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Cassidy Mayeda

SAT Essay Theme: Happiness & Work Ethic

Welcome to the second post in our series of 10 SAT Essay Theme Guides. Check back next Tuesday for the third installment. 🙂

Your puppy licking your face when you come home from school, that epic moment with the windows down and the music loud down the freeway, being surrounded by your best friends—you know what happiness is. But how do you get there? Is it related to how hard you work? How do you sustain feelings of joy? What dampens your happiness? And, most importantly, can you write a powerful, logical, coherent essay on one of the most basic yet complex feelings in the world? No? Don’t worry, not many of us can. Check out this guide to help you out!


Past Prompts

  • If people worked less, would they be more creative and active during their free time?
  • Do rules and limitations contribute to a person’s happiness?
  • Does society put too much emphasis on working hard?
  • Do people need discipline to achieve freedom?
  • Do people benefit more from having many choices or few choices?


Recommended Reading

1. Happy  (documentary)

This hour-and-ten-minute movie is a great source for any essay on the topic of happiness. It explores the positive psychology movement, and compares happiness between countries, socioeconomic groups, and philanthropists. It also just happens to be super interesting, and on Netflix streaming!

2. The Paradox of Choice (TED Talk) by Barry Schwartz

Schwartz is the author of a book (by the same title as his TED Talk) that details the modern problem of abundant choices, and questions if these choices make us happier or more stressed out. The 20-minute talk is thought provoking and can be used in several of the other essay themes. Also check out the TED Playlist on happiness.

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3. A Formula for Happiness (New York Times article)

This article does a good job of covering a lot of different aspects of happiness (from the male/female demographics to political party influence) backed up with statistical evidence from the positive psychology movement. It’s a good catchall to get the cogs turning.

4. There’s More to Life Than Being Happy (Atlantic article)

By following the story of Viktor Frankl (a holocaust survivor) and analyzing modern psychology studies this article discusses the difference between a happy life, and a meaningful life. Look here for statistical arguments for working hard, and self-sacrifice.


Example Outline

Prompt: If people worked less, would they be more creative and active during their free time?

Thesis: If people had more free time they would not be more active or creative because in American culture work is often the source of fulfillment and life meaning.

  • Arthur C. Brooks in his New York Times article details how he was able to find happiness through his career first playing the French horn, and then in journalism (both creative and active jobs).
  • Viktor Frankl (holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning) believes that pure happiness is created by a meaningful life, and that meaning is generated from the self-sacrifice found in a fulfilling career.
  • In Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk, “The Paradox of Choice”, he contemplates how too many choices actually make us less happy because we are paranoid of making the incorrect decision. According to this philosophy, if forced to choose what to do during our additional free time we would be increasingly dissatisfied with whatever choices we do make.

Conclusion: Work is often the center of our creativity and activity, and eventual fulfillment as demonstrated by Arthur C. Brooks and Victor Frankl. Because of this, and the additional factor of the paradox of choice, people would not be more creative and active if given more free time.


Example Essay

Admittedly, I was not able to find a super awesomely legitimate essay example for you this time. But here is a student-provided essay example in a comment board on College Confidential.


Common Mistakes

 1. Failing to connect generalizations to happiness. When you’re talking about something as elusive and abstract as happiness it’s critical to make crystal clear arguments. For example, be careful not to glaze over a connection like, “doing community service makes people happy.” Absolutely connect the dots and say, “doing community service reminds people of the things in their lives they should be grateful for—which in turn brings them happiness.”

2. Lacking concrete evidence. Along the same lines as the above point, be sure to use relatable, real or illustrative examples. “Working hard” is an okay general statement. An analyzation of how Kobe Bryant spent twice the time Shaquille O’Neal practicing free throws, and has a better average on the court is concrete. Always opt for the concrete if possible.

3. Using personal beliefs or value judgments as arguments.  Yes, faith (in all its various forms) often champions hard work, and gives guidelines on how to live a happy life. However, when you are writing an academic essay, it is not the place to state your value on faith. The only exception is if you are using statistics to socioculturally analyze the place of faith in happiness.

4. Talking about your own stress. Especially on a prompt like “Does society put too much emphasis on working hard?” its tempting to give a long soliloquy detailing the struggles of a high school student pushed to work hard. It’s not the end of the world to write this essay, but keep in mind they will read a bazillion of them. If you want that high score, push yourself to come up with more original evidence.


The Takeaway

This topic is easy in that it is relatable, but difficult to construct and essay on because it is so abstract. Be sure to use concrete examples, and directly connect them to how they foster happiness or contribute to work ethic.


About Cassidy Mayeda

Cassidy recently graduated from San Dieguito High School Academy located in Southern California, and is looking forward to studying at Barnard College at Columbia University next fall. She loves pretty much everything from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, to classic American Literature, but above all learning new things and meeting new people. Like her older brother Zack (who also works at Magoosh!), she also enjoys drinking copious amounts of coffee.

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