The Secret to Doing your best on finals: Be happy

Dungeon yourself in the library for weeks on end with no social interaction, very few breaks, and give up all your hobbies. That is the secret to finals success, right? Nope.

This blog post* does not care about your personal happiness at all. It only cares about your success on finals and yet this blog post is telling you that social interaction, full participation in your hobbies, and breaks from your studies are critical to you reaching your full potential on final exams.

What do I mean by this? Well, most people adhere to the idea that when you achieve success, then you will be happy.  “Once I get good grades, then I will be happy! I am miserable now but once I lose 10 pounds, then I will find happiness. Once I get a job, then I will be happy.” But that idea is totally wrong.

It turns out, the opposite is true. According to The Happiness Advantage, a wonderful book by Shawn Achor, we now know from cutting-edge research in neuroscience and positive psychology that

“happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result…happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement-giving us the competitive edge that [Achor calls] the happiness advantage.”

This is a very exciting insight. It means that you actually work better and are more productive when you’re happy. And you can learn how to retrain your brain to have a more positive outlook.

Let’s look at the research:

A 2004 Harvard Crimson poll found that as many as 4 in 5 Harvard students suffered from depression

at least once during the school year with nearly half of students suffering from depression so debilitating they could not function.

These findings are not limited to Harvard. As Achor explains in his book, recent surveys have shown that less than half of workers are happy in their jobs and depression rates are 10 times higher than they were in 1960.

Achor set out to find what set the 1 in 5 Harvard students that were happy apart from the others. How were they different? Expectations and mindset are everything, it turns out.

Achor explains that from the time they were born until they set foot at Harvard, the typical Harvard student was the top 1% in everything, dominated every standardized test she took, and was used to being the best  at all the things she did. The problem with Harvard (and with a great law school like Notre Dame) is that 50% of these students who have been so great at everything their entire lives are going to be below average!

Achor goes on to explain what happens to these students as it dawns on them that they are below average at Harvard:

“To make matters worse, this pressure- and the depression that follows-pulls people inward, away from their friends, family, and social supports, at a time when they need the support most. They skip meals, shut themselves in their rooms or the library, emerging only for the occasional kegger…”

Unsurprisingly, the happy Harvard students were not doing those things and they had an entirely different attitude about Harvard. The happy students felt privileged just to be at Harvard at all and did not see themselves as below average but as working hard at a very challenging school. They stayed socially connected, explored a variety of different activities on campus, and did not focus on grades but instead focused on learning and opening their minds to new ideas.

If you take away anything from this blog post, take away Achor’s insight that:

“It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.”

Achor has boiled his research down to seven principles we can all use to rewire our brains and become happier and more productive:

  1. The Happiness Advantage: Retrain your brain to be positive
  2. The Fulcrum and the Lever: Adjust your mindset to have the power to succeed
  3. The Tetris Effect: Retrain your brain to get out of a pattern of negativity and to get into a pattern of finding possibilities and opportunities
  4. Falling Up: When defeated or stressed, our brains chart paths to help us cope. This principle helps us get out of failure and to be happier as a result of the failure
  5. The Zorro Circle: When challenges loom, our rational brains can get hijacked by emotion. This principle teaches us how to regain control by first focusing on small, manageable goals and then expanding to tackle large goals
  6. The 20 Second Rule: When willpower fails, this principle teaches us how to make small energy adjustments and replace bad habits with good ones
  7. Social Investment: This principle teaches us to invest in one of the greatest predictors of success: our social network

How does this apply when it comes to studying for finals? First and foremost, do not retreat to the library, stop calling your best friend, and decline all dinner invitations. Engage with people, take breaks, and make sure you’re laughing at least once a day.

If you exercise everyday, keep exercising. There will still be plenty of time to hit the books after your workout.

If finals seem so overwhelming that you do not know where to begin, start small. Focus on just making sure you understand one principle or one case. You cannot bear the weight of an entire subject on your shoulders all at once. Start small.

If you’re felling really stressed and sad, talk to someone. All of us in the CDO have open doors, take advantage of the University Counseling Center, call your best friend from college who is as disconnected from the law school universe as anyone can possibly be, and talk to the people with whom you can be your genuine self. You know who they are.

If it feels like this is a waste of time and you should be outlining, remember that you will perform better when you’re happy.

To learn more about the happiness advantage, how to rewire your brain for positivity, and anything else I talked about in this blog post, read The Happiness Advantage.

And remember that the CDO frequently works with students who did not get the grades they were hoping for  and helps them to find jobs that they love. Your grades will not make or break you. Your attitude will.

*I care very much about your personal happiness but in this blog post, I am putting that aside and taking the position of someone focused solely on how you can perform best on your exams.

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