Student journalists explore happiness at Gunn | December 23, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 23, 2011

Student journalists explore happiness at Gunn

After surveying classmates, seniors ponder the meaning of a B minus

by Chris Kenrick

How does Gunn High School rate on the student happiness scale?

If you ask seniors Amrita Moitra and Jean Wang, they'd give it a B minus.

Moitra and Wang aren't guessing wildly; they surveyed their fellow Titans, 436 of whom — or 23 percent — responded.

They published their findings — illustrated with yellow smiley or frowning faces — in the Dec. 12 issue of Gunn's student newspaper, "The Oracle."

"Contrary to popular belief, a B-minus rating in happiness is a decent grade," the two wrote. "In fact, it is above average."

In an online survey, Wang and Moitra asked Gunn students to rate their school in a range of categories including facilities, social life, food, clubs, support, sunny days, school graduation rate and stress.

The highest grade — A plus — went to "sunny days" and "graduation rate." The lowest — a D — went to "stress." "Food" came in only slightly ahead of "stress," earning a D plus.

Gunn's "social opportunities" got a C plus — and the school's overall happiness grade worked out to the B minus.

The results weren't a huge surprise to Moitra and Wang.

"We expected 'stress' to get a low grade," Wang said.

But the pair said they were puzzled that the rating for "supportiveness" — a B minus — wasn't better.

"We have a lot of programs, and I felt that people would feel more supported," said Moitra, adding that she personally feels well-supported at Gunn. "I thought that grade would've been higher."

Although more than half the respondents gave Gunn high marks for "supportiveness" — an 8 or higher on a scale of 1 to 10 — the average worked out to just 6.57.

The other finding that surprised the authors was the D-plus grade in the food category.

With a campus far removed from off-campus eateries, Gunn students long have complained about a dearth of food options.

Most bring their own lunches or rely on the school's cafeteria, which offers things like pizza, hamburgers and clam chowder and added a salad bar a few years ago.

"I've eaten in (the cafeteria) once or twice, and it wasn't as bad as I expected," said Wang who, like Moitra, usually brings her own lunch to school.

"The salad bar is extremely popular, and (Gunn Principal Katya) Villalobos is talking about adding a self-serve sandwich kind of thing."

As seniors, Moitra and Wang were up to their eyeballs in college applications when they conceived of the happiness survey — loosely modeled after Newsweek's "25 Happiest Colleges in America."

Both said they've paid attention to the "happiness" scores of the colleges they're considering for next year.

"Of the colleges I want to go to, (the happiness rating) does make an impact on my decision," Moitra said. "It's important to me to find out, at least on average, what people think."

But unlike the Newsweek rankings, Gunn's survey is a stand-alone.

"Seeing comparisons (with other high schools) would be a lot more revealing because you could get a sense of how well you're doing relative to other schools," Wang said.

"Especially because so many local schools have high stress levels," Moitra added. "We all have friends outside our district, and when you compare stories, knowing other people are kind of the same makes you feel a lot better."

After presenting the numbers, Wang and Moitra went on to explore the complicated, slippery and subjective nature of happiness studies.

They interviewed Gunn psychology teacher John Hebert, who said: "There is no one accepted psychological definition (of happiness). But most psychologists would accept the idea of happiness as a high ratio of positive to negative feelings."

The student journalists also concluded that money can't buy happiness, pointing to Hebert's citation of international life-satisfaction studies.

"Although not a wealthy nation, (Puerto Rico) often comes out on top of happiness and life-satisfaction scales," Hebert said. Wealthy countries like the United States experience lower life-satisfaction levels than some Third World countries, Wang and Moitra reported.

The pair asked Villalobos for her reaction to the survey results.

"I'll take the B. I think that's an awesome grade," Villalobos said.

In the end, Moitra and Wang seemed to accept Hebert's suggestion that "each person determines his or her own happiness" and that happiness potentially can be learned through strategies like optimistic thinking and nurtured relationships.

"It is important to remember that, with a glass-half-full mentality and participation in fulfilling activities, anyone has the potential to be happy," they wrote.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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