Accounting, Edition 52

The Paradigm of Education: Success or Happiness. The Contribution of Education and Ethics To Happiness

By: Ulises Santamaría
Profesor de asignatura del Departamento Académico de Contabilidad
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México


The current education plans have gone astray.

When high school students look for career options and universities, they do not think about which would bring them more happiness or even which would help them achieve a personal mission in life that was in accordance with their ideals and was aimed at the fulfillment of a personal duty. Nor do they think that after studying at the university they will do something valuable that will contribute to their personal development and to society. On the contrary, their decision is motived by their perception of the contribution that the career and university will have on what erroneously has been established as the ultimate goal of a professional – success.

It is unfortunate that in our society, professional success equals success in life, and worse when professional success translates into financial success.

The word “success” comes from the Latin word exitus (“exit”), and means “termination” or “end” [1]. If the ultimate goal of human beings is happiness [2], true success is in the happiness that we achieve, not in the wealth we obtain nor in the pleasures and needs that we satisfy with it. Riches and pleasures are valuable, but on a material level, which is the most basic in the scale of values. Human beings must go beyond these material values. They must enhance their human nature with the practice of moral values (such as justice, temperance, courage and prudence) and with the search for goodness, truth and happiness (spiritual values).

In our society, success is often linked with material wealth and recognition, and there is still a tendency to establish a direct proportional relationship between material wealth and happiness.

Success is subjective and relative to the society to which we belong. Happiness, however, is a universal value and should be the only, or at least the most important motivation in a person’s decisions.

If the vocational guidance that students receive is not appropriate, their decisions will be influenced by family and social pressures, as well as by a mistaken view of reality, and it will probably be much later before they realize they have taken the wrong road.

There are those who spend more than half of their life in achieving professional success, and when they succeed, they realize that it was not really what they want and they do not feel complete. In fact, they feel empty because they finally understand that success is not equivalent to happiness.

But the problem is not limited to vocational guidance, traditionally the responsibility of the school. Basic education also has its shortcomings, because in a society where success is decisive, people have not been taught how to handle failure, especially from an early age. For example, emotional intelligence workshops should be an important part of the educational plans and programs, not only as places to learn about emotions and feelings, but also as opportunities to help people define what is valuable in their lives, what makes them happy and what they want to pursue.

However, the most glaring failures are in higher education. Of the competitive advantages to which universities pay most attention are the opportunities that their graduates will have to get attractive, well-paid jobs (and positions).

If professional success, as understood by universities, is associated with the wealth and recognition that a job will be able to provide their graduates, they will pay more attention and devote more resources to study plans with content geared toward this end and they will forget to include material on ethics and social responsibility, which should be the focus of the curriculum of any university program. The formal principles of morality [3] should be the guide for defining program content and curriculum at a higher level.

Universities should provide tools for students to refine their skills. There is no dispute about the technical and practical approach of the programs. What is questionable is the absence of ethics and social responsibility, as well as the lack of orientation toward the pursuit of happiness – the ultimate goal that universities should have as part of their philosophy and that should be incorporated into their mission to be transmitted to the members of their community (students and teachers).

Harvard University, one of the most important universities in the world and an example of quality education and prestige, has also been synonymous with success for its graduates. But it has been unable to convey the importance of ethics and how wrong and empty it is to give priority to professional success without a sense of duty and the pursuit of happiness as their primary goals.

A study conducted by The Wall Street Journal in 2005 [4] revealed that many of the biggest financial scandals in recent years have been led by Harvard graduates, which indicates that moral principles are missing in their philosophy.

Good should be sought and evil avoided (principle of morality). But if good is defined in terms of success, failure becomes an evil that must be avoided. That is why neither ambition nor aggressiveness in business is bad. However, virtues such as compassion, justice, temperance and prudence are undervalued and even criticized, and therefore contribute little to the realization of what seems to be the ultimate end – financial success.

In addition, if success is considered a reference of what is good – and knowing that every human act seeks an end – at least the principle of morality should be respected. This principle establishes that you should not use morally bad means, even though the end results may be good. Those responsible for financial scandals, such as Enron<1, ignored this and acted in accordance with the Machiavellian principle that the “end justifies the means.”

If the relationship between ends and means is not important for people without an education in ethics, the relationship between action and effect (another principle of morality) is not important either, as demonstrated by Nick Leeson2, a stockbroker who caused the collapse of the British Barings Bank with his fraudulent transactions in the stock market.

In his confession, Leeson said that the operations were intended to help the organization, which had suffered losses, and the employees whose jobs were at risk. Even if the end could be considered good (if indeed that was his intention), Leeson must have realized that the consequences of his actions could be disproportionately bad.

In addition to these principles, the academic programs of universities should incorporate, as part of their ethical formation, the other formal principles of morality. In fact, some of them should serve as a guide for defining the philosophy and mission of any educational institution, such as that which points out that everything that contributes to human development should be considered valuable (principle of defining value), knowing that, according to Aristotle, everything that perfects human nature is good and everything that destroys it is bad. Culture, art, ethics, social responsibility and the pursuit of happiness are examples of courses that must be incorporated into academic training.

Similarly, the principle of defining virtue – which states that human beings must acquire the necessary skills to achieve a full life – must be part of the university mission, to encourage students to make values part of their personal habits and turn them into virtues.

In that vein, the first categorical imperative of Kant (“work in such a way that your action could become a universal rule of conduct”) could even serve as a message to the university community so that its members would follow it as an example in their daily lives, in the professional world and in their personal growth.


1 Enron, the world’s largest energy distribution company, manipulated its financial statements to hide million dollar losses, with which it deceived its investors. In December 2001, the lie was unsustainable and the scandal was made public. The company declared bankruptcy, thousands of workers lost their jobs (and pension plans) and investors lost millions of dollars. The Arthur Andersen accounting firm, which was responsible for auditing Enron, was accused of corruption for having been complicit in the manipulation. Falta traducir lo que agregue después: “aunque posteriormente los tribunals Americanos dictaron que Arthur Andersen no había incurrido en tales actos”. The losses caused by the Enron fraud amounted to 63.4 billion dollars.
2 In 1995, Nick Leeson lost more than 1.3 billion dollars in investments in the Nikkei index of Japan, in which he had bet on the fall of the yen. Due to this unauthorized operation, the Barings Bank, in which he worked as an investment agent, lost all its monetary reserves, which led to bankruptcy after a 230-year history. In the end, it was symbolically sold for one pound sterling to ING bank.

No less important is the second categorical imperative of Kant (“the human being must never be considered as a means, but as an end”). Bernard Madoff, regular lecturer at Harvard and author of one of the biggest financial frauds in history (made public in 2008 and with estimated losses of more than 50 billion dollars) did not have this principle in mind when he planned his fraud. He saw the investors as a means to his ambitious end.

The responsibility of contributing to ethics formation and orientation toward the happiness of people not only corresponds to educational institutions, but also to families, workplaces and governments, without forgetting that each person, individually, is responsible for his or her own happiness. But that does not mean we stop paying attention to the shortcomings of the educational systems and redefine the concept of success – it is necessary to steer it toward happiness, not to the material.

Success and happiness are not mutually exclusive concepts. Success is, for many people and in a totally valid way, a great motivation, but we must never lose sight that it is only a means to attain happiness.

In the universities, students should learn, if they have not done so in other places, that, as Amado Nervo said, “Most failures come by wanting to advance the moment of success.” Students should not hurry or rush into the search for success. On the contrary, they should stop and think if the path they have chosen is the right one and if they are going in the direction that is really meaningful to them.

Teaching, which is one of the noblest professions of humanity, must be the basis of that redirection in education. You need to have a vocation to be a teacher, and it is essential to turn that vocation into “love.” If you are not in love with your vocation as a teacher, then it will be difficult for you to be convincing. Conveying to students the importance of the pursuit of happiness requires love and happiness on the part of teachers as professionals. It also requires that students commit themselves to devoting their efforts to what enables them to achieve true success – happiness. After all, you exploit your true potential when you are engaged and passionate about what makes you happy.

These teachers are an example of professionalism. Their commitment and dedication are admirable. Their teachings do not stay in the classroom – they become life lessons for their students.

As has been mentioned, most higher education institutions are focused on their students achieving attractive economic rewards. That is a limited approach. The true capabilities of students go far beyond what is intended for them by identifying them with jobs that surely will not contribute to their realization as full human beings – jobs that they will put up with because they provide them with the means to meet their basic needs, leaving them incomplete, frustrated or feeling emotionally void.

In conclusion, we must redefine what it means to succeed in life on a personal, family, institutional and social level. Education, with ethics as a guide, must serve as a platform to change the mistaken view that we have today. Teachers and students must commit to the paradigm shift in education and guide their decisions, from an early age, toward that which should be its true engine: the pursuit of happiness.

In the world of finance and accounting, the focus on profits and income has also been noticed to be – if not mistaken – at least incomplete. Some companies listed on the stock exchange now include in their annual statements a section on compliance with professional codes of ethics and social responsibility and commitment. It is estimated that within a few years it will be mandatory to include such a section in these reports. There is already a popular phrase that defines this global trend: “Goodbye blue, welcome green!” which refers to the idea of stopping to give importance only to profitability (blue), an approach usually identified with the short term and speculation, and starting to put more emphasis on sustainability and social responsibility (green), a more long-term oriented approach and commitment.

If we extend this concept and apply it to life, and not only to finance, it will be time to say: “Goodbye success, welcome happiness!”


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