Until now, we’ve spent most of our lives preparing for what’s next. We go to kindergarten so we can be prepared for elementary school. We go to elementary school so we can advanced through junior and high school. Now, we are in college with the intent to graduate, become productive members of the professional world and achieve the “American dream” of a career, family and happiness.
But, in that relentless pursuit of success and happiness, it’s important to critically consider what you are actually striving for and how you mark when you’ve got there.
People can spend decades pursuing a theoretical situation of complete happiness; where everything in life has aligned perfectly – their job, their house, their income, their family, their social life, their stress level, their possessions, the list could go on. To our junior high selves, maybe it was starting high school where everything would be easy and acne-free. To our high school selves, maybe it was starting college and getting away from our hometowns. As college students, maybe it is getting a job and starting a successful career in a new, exciting city. There always seems to be the next “When I _____, everything will be great” statement in life, and we hope and believe that when we accomplish the next “When” chapter, we will finally be completely happy.
Always chasing the next best thing reminded me of the children’s book “There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” As a kid, I remember listening to the book as the “old lady” swallowed a fly, and then a spider to catch the fly and then a bird to catch the spider that swallowed the fly. She continued to swallow progressively larger animals until she swallowed a horse. And then she died, “of course.”
Like the “old lady” did in the children’s story, it can be easy to start chasing the next best thing that we think will remedy all of our “problems,” whether it is a spider, a bird, a job, a spouse or something else. But, the old lady’s eagerness to blindly push ahead made her miss what was in front of her; in her case, it was swallowing a fly, which is arguably undesirable, but much better than swallowing a horse and dying.
People do let their goal obtainment affect the happiness in severe ways. A study conducted at Princeton University found that happiness peaks when people are in their mid-20s, and not again until their mid-to-late 60s – skipping most of the average person’s life.
Youthful happiness and optimism wanes over time, the study said, as people realize some of their dreams aren’t going to be fulfilled. Maybe they will never be able to afford that dream yacht they always wanted, or maybe they will never quit their 9-to-5 job and become a freelance artist like they’d always dreamed. That doesn’t stop people from relentless pursuing the “next big thing,” but spending so much time searching for the next “When I … ” level of happiness can be exhausting.
By the time people approach 70 years old, they are better equipped to deal with regret or missed changes, the study said, and overall happiness improves. Perhaps this is when people stop fighting for the next “When I … ” and take the time to reflect and enjoy life just as it is.
Of course, setting goals in life is great; they are imperative for progress. But it can be problematic when goal obtainment becomes the sole focus in life and the only measurement of success and happiness. If we continuously think that we will be happy when “situation x, y or x” happens, we lose track of the ability to be happy in the moment with exactly what we have – nothing more, nothing less.
So chase your dreams and goals, but remember to enjoy what you have now. Don’t put off your happiness until you get “the job,” or move to “the city,” or meet “the special someone.” Don’t spending your life so intently waiting for something “better” that you miss the wonderful things you have now.
Jena Sauber is a senior in mass communications. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.