It’s the beginning of October: “Camp Williams” was a month ago, the whirlwind of fumbling through syllabi and getting lost in campus buildings has (for the most part) passed and things are finally starting to settle. Ahead of every first-year now is a foggy, winding, four-year-long path to graduation and “the real world.” And in every first-year’s mind is the following harrowing thought: Now what? What do I do now to reach the end of that path and get what I want?
The truth is, it’s not just first-years thinking that. “Now what?” seems to be the predominant thought on campus. For everyone, there’s always something that needs to be done, most of which is done to make sure a post-college world worthy of an Eph – that is, one full of success and happiness – will become reality. In other words, people seem to think that if you’re not doing homework or studying or going to an information session or applying for a fellowship or finessing through an interview, then you should start right now or risk losing that coveted post-Williams paradise of a life. Forget relaxation, self-fulfillment or living life in the moment – there’ll always be time for that stuff after the job offer or the graduate school acceptance letter comes out, right?
Positive psychology, also dubbed the “science of happiness,” is a branch of psychology dedicated to discovering the attitudes, habits and lifestyle choices that lead people to be happier. Tal Ben-Shahar, one of the leaders in positive psychology, writes in his book, Happier, that there exist four types of people in the world, based on their levels of pleasure (short-term happiness) and meaning (long-term happiness): the hedonist, the rat racer, the nihilist and the happy person. More specifically, the hedonist only lives in the present and constantly fuels himself with euphoria; the rat racer sidelines all present joy in pursuit of a long-term goal that he believes will give him happiness; the nihilist believes that life is inherently meaningless and happiness does not exist; and the happy person is happy day-by-day, yet also perfectly content with its place in the world. All of these people, with the exception of the happy person, do not have lasting happiness – that is, a state of being in which one has both pleasure and meaning.
Does one of the four sound familiar? That’s right: holistically, the student body at the College appears to fit the rat racer caricature uncomfortably well. We constantly give ourselves – and each other – the pressure to get good grades, sit on committees, participate in teams, attend myriad sessions and be on top of all opportunities that fly by our doorsteps. It’s stressful and unhappy, but it’s the Williams way, and it’ll all be “worth it” when we find ourselves on the cover of Time, get interviewed on The Tonight Show or lounge on our yachts in the Mediterranean. But in our struggle to hit our post-college happy reality, we have forgotten that many of us were thinking exactly this about the College, just a few years ago in high school: I’ll suffer now; I’ll get good grades, do all the extra-curriculars I don’t really want to do and toil over the SAT/ACTs so I can get into a good college. Then I’ll be happy. As students attending an elite school in the United States, we all entered college, virtually by definition, as rat racers. The path behind us was just as foggy as the path ahead of us.
What does that mean for that post-college dream then, if we live like rat racers? Well, it’s definitely true that hard work pays off, so success isn’t out of the equation. But happiness almost certainly is. The story plays out like this: The archetypal student at the College gets an amazing job, but desires a promotion, and when he or she gets that promotion, he or she’ll want another one, and another one, and another one. For the rat racers, there is always a new goal, and for each of these goals, happiness can always wait. And at the end of their lives, they’ll reflect and conclude, “I’m not happy. But I’m so rich and famous. What went wrong?”
What went wrong was that their happiness was illusory. They believed that lasting happiness would come with their accomplishments; in reality, happiness is found nowhere there. Rather, happiness is a mindset; it resides not in something external, but somewhere deep in the self, waiting to be discovered and embraced.
Only when one’s ideal self is congruent with the real self – self-actualization – will someone be happy. This doesn’t mean goals aren’t important; indeed, goals create meaning and are pivotal in reaffirming a person’s place in the world. But remember, pleasure is just as important in becoming the happy person. So when the going gets tough, take a breather. Do something that makes you happy; be proud of the achievements that put you on this campus to begin with, and take the time to tell the people you love that you love them. And, perhaps most importantly, make sure the foggy road you follow to graduation is one that you love, not just the one with the yacht.
Alex Huang ’17 is a psychology and political science double major from Shanghai, China. He lives in Prospect.