our child to do well in school. But we don’t define doing well as something higher than a “B”. We define it as what happens when she does her best. We’d never get her a tutor so she could gain “an edge.” We’d get her a tutor if her teacher called and said she needed extra help. When we think about the “right” college for her (something we won’t do for years), we imagine a place where she’s engaged in what she’s learning, excited and challenged by it. Where she feels comfortable, safe, and respected. Where she makes good friends, laughs a lot, and — gasp — has fun.
If that school is Yale, great. If it’s a big university or a small college, that’s great, too. We really don’t care — as long as it fits the criteria above. Also, our daughter’s choice doesn’t have to be right for us. It’s not about us. Or impressing the Joneses. It’s about making sure our child has the best experience she can possibly have. And we leave the door open to all options, especially in the times we’re living in. Maybe she’ll want to take a gap year like Malia Obama. Again, “Right on.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who thinks K-12 education should be “making things out of granola all day,” as one friend recently said of his daughter’s progressive school, or that we should give everyone a trophy just for participating. Forget that concept. I’m about as competitive as you can get. I believe in hard work and stick-to-itiveness and earning what you have. I think you should comfort a kid when things get hard, but also let them know that there is such a thing as losing and being bad at something, and neither has to be a trauma that defines you forever, it’s just life, so rub dirt on it and get back out there.
I’m also not going to pretend I don’t care about money or that I don’t sometimes get jealous of what other people have. Of course, I do. I have moments when I wished I earned more, had more living space, and could buy as many cashmere sweaters as I want. But what I don’t have are moments when I think where my child goes to college is going to determine whether she has a fulfilling and happy life. Or that grades or standardized tests are good for students. I think they cause anxiety and misery and promote unhealthy competition for no reason. I know they do. We all know they do.
Problem is, I suspect most of my fellow parents don’t share my point of view, at least not enough to do anything about it. I suspect that most moms and dads who earnestly nod their heads in public at ideas like the ones Kohn espouses are privately sweating bullets about lining up that private tutor, getting that travel sports schedule nailed down, and surfing web sites like Urban Baby to see what they should worry about next.
I’m not sure there’s much hope of convincing them to get behind a different mode of thinking, to change their definition of what it means to be a success, and start passing that new definition down to their kids. Big change is possible. We did it as a society with habits we came to learn were bad for us, like smoking. But it took a long time.
And maybe those who are all-in on prepping and grooming their kids think people like me are hippie-dippie naïfs who don’t get how the real world works, don’t understand that there is only one real way to “make it” and that is to become part of the only percent that matters. And if you don’t get there, you might as well not exist.
The nihilistic part of me thinks they’re right. With the stratospheric levels of wealth people can now achieve, we’ve crossed a bridge and we can’t cross back. We’ve created a system where the American dream is an illusion. The little guy can try all he wants, but he doesn’t stand a chance.
But the wiser part of me knows that believing being able to land your private jet atop a tiny gilded mountaintop means you matter more than 99.9 percent of the rest of the population makes you the biggest sucker there is. Aren’t you by definition a loser if you’ve locked yourself into a life that’s all about playing a game you can never win? You know someone else will always have bigger, better, more, and yet you’ve committed to an existence that’s defined by constant competing and comparing? I mean, what could be dumber than that? What could be more pathetic than idolizing Bobby Alexrod?
Caveat time: Not all billionaires, or those who aspire to be, are miserable or soulless. I’m sure many of them use their powers for good. But here’s a thought exercise: Think of your three most “successful” friends, the ones society at large would deem successful because of their wealth and status. Now imagine they lost all their money and were flat broke. All their material possessions are gone. Would you still want to be friends with them? Would you still pick them for your team? Would you still choose them to be in your foxhole if you were going to war? If the answers are no, no, and no, that oughta tell you something.
Okay, so say you want to break free of the “And Then What?” trap — how do you do it?
During his Covid-19 briefings, Governor Cuomo likes to talk about how nice it is that people thank the frontline workers, hold up signs for them, write them notes of appreciation, clap at 7 p.m. — but that the real way you thank people is with your actions. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. He doesn’t just praise the doctors and grocery store clerks and delivery people, he works to enact legislation that will get them increased testing and PPE and hazard pay.
Educators and academics can write all the books and give all the TED Talks they want about how to reduce anxiety in kids, but they’re meaningless if no one acts on what they learn from them. And putting a Band-Aid on the problem isn’t enough. You can’t have a school that’s a pressure-cooker for kids and think the answer is to teach them mindfulness. Sure, mindfulness is cool. But real change is systematic change, and that requires getting at the root cause, which is a set of practices and values that is harming our kids.
I’d love to run a nationwide experiment in all schools that extends the pass/fail and optional standardized test policy for, say, two years after the virus is gone, two years in which we’re “back to normal” and see if anything changes. If once all those letters and numbers are gone, the kids relax more and smile more, get off the anxiety medication, heal the eating disorder.
During those two years parents could also stop forcing their kids to enroll in extra-curriculars they are conditioned to enjoy because of their “yield,” let them bag what they loathe and pick what they love — activities they feel feed their minds and hearts and bodies and souls. Will kids then find a peace they hadn’t known before or been allowed to know? Will they, as Kohn believes, become more interested in learning, take on more challenging tasks, and think in deeper ways? Will they be on their way to becoming happier human beings?
If you want to check yourself in this area, take a look at how much of what your child does outside school is to “build the résumé” and how much was born of their organic desire. (And unless you’re Itzhak Perlman, please don’t tell me your kid naturally gravitated toward violin lessons at age two.) Ask yourself: Would your child be doing the activity if you weren’t convinced it checked a box on the well-roundedness list or was a means to a greater end? Would your child be doing it if no one was watching, timing, or filming it? Would you let them quit if it was regularly making them miserable?
I’m sure some parents are tsking at me and my husband, thinking, “Man, are they gonna be sorry come college admissions time.” I’m sure we’ll have moments of doubt when we’ll worry we haven’t driven our daughter hard enough, didn’t pay enough attention to “the stakes.” We’ll wonder if we should’ve done travel this or tutor that on weekends instead of playing pickup hoops or tossing the ball around. But then we’ll remind ourselves that’s just fear talking, and return to the facts, what all the evidence tells us is true.
I heard a saying recently: You can’t think your way into acting different, but you can act your way into thinking different. In other words, you can take the opportunity you have in this bizarre time out of time to start walking that walk and soon enough you’ll find yourself on a new road, one you can stay on after the pandemic ends because you know it will lead to greater happiness than the one you were travelling down before it began.