University News

Students report faring well in pursuit of happiness

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
This article is part of the series Fall 2012 Student Poll

Nearly 84 percent of students said they feel at least as happy as their peers on average, according to a poll conducted by The Herald earlier this month. About half the students polled reported feeling equally as happy as their peers. More than 35 percent reported feeling happier, while only around 13 percent of students said they were less happy than their peers.

“Everyone that I see seems pretty happy and has a positive outlook, but they might not think other people are as happy,” said Emily Wilkins ’14. Students may pick up on others’ stress, causing them to underestimate the happiness of their peers, she said.

Nikolaos Melachrinos ’15 thought more students would have reported feeling less happy than their peers. It is difficult to know how most people, aside from your closest friends, spend their time, he said. So it is easy to think, “I have all this work to do and look at all these people having fun,” he said.

“That’s awesome,” he said upon hearing the poll results. “We all have a lot of things to do, but at the end of the day we’re all having a great time.”

Samantha Isman ’15 agreed that Brown’s atmosphere creates a culture of happiness. “We’re given so much freedom here that inevitably you end up doing what you love,” she said.

The Herald poll results also show that happiness is not meaningfully correlated with other variables like gender, hours of sleep or relationship status.

Monica Palid ’16 said given the diversity of experiences, this result was not very surprising. “Some people want to be in a relationship, some people don’t. Some people can’t function without 10 hours of sleep, some people are fine with six,” she said.

Brown has garnered a reputation for being a happy campus. Newsweek’s the Daily Beast listed Brown as the school with the fourth-happiest students in their 2012 rankings. The University also nabbed the number one spot on the Princeton Review’s Happiest Students list in 2009 and 2010, though it dropped to third in the 2011 rankings and to 14th this year.

But even if the overall level of student happiness is high compared to other colleges, the general atmosphere does not fully explain the poll result. Respondents were asked to evaluate their happiness levels compared to their peers – if most students feel happy, then it is likely their peers feel happy as well. In such a circumstance, the average overall happiness level would be higher, but students would still recognize their relative position in the distribution.

Marina Do Nas Cimento ’15 said this pattern of results likely arises because people do not accurately judge their peers.”When you say you’re happier than someone else, part of what you’re implying is that you really don’t care how happy other people are. You just know you’re happy, and you’re fine with that idea.”

Do Nas Cimento’s idea is probably correct, according to Joachim Krueger, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences.

People tend to “self-enhance,” he said.

“This type of thing has been done many, many times,” Krueger said. The Herald’s poll results align with past studies in social psychology, he added.

 Krueger cited a study conducted by the Swedish researcher Ola Svenson in 1981. In the study, Svenson asked both American and Swedish drivers to rate their relative driving abilities. 80 percent of U.S. drivers and 70 percent of Swedish drivers reported that they were better-than-average drivers. 

“The kicker is that they included people laid up in hospitals after accidents that they themselves had caused,” Krueger said. “They found ways to discount the accident.”

“The explanation is that people don’t really compare themselves with others,” he said. For example, when people rate how happy they are, they think about the range of emotions they know, from despair to ecstasy. Most people tend to think that on average, their emotions fall above the midpoint of that scale, Krueger said. “And they don’t really have much of a clue about how other people feel,” he added.

Such a theory is supported by a study done by the researchers Yechiel Klar and Eilath Giladi in 1999. They asked people to rate their own and their peers’ happiness on a nine-point scale and then to compare their happiness levels to those of others. They found that peoples’ judgments of their absolute happiness were strongly correlated with their judgments of their relative happiness. Judgments about peer happiness were almost completely ignored.

Some researchers believe that the self-enhancement bias has beneficial qualities. It can, for example, increase self-esteem. But it can also be harmful, by results in narcissism, for example, Krueger said.

The positive moods that self-enhancement induces are beneficial to survival, according to a paper by Edward Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois who has written four books on happiness and subjective well-being.

“Humans are built for mild happiness, unless things go wrong,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. “So we are mostly positive about ourselves and our friends. … We may think the world is going to heck, but our lives are not.”


Written questionnaires were administered to 959 undergraduates Oct. 17-18 in the lobby of J. Walter Wilson and the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center during the day and the Sciences Library at night. The poll has a 2.9 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. The margin of error is 4.4 percent for the subset of males and 3.9 percent for females.

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