Spring 2013 Scholarship Finalist: Yunhan Zhao

Yunhan Zhao from China studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of 12 finalists for the International Student Voice Magazine scholarship! Read Yunhan’s essay here!

Growing up in China then coming to the U.S. to study psychology, I saw two very different life patterns in these two countries. While the majority of American elementary students finish school around 3pm and then go back home to enjoy the rest of the day on the sports field, Chinese elementary students leave school around 6pm then go back home to work more on their overwhelming amount of homework until late at night. Since middle school, I had rarely gone to bed before midnight due to the enormous burden of schoolwork. The harsh competition that exists because of the large population in China stigmatizes Chinese children from a very young age. Although the elderly always say we are the lucky generation, who experienced the greatest period of Chinese development in modern history, people of our generation think we are the generation without happiness.

Now the generation who experienced one of the most stressful childhoods in contemporary history comprises the bulk of the Chinese labor force, yet their levels of happiness are still low. After years of witnessing that an increasing number of the Chinese workforce yearns for greater satisfaction, work-life balance and stress coping strategy at work, I began to realize I want to study the means to improve the laborforce’s work satisfaction and help them create positive and fulfilling lives for themselves.

In 2010, I began my undergraduate journey at a community college in Madison, Wisconsin as a Liberal Arts major student. While I was taking introductory psychology courses, I spent much of my time wondering: What is happiness and what is work satisfaction composed of? Why is the productivity of some people higher than others? How can an individual discover his or her strengths and build on them? Still, some crucial knowledge to answer my questions was missing during my one year of study at the community college.

With an outstanding academic record, I transferred to the University of Wisconsin- Madison as a psychology major in 2011. More systematic education in psychology made me realize that just raising questions and pondering them was insufficient to make scientific progress. Meanwhile, I found myself deeply fascinated with research and experimental design. Later, while I was researching the literature as an undergraduate research assistant at Dr. Paula Niedenthal’s Emotion Lab at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, a survey entitled “Happiness Index of Workers,” conducted by China Human Resources Development Network, caught my attention. It was reported that in 2004, approximately 60% of Chinese working people were unhappy with their companies’ administrative system and flow. Approximately 50% of the workforce lacked confidence in their future, and 40% did not like the current job they were doing. This report was consistent with my life experience in China and demonstrated that even a rapid growth in GDP and unprecedented high wages for the Chinese workforce to spend on luxuries and comforts cannot guarantee a happy life. In fact, according to Dr. Martin Seligman’s research, in the U.S., once the annual income of an individual goes above seventy thousand dollars, further increases in income are less capable to improve that person’s happiness. Therefore, if improvement in the workers’ economic condition does not necessarily guarantee their happiness, what other factors can help them create satisfying and fulfilling lives?

I kept researching for the answers until a year ago when I watched a TED talk given by Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. I was stunned by Dr. Seligman’s claims about how to make the lives of people more positive and fulfilled. His talk encouraged me to explore more of his and other researchers’ works in applied positive psychology. I read Dr. Seligman’s notion about how the happiness of people’s lives can be increased by building on the PERMA factors (Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning, Accomplishment). I learned about Dr. Barry Schwartz’s principle of “practical wisdom,” which encourages businesses to make virtuous decisions rather than decisions based on immediate profit. Furthermore, I was extremely excited to find Dr. Adam Grant’s study on work satisfaction, which revealed that asking the “end-users”, individuals who benefit from a company’s product or service, to express gratitude to the employees resulted in a significant increase in employees’ work satisfaction. This research enlightened me about the means to achieve my dream: to improve the performance of workers and make the lives of workforce more positive and fulfilled through learning about positive psychology and its application in employee well-being.

U.S. has world’s the best psychology graduate programs, which involves advance technology usage and cutting edge research. The programs’ unique curriculum design, renowned faculty, strong alumni network, and talented student body create a highly intellectual environment for learning. Studying in the U.S. and attending these programs will enable me to grasp the mechanism of applied psychology as it relates to work satisfaction, and help me understand how I can improve Chinese workers’ well-being. I can also obtain the knowledge of positive emotions and character strengths assessment to help me build up a concrete model that measures workers’ happiness in my future career. In addition, due to the professional design of the graduate programs in the U.S., I will be able to interact with the experts in psychology from nation-wide research institutions. Furthermore, as a soon-to-graduate college student, I feel particularly excited about the cultural and occupational diversity in the student body of the psychology graduate programs in the U.S. Participating in discussions and working on group projects with classmates from different professional and cultural backgrounds will allow me to learn about their different views toward life, and cross-cultural insights into employee well-being.

I believe that studying psychology in the U.S. will help me to achieve my professional goal of promoting organizational effectiveness and employee well-being in today’s world. Eventually, I aim to make an impact on the profession of organizational psychology by urging businesses to value their employees’ psychological needs more than ever.

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