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Being a happy undergrad

  1. Apr 14, 2012 #1
    I was up last night reading on studying methods, happiness and "life management", in general. One post led to another and tonight, I found myself this page.

    What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with Cal Newport or do you think that his hypothetical "happy undergrad" is just an "ideal", one that can never really exist?

    I, for one, agree with a lot of what he had to say and found many of his posts very helpful. I was never one for self-help articles or books, but this guy does a very good job at it. It is self help, but it's not bogus. At least, it doesn't look like it and it doesn't sound like it!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 14, 2012 #2
    Well I would contest the notion of "happiness" in general. It varies broadly from person to person. Some people actually enjoy -in their own twisted way- racing against time to get coursework done/taking heavy courseloads.

    Taking a "lighter" or "balanced" course load instead of the standard isn't an option for me as I -like many other students- need a full course load to bring in the grants that allow me to attend college in the first place (outside of my province). So the "happiness" of getting my education comes at a cost of the "happiness" of getting involved in non-academic endeavors or a social life (I've partially given up on sports and music practice as a consequence).
  4. Apr 14, 2012 #3
    One needs to weigh short term happiness with long-term happiness. Perhaps taking easier classes will decrease your stress level and leave you more time for "fun" activities, but will also put you further away from achieving your desired level of competence in a subject. I find this article simplistic. Anyone who has played sports or studied music seriously knows there are times when you have to push yourself and suffer some short-term unhappiness in order to get a feeling of accomplishment and and long-term happiness. It's the same if you're studying an academic subject such as physics or engineering. Sure, sometimes you'll be stressed and unhappy, but hopefully you're doing it for an overall feeling of happiness, pride, and fulfillment. If you lack that feeling of "long term happiness", though, perhaps that particular major/activity is not right for you.
  5. Apr 14, 2012 #4


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    I don't disagree with the basic philosophy being presented. It's very important for students to critically assess (and re-assess) what the concepts of hapiness (long and short term) and success mean to them.

    1. Keep your course load light.
    Alright, but you also have to keep your course load in line with your goals. If those include making it into graduate school and learning as much as you can about your field, chances are you're going to need to push yourself. And how are you supposed to know how hard classes are going to be? Some of the most challenging courses I thought I was going to have turned out to be the easiest ones, and vice-versa. That's not to mention finishing time and the cost of staying in school. For me it might have been less stressful to do my undergrad over five years instead of four, but that would have cost both expenses for that year as well as another year of not earning a full-time salary. Opportunity cost has a lost of variables to it and it can be tricky to balace them.

    The point though, I suppose, is to at least make an attempt to gauge this for yourself. If you know you're diving into an overwhelming courseload, think twice about your reasons for doing so.

    2. Get involved in an activity you find important.

    3. Keep lots of time free for spontaneity.
    There's a self-discipline aspect to this. Some people just aren't that constructive with their down time. They have an afternoon free and sit in front of the TV or surf the internet and don't really feel all that better about themselves for having wasted the time. So the key here is to know (or learn about) yourself and figure out what balance works for you.
  6. Apr 14, 2012 #5
    By "keep your course load light", I think that he wasn't saying "do only easy courses", rather don't overload on ones which can seem objectively hard, say, the honours variant of every course you're taking and taking 6 courses per semester instead of the usual and minimum 4. (for example)

    He wrote another article on people with accomplishments that one finds insane and impossible to achieve. The basic idea is that if one were to think hard enough about the said acts and break them down, it all makes sense and looks somehow doable. He also uses himself as an example - he got into grad school for CS.

    His thoughts/observations are also usually very general and as such, if one likes what he says, they'd have to be willing to twist it a little to adapt it to their life. Another thing, as Lavabug pointed out, some people thrive under stress. And for some people, doing a double major and getting involved in 2 different research projects is bliss.

    I'm more laid back and my previous approach to studies made me way too stressed for me to seriously complete, let alone understand, anything. Now, my approach is a more casual one. Whether it's for studying some music theory to later then apply it to guitar or if it's studying physics. I know what I have to do and I just start doing it without thinking too much about deadlines. When I'm bored, I switch to something else. It seems to be working so far.

    Also, Choppy, the spontaneity thing has a lot to do with individual personality traits. With more time available, one might be able to just walk across campus and try get involved in a rather casual activity. Maybe it's a poetry reading or perhaps it's taking that new girl you just met out for coffee. It could also just be sitting under a tree with a book. If one is perfectly happy staying in a surfing or watching TV, there's no problem at all. If one isn't happy about that, then more free time (i.e, when all required work for the day is completed) is available for one to do more "spontaneous" things. I used to really make things hard for myself when I wasn't able to finish my work and eventually, I'd neither get the work done, nor would I do something I enjoy and would just stay in, doing something on the internet. The key is to set more short term goals. Say, I have my calculus tutorial on Friday. I'll do my required reading on Monday and Tuesday, while doing a few problems. On Wednesday and Thursday, I'll finish the problem set. That way, I'll be doing a bit of every course I have, without feeling overwhelmed and still getting everything done.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2012
  7. Apr 15, 2012 #6
    I think a happy undergrad can exist so long as he convinces himself that his daily studies are of interest. But that is quite a feat in itself. For that, you have to be really good at what you do, you have to be obsessed or extremely curious, you have to constantly connect the pieces together to form the bigger picture, you need like minded-individuals to converse with, and you need a good sense of how to influence yourself.

    But even if everything goes perfect, there will always be grunt work. Aristotle says that to be happy, one must do everything in moderation. This goes against everything in which academia and society is based on. Especially since we are projecting towards a highly specialized society. But I think there is a potential way around this. Which brings me to the next way to be a happy undergrad--near perfect time management. Lets look at it this way, there are 168 hours in a week. (I had all the calculations with percentages before but I can't seem to find it.) At most, 63 hours of the week should be spent sleeping, that is about 37.5% of your week. That is a comfortable 9 hours a day. This leaves us with 103 hours left in the week. Next, one can/should dedicate.. hmm let's say 53 (31.5%) hours a week (including lecture time and transportation (depending on your major and other factors).

    This leaves 50 hours left in the week. Let us say 10 hours is spend on basic food and hygiene needs. With the 40 hours left, you have time to pursue other activities to your leisure. I think what is to be said next is extremely important. A happy undergraduate will use the 40 hours wisely. A happy undergraduate will use it to maximize his happiness per time unit. This takes a lot of introspection--because it is hard to notice what things leave you more happy. Personally, I think there is much more to be gained from experiencing something new or pleasant than to sit home and watch a rerun on TV.
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