Barry Mills on Happiness, Rigor, and Achieving the Proper Balance

In his weekly column, President Barry Mills stops for just a moment to reflect on why happiness and rigor don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

It has been a long week and, as I write this, it’s only Wednesday night. I was last in Brunswick on Saturday, when I gave a talk to the Alumni Council and then worked the phones calling our admitted students to help them make their decisions. These are the days when we are “selling” the College to those we have just accepted. We had a visiting day on Monday and then another on Friday; next Monday, hundreds more students and families will be on campus checking out Bowdoin. I was in Burlington, Vermont, from Sunday until Wednesday afternoon leading a team of academics and college administrators in the reaccreditation process for St. Michael’s College. It was three days of nonstop meetings and fact-finding—and I have to say I gained a new perspective examining another college’s excellence and helping them worry about their problems.

On Thursday, I will have a short time in the office, and then I’m off to New York City for the annual dinner benefitting the Harlem Children’s Zone, headed by Geoff Canada ‘74. Then, I’ll be on the early morning shuttle to Boston for a meeting of our President’s Visiting Committee and, later that morning, a Trustee Executive Committee meeting. On Friday night, back at Bowdoin, I will greet about 150 admitted low-income students from across the country who are considering the College, followed by the kick-off of the fabulously successful “Relay for Life” event organized and initiated by our students. I could go on and on, but I must admit it makes even me tired thinking about the next few days after that. Suffice it to say that April and May at Bowdoin are a series of nonstop events.

With all this, there really hasn’t been enough time for me to write something profound for this weekly column. As we conceived the Bowdoin Daily Sun, I realized the weekly deadline would be tough on some weeks. This is one of them.

But at least I can report good news at Bowdoin that reinforces what we already know. The Daily Beast, a blog created by Tina Brown of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair fame, this week listed Bowdoin among the “100 Happiest Colleges in America.” We are number 10. An important factor in this calculation is the food  (how can we not win on that score!) and the number of days of sun (not our best sport). Not surprisingly, a number of schools in California beat us out (sun clearly dominated over food). But being the tenth happiest college in America is pretty impressive, nonetheless.

When I speak to our admitted students about why they should come to Bowdoin, after all the obvious strengths of the College, I often talk at length about the fact that our students love being at Bowdoin.  There are a lot of parents and students out there who worry that going to a place where the community is strong and the students are generally happy is a trade-off for academic rigor and the prestige of attending a “tough university.” Not true in our case. Bowdoin is a tremendously rigorous institution. I remind students it is a tough place to get into and a tough place to do well at because our faculty are serious about teaching, and there is a lot of work for which our students are personally accountable.  Plus, Bowdoin has a fabulous reputation in the world beyond Brunswick—students get great jobs, are admitted to the best graduate and professional schools, and have limitless opportunities after Bowdoin because of our credential. Bowdoin is a place with its stress, its daily frustrations, and challenges for all of us—this is not a perfect bubble. It is also a place with balance that permits our community to achieve, but with a level of personal satisfaction and good cheer that is important for life.

David Brooks recently wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times titled in which he observed: “most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions.”

Well, I’m pretty confident that at Bowdoin we prepare students for life in a way that will allow them to chart and choose a course that meets whatever level of material wealth they seek. But at Bowdoin, we also endeavor to do what Brooks and others suggest: to prepare our students for a life of learning, personal satisfaction, and happiness—regardless of how much sun they get along the way.


In the coming weeks, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at

Previous Bowdoin Daily Sun columns by President Barry Mills are available on the Bowdoin Web site.


  1. donald e. stanley says:

    Dear President Mills,

    With respect for your opinions. Tina Brown almost ruined the New Yorker in her attempt to transform it to the Beast (gossipy news and fashion) she now heads. This is no endorsement at all, in my opinion.

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