Excellent advice for grads

Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp, two sociologists (who also work on the excellent Sociological Images blog) have advice for this year's college grads that goes beyond "find your passion, follow your dreams" (something that actually doesn't work for most college grads, statistically). Instead, they offer research-grounded advice in how to lead a happy, full life:

2. Make Friends
Americans put far too much emphasis on finding Mr. or Ms. Right and getting married. We think this will bring us happiness. In fact, however, both psychological well-being and health are more strongly related to friendship. If you have good friends, you’ll be less likely to get the common cold, less likely to die from cancer, recover better from the loss of a spouse, and keep your mental acuity as you age. You’ll also feel more capable of facing life’s challenges, be less likely to feed depressed or commit suicide, and be happier in old age. Having happy friends increases your chance of being happy as much as an extra $145,500 a year does. So, make friends!

4. Don’t Take Your Ideas about Gender and Marriage Too Seriously
If you do get married, keep going with the flow. Relationship satisfaction, financial security, and happy kids are more strongly related to flexibility in the face of life’s challenges than any particular way of organizing families. The most functional families are ones that can bend. So partnering with someone who thinks that one partner should support their families and the other should take responsibility for the house and children is a recipe for disaster. So is being equally rigid about non-traditional divisions of labor. It’s okay to have ideas about how to organize your family – and, for the love of god, please talk about both your ideals and fallback positions on this – but your best bet for happiness is to be flexible.

Advice for College Grads from Two Sociologists

(Image: Graduation, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from ajschwegler's photostream)


  1. [Children are] a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.

    It’s good to see the pros and cons of things that can really tie you down quickly and permanently being discussed in an honest way. There still seems to be this idea in some circles that getting married, having kids and buying a house are the normal and obvious things to do. I am very pleased that I am not in the same position as some of my Chinese friends though, there is often an incredible amount of pressure to do all of this for your family. For many people, you must get married by 30 at the latest, then you must have a child (some people get divorced from people they love if they can’t have a child within a few years). To get married you or your family must have an apartment. When you have a child, often you must spend all hours working and saving to ensure that they have the best chance to support you and your family in the future, while you might spend very little time actually caring for them in their early years. I personally know more than one person who has left the country just to escape the pressure.

    Apropos the decision to have children, the NY Magazine article that is linked to is worth reading: http://nymag.com/news/features/67024/. TLDR: It boils down to more than just one kind of happiness; there’s a trade-off between the freedom and more frequent happy moments that you’ll get with being childless and the more nebulous (and often longer term) happiness associated with having children, which might be why parents are often so stressed and yet claim against all available data that their children make them happier. There’s also the huge factor of where you have children – a good social structure and different philosophies of parenting make for much more content parents. Added to the complexity is the fact that once you have kids, you won’t be any happier if they’re taken off your hands through a situation like the break up of the family.

    At the end of the day, it is a bit difficult to rationally explain why you would go through with it all. Before we had kids we were quite happily living on one of our salaries. We recently finished an adoption that involved two years of me working evenings and weekends in addition to my other full time job, plus organizing papers from a number of countries and arguing with different authorities, on top of health scares and the normal demands of parenting. While we didn’t know everything we were getting into at the start, the question of whether it was worth it based on how happy we were on an average day seems almost irrelevant at this point. I can look back over the charred remains of my social life and mental health and say I would probably do it again. Still, I would definitely encourage people to think very carefully before going down that route (or even having children the regular way).

  2. “Advice for college grads from two Sociologists”

    1. Don’t major in Sociology.

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