There’s nothing like exam season to make you wonder what you’re really going to school for. For most of us, a university education is basically a ticket to a high paying job, and therefore a better, happier life.
Certainly this is what we have drilled into our heads from the very beginnings of our academic careers—from kindergarten to highschool. But is any of it really true?
Don’t get me wrong—I’m all about higher education. I wouldn’t trade what I’ve learned at U of T for the world—but just because I have a degree or a high paying job, does it guarantee that I’ll be happy?
Most of us will admit that money doesn’t buy happiness. So why do we still act like it will? Many students follow in the footsteps of their parents—grinding their fingers to the bone, pulling all-nighters, neglecting friendships, relationships, and family to fast-track their way to a degree as visions of shiny new SUV’s and comfortable suburban homes dance in their heads. It’s like a degree is a magic ticket to never-ending bliss.
But this has almost nothing to do with reality. Money won’t buy you happiness. Quite often a degree won’t even get you money. How many degree holders do you know who still end up serving tables, and how many work high paying jobs only to realize in middle age how unhappy they are despite their wealth?
It’s hard to be happy if you can’t make ends meet, but once the bills are paid, happiness boils down to who you are, not what you have. Happiness comes from fostering close connections, being creative, learning who you are, realizing you are not a utility maximizing machine, and not investing your future well-being in whether you can afford a new car every year or keep up with popular fashion trends. Happiness does not come from scrambling from one fleeting, meaningless pleasure to the next until you die.
If you don’t believe me, just Google a recent article in Melborne Australia’s daily paper, The Age (“Oh dear, it’s tough when you earn just $70,000,” Nov. 30, 2002), and one in Fast Company, a Boston-based business magazine (“How to lead a rich life,” Feb. 19, 2003). You can also check out social psychologist David G. Myers’ website (www.davidmyers.org). If you’re in an undergrad psychology program, there’s a good chance Myers wrote a few of your textbooks.
So what are we doing all this for? Why will most of us spend the next two weeks cramming our asses off just for the sake of a few numbers on our transcripts? Education is still important. A degree and a good job will help to pay the bill so you can focus on cultivating the kind of satisfaction you really want—as long as you don’t buy into the fiction that it will guarantee you the good life.
If you’re in university strictly for the big payoff, you’re probably in for a shock later in life. It’ll come when you realize that your $90,000 per year job won’t help you figure out how to save your marriage, or raise your kids right, or come to terms with the reality that you will grow old and die—it won’t help you avoid the pains in life which you can’t put on your credit card.
Some time spent asking some deep questions about who you are and what you want out of life wouldn’t hurt either. Look around—find out who’s really happy and who isn’t. Read up on anybody who ever asked the question “how can I find lasting satisfaction in life?” and see what they had to say. Check out Socrates, look at the founders of the world’s religious traditions, discover what other cultures do to find happiness, and look around in your daily life for the people who really seem happy. Ask them how they do it, and most importantly, interrogate yourself. Ask yourself if there’s anything you do that keeps you from being happy, and deal with it today, right now. Ask yourself: will getting / doing / having this thing really make me happy in the long run?
And in the meantime, use your university experience to become a more interesting person—don’t be content to be spoon-fed by your instructors; and don’t just give them the answers they want to hear, in order to guarantee a good grade. Challenge them, and challenge yourself—not to get better grades, but to be better people. Why risk becoming yet another mindless consuming machine, content to be sedated by image, wealth, and a fictional dream that has nothing to do with reality?
Maybe it’s silly to imagine that anybody in university thinks about these things—but just think how much time you can save if you consider these things now. It sure beats discovering it later, when you’re trapped in a marriage, a mortgage, and a job you hate. Go on. Be happy.