A Campus Conundrum

Submitted by Happy City on June 18, 2014 - 8:04pm
An excerpt from Happy City

This flawed choice calculus is at work in all of us, including some of America's brightest young minds. Consider the anxiety of the Harvard University dormitory resident. Near the end of their first year, freshmen at Harvard get the results of the lottery that determines where they will live for the rest of their undergraduate studies. This is considered a life-changing moment. After all, the lottery determines their home, their neighborhood, and, to some extent, their social life for the following three years.

Harvard's dormitories vary wildly in their architecture, history, and social reputation. The most prestigious, Lowell House, with its grand redbrick facades, is a classic example of the Georgian Revival style. Its blue-capped bell tower is a local landmark, and its alumni include John Updike and Crown Princess Masako of Japan.


                                          Harvard's Lowell House

Harvard's newest residences, built in the 1970s, lie on the far end of the status and architectural spectrum. The concrete tower of Mather House was described in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, as a "riot-proof monstrosity designed by a prison architect," although its bacchanalian soap-foam parties have achieved mythical status. (Noted alumnus: Conan O'Brien.)


                                                     Mather House

News of a bad dormitory assignment is perceived as a psychic and social disaster. Elizabeth Dunn, now a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, endured the housing lottery in 1996, back when results were slipped under dormitory doors before dawn. Dunn recalls that some of her fellows actually performed mock prayers to "the housing gods" to deliver them from being assigned to the wrong house.

"All my friends wanted to be in Lowell House," Dunn told me. "It's so beautiful, it's got that classic dining hall, squash courts in the basement, a wood-paneled library--it's the image of the ideal Harvard life."

When they ripped open their envelopes to discover their collective assignment to Lowell House, Dunn and her friends were overjoyed. They were convinced that the place had the power to make or break their happiness.

But were they right? After a couple of years watching new freshmen go through the lottery--and studying psychology under Daniel Gilbert--Dunn wasn't so sure. Under his guidance, she set out to find out.

First, she asked a fresh batch of freshmen to predict how happy they would be if assigned to each of Harvard's twelve houses. The she and a colleague interviewed those students after a year, and then again after two years in their new homes, to see how happy they actually were.

The results would surprise many Harvard freshmen. Students sent to what they were sure would be miserable houses ended up much happier than they had anticipated.  And students who landed in the most desirable houses were less happy than they expected to be. Life in Lowell House was fine. But so was life in the reviled Mather House. Overall, Harvard's choice dormitories just didn't make anyone much happier than its spurned dormitories.

Why did the students get their happiness predictions so wrong? Dunn found a pattern that the students share with most of us: they put far too much weight on obvious differences between residences, such as location and architectural features, and far too little on things that were not so glaringly different, such as the sense of community and the quality of relationships they would develop in their dormitory. It wasn't just architecture, history, or interior styling that made people happy. A good campus life was fueled by friendship and the social culture nurtured by longtime house masters and tutors. Mather House's soap-foam parties may have had a more powerful cheering effect than Lowell's stately dining hall.

The curious part was this: most students said that they knew that social life would be more important to their happiness than architecture, yet they still put greater weight on physical features. This is the standard mis-weighing of extrinsic and intrinsic values: we may tell each other that experiences are more important than things, but we constantly ma ke choices as though we didn't believe it.

Lucky for them, the Harvard students were merely predicting their happiness. They weren't actually able to choose their home. In the rest of the city, millions of people get the happiness calculus wrong, time and again, and have to live with the consequences for years.