04/12/2012 04:53 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

Measuring Happiness

By Rebecca Chao of The Morningside Post

As one of the few students among the bevy of diplomats and world leaders attending the United Nation's high-level meeting on wellness and happiness last Monday, I wasn't sure how I or my fellow peers fit into the discussion.

Hosted by the Kingdom of Bhutan, the meeting examined the various ways to define and measure happiness and to raise awareness of a viable alternative to "wealth" indicators such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) -- namely Gross National Happiness (GNH) introduced by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan in 1972.

Many of the GNH promoters pointed out that in the United States, our Declaration of Happiness reminds us to pursue happiness. But many of these experts seem to forget that our Constitution does a better job in telling us how we are to pursue it: "...promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute and one of the main Western advocates of GNH, touched upon the issue. He advised, "Happiness is not just a state of mind, not a trait but a skill and art of living. It can be taught, learned, and transmitted."

While true, the meeting did not explore how this could be pursued in practice. As a student, the biggest obstacle to youth happiness, at least in the U.S., is that society no longer prioritizes cultivating its future generation. At fault is not just a broken education system but how conversations about it have been divorced from a big shift in work culture.

Employers used to hire first and then invest in training their youth. This came in the form of apprenticeships in the guilds of the Middle Ages, where the youth, though unpaid, received training, housing and food. During the industrial revolution, large factories developed "universities" to train employees on how to use the new machinery.

General Motors founded The School of Automobile Trades in 1919 to train its employees. However, today it runs independently from General Motors and was renamed the Kettering University, which now has a degree-granting, tuition-seeking branch. While it says it remains true to its mission, that "students working with our employer partners should be viewed as investments into the future of their organizations," whether it remains true in practice is not clear.

In the white-collar world, we see similar training schemes. In the 1900s, hospitals owned "training schools" for their new doctors and nurses but now new doctors undergo a rigorous period of low-paid residency training upon obtaining their degree, with no guarantee of a permanent position after completing their residency. Further, getting a medical degree does mean much if not paired with a residency program. Dr. Anthony Youn recently explained, albeit tongue-in-cheek in a CNN article, "Why your waiter has an M.D." He wrote that last year, 970 medical students failed to get matched to a hospital residency program and thus, will most likely never become doctors.

This shift from on-the-job training to tuition-based or self-training, and the failure of our degrees to have the same value as 60 years ago, reflects how in our current age, the Information Revolution has again changed the way society invests in its youth.

"In such a work environment, learning the changing procedures and all the information needed to do the job is practically impossible. A new form of training is needed to manage such a change in work," writes Deborah Alpert Sleight, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Michigan. That new form is now to "to reduce the skill needs of workers to as close to zero as possible and, thereby, eliminate drains on productivity like the need to train workers or retain them when they began to ask for higher wages."

In order to do that, many employers use the unpaid intern. Rather than invest in students for future employment in the company, they hire based on skills we already have and often tie in an administrative component. At least in the public sector where I have worked, we do not usually receive compensation for travel to the internship. In a sense, today's youth invest in ourselves, through college tuition and the maintenance fees required in order to intern. Unpaid internships have alarmingly replaced the entry-level job.

It is no wonder that the quarter-life crisis is a relatively new phenomenon. It is described by psychologists and experts as an identity crisis that plagues recent graduates as we face uncertainty in our careers and personal relationships and explains why so much of our youth are unhappy.

For most of us experiencing our first or second quarter-life crisis, it is much more than simply uncertainty. Those born between 1981 and 2002 are considered the Millennials, one of the largest and most diverse generations to date, writes Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic. We are also a generation "colliding with diminished circumstances," he writes. Unemployment rates are twice the national average among those between 20 to 24 and well above the national average for those between 24 and 29.

After leaving the ivory tower, where for the most part, we experience egalitarianism and fairness, we fetch coffee and photocopy, or make coffee at Starbucks, if we find a job at all. We move from a world where some of the best minds in the world treat us on an equal footing, invite them to attend with them high-level meetings like those at the U.N. and not only nurture our potential but help us find it. The academic world has taught me that no matter your standing, you have something valuable to contribute.

We have yet to see whether our generation's quarter-life crises will bleed well into mid-life. For me, the real value of academia is experiencing some of the nurturing that has been lost in the workplace. I am happy to say that some of my professors have not forgotten those important two words in the Constitution's preamble: our posterity. It reflects an attitude that I hope may be reflected some day in the "real world."