Surpassing your father: Reading the other day about how Robert Frost's son killed himself, it made me wonder if, in general, sons of more successful fathers are less happy. Using General Social Survey data, I calculated the educational difference between father and son. Knowing that absolute educational level is correlated with happiness (as well as having an interest in educated people), I limited the range by only looking at sons with at least a bachelor's degree. I also figured that small differences might not matter much, so I compared two groups: sons with 4 years more education than dad versus sons with 4 years less than their father's:
Percent of sons happy with 4 more years of education than father
Very happy 34.6
Pretty happy 57.9
Not too happy 7.4
Percent of sons happy with 4 fewer years of education than father
Very happy 26.5
Pretty happy 57.4
Not too happy 16.2
While the difference is not huge, sons that did not go as far as their fathers are not as happy. This may be due to the expectation that, with all of their advantages, sons will surpass their fathers. If they don't, it must because they failed to apply themselves.
This is an example of how people are harmed by a belief in environmental determinism and by not understanding statistics. When I tell my very best students that their kids may not do as well as them due to regression to the mean, they look at me like I'm crazy and evil. If you think about it, if you were Robert Frost's son, why in the world would you think that you could match or surpass such a freak of nature? Our culture would be much healthier if we acknowledged and made peace with our natural limitations. It's okay to be a regular guy. Thank God for your life and health.
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