"Success vs. Happiness" by Becca DeMent
Are you happy?
And I mean truly happy. Most of us think “yeah, I’m happy, because probably nothing is significantly wrong. But is happiness really the absence of unhappiness? Certainly not.
We’re going to school. We’re going to work. We’re a good family member, friend and maybe partner as well, but does participation in well-rounded and normal activities make us happy? We have no real reason to believe we aren’t happy when we’re doing all these things, but then we find ourselves feeling... unfulfilled. We feel like we’re just floating around. Like we don’t really know what we want. All you know is that you don’t have that feeling where your soul is on fire and you can just feel in your bones that something is right.
Is that how you feel right now?
Being a good student, worker, family member, friend and partner may make us “successful” in our lives, but what do we do when it doesn’t seem to be enough to make us happy? And why do we feel like we should be? I’ll start with the latter.
Society has conditioned us to have a very clear framework to who we should be and what we should be doing. As children, the next step, or the next “grade” was always known to us. We know that until we are at least 18 years of age we are students. Sometimes parents even say that our job, at this point in our lives, is to be a student. That it is our objective, sometimes regardless to if we enjoy it or not. We know we’re supposed to value and be good at being a student. Eventually we get a job, and at our age it probably isn’t our passion. It’s showing up to serve tables or run a register when you’d rather be doing homework or hanging out with friends. You learn good skills like work ethic, discipline and showing up on time. Sports and the gym may also do this. And maybe these activities do set your soul on fire and really fulfulfill you, but happiness is beyond physical activity. We make friends, but sometimes it's like they don't even know us. We’ve had them for years and they’re good company for pass time, but maybe they don’t offer a lot of substances. We find ourselves with friends, but no one to really talk to.
With so much of our lives charted out for us, and us just checking those boxes, what is that really doing for your spirit? I think all people college age feel a moment of being lost, unsure, and unsatisfied.
This is a sign that change is needed.
The philosopher Aristotle cultivated the idea called eudaimonia, or “happiness” and “flourishing”. He listed a few parts of a person’s life that is necessary for being well-rounded, and therefore happy. These include some social power, including family; that we have security and support. He also felt that political power is important for reasons more relevant in philosophy, but I think for today this political power is that we interact with our community and world. This power gives us some autonomy to know we can control our lives for the better. Finally, Aristotle praised contemplation, or his profession as a philosopher as the best(of course). But this means our ability to have self awareness.
When we are happy, it is important to be self aware, and realize that this unhappiness is an indication of necessary change. When we are observing our normal routine, and still feel unhappy, it can be hard to understand why. This is where the self reflection calls for self exploration. We don’t know what we don’t know. When we find ourselves unhappy and in need of a change, we might need to think outside the box. Now this can be really hard. Like really hard. To see what we haven't been seeing, let alone confront it, is one of the hardest things us sentient humans can really experience. To confront the self, especially why we are unhappy, may look really ugly and this can cause us to feel bad. Don’t let this discourage you. Don’t lose faith. Taking charge of your happiness is the most important thing you do in your life.
Sometimes this looks like realizing we’re actually living an unhappy lifestyle. Maybe one of our activities is actually making us unhappy by exhibiting addictive behaviors. It could be living out unhealthy traits, coping mechanism, and other attitudes that we’ve cultivated over time, but are actually hurting us more than helping. I realized over time that I didn’t treat myself with enough self respect. I let people make decisions about my value and didn’t stand up for myself. This is an example of when confronting that truth made me feel bad, but after making the changes, I can say I am now far more authentically happy.
It’s different for everyone. Maybe we aren’t catering to our true selves by neglecting physical activities like working out, trying a new sport or going out in nature, a creative activity such as making art or music, or simply aren’t being challenged enough by not having the right job, not being in the right major or classes, or not having friends that reflect the bigger picture we are interested in.
It could be all of these things. They say that at our lowest point we are open to the most change, but it doesn’t have to be our “lowest” point and it doesn’t have to be the “most” change. Maybe it’s just making a new friend, trying a new instrument, getting a new job, or going to therapy(or not) but making the internal changes you didn’t know you needed.
Be self aware. Going through the motions which are charted out and expected by society, is not the same as being in touch with who you truly are, and living a life that reflects it. The things we need to be a holistically fulfilled person isn’t just societal success. It isn’t just a 4.0 GPA, making a lot of money or being popular. It’s being creative, active, having mental and emotional space and support, its taking time for oneself, having purpose and satisfaction, and
treating yourself with the love and respect you believe every other person is entitled to. So why not you? We have to treat ourselves like people worthy of holistic care; for our entire personhood, which is much more than checking a few boxes.
Happiness isn’t a state of being happy, its an overall and overarching way of life.