A Prof's idea of Happiness
(This is a mail an IIT prof sent his class after he taught them the course. It's an amazing read.)
Here are some comments on the Happiness assignment.
I will begin by describing some of the major issues raised in your essays. I will then describe why I gave this assignment -- why I think more students should relate happiness and academics. Then I will talk about job satisfaction and competition.
WHAT YOU WROTE: SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS
First, the most important source of happiness reported by many, many people were family ties -- happiness in just being with your parents/siblings as well as enjoying specific family events and get togethers. As it turns out, this also tops the list of what makes me happy.
A number of people did say that academics/solving problems gives them a kick and in general makes them happy. Several also said that accomplishment makes them happy. These two are of course different -- you may be happy with accomplishment because it is noticed by your family and friends; the study/work needed for the accomplishment might not have made you happy -- just that you have the persistence and mental strength needed to complete a task once you undertake it.
Several people also mentioned hobbies such as music that made them really happy. There seemed to be some disappointment that they cannot pursue the hobbies and some hope that after they are settled in life they will devote time to their hobbies.
Finally, there were also several who said that the competition in IIT makes them nervous and prevents them from enjoying what is going on.
ACADEMICS AND HAPPINESS
The first point I would like to make is that it is worth asking yourself whether you are happy with academics. By this I dont mean the grade you get -- but whether the material you learn is itself causing any excitement in you, whether you are feeling that you are learning anything of significance, or whether you are seeing anything beautiful in what you are studying. The beauty/excitement in academics is not always easy to see, however. Anyone can see the beauty in snow clad mountains/flowers/ocean. To see the beauty in a computer you need to be able to look under the surface a little bit. But once you do see this beauty, it is as exciting as natural beauty. Anyone can see the excitement of being able to play tennis well or play the guitar well. I hope you can also see that being able to design good algorithms (or analyze them or program them) is an ability as hard to cultivate -- it has as many intricacies and frustrations as there are in playing tennis or learning music. But it is also as satisfying.
Being able to relate happiness to academics has a few other important side effects.
I feel that as an adult it is very important to get a lot of satisfaction out of your work. After all, you will spend about 10-14 hours every day on it. Note that satisfaction is different from salary/promotions/prestige. You may have salary/promotions/prestige but may not really like your job. If this happens, then you will have to look elsewhere for your real happiness -- remember you only have 8-6 hours for it outside your work. And that time is also needed for many of your natural responsibilities as an adult (including maintaining the family ties that are important to us).
If you developed the ability to see beauty and excitement while you are a student, you will find it easier, I think to see beauty in your job too. This ability I am talking about is not related to CSE -- it is the general attitude of looking under the surface, looking for patterns and order etc.
I dont mean to suggest that you should learn to be content with your job -- by all means aspire for promotions/better jobs/salary. But decide for yourself whether the Narayan Murthy's of the world accomplish a lot because they like their work intrinsically or whether they work (even without liking it much) because of the money/prestige involved.
Many of your essays report that academics in IIT is very competitive and causes stress and hurry and so on.
I think there are reasons to ignore competition as well as reasons to pay attention to it.
Competition usually focuses on external attributes -- how many marks you get rather than what you have learned. To keep things in perspective, note that your relative standing in the department will play a smaller role after you finish than the role played by what you really have learned. So it is worth focusing on what you should be learning -- are you learning the ideas/techniques being taught -- never mind what others are doing. Again the message is similar to the one before: focus on the material you are learning, see the beauty in it and so on, rather than worry about the marks.
Of course, you cannot ignore competition and marks entirely. For the simple reason that most of us have a tendency to get lazy -- some kind of spontaneous decay. So competition keeps us on our toes. It asks us "how come he/she gets so many marks while I cannot, am I just lazy?". If you think you are working hard, then you could ask yourself -- "how come he/she gets more marks and understands everything faster -- is there something more he/she sees in all this that I dont? Is it because he/she is having more FUN with this than I am?". If you can ask such questions you will be able to make competition work for you than hurt you.
I am not an expert on happiness, or on people's motivations, personalities and abilities. So what I have written is to be taken with a grain of salt, and as an inexpert opinion.
Yes, I have in fact seen people who can do work that they find unpleasant just because they have will power that keeps them going. However, most high acheivers I have seen have made their mark because they love their work. The first step to loving work later in life is to develop the ability to love academics right now. This will require efforts on the part of students, and also, I am sure on part of faculty. If more students participate in this process, the better it will be.