Goodbye college, hello corporate America. It’s graduation season, which means a whole new swarm of young people while be welcomed into the not so friendly confines of the real world. The New York Times columnist and author, David Brooks, had an interesting piece related to graduation season yesterday titled “It’s Not About You“. The problem is that most of us, when we graduate from college, do think it’s about us. We think it’s all about our elusive quest for success and happiness. We quickly forget that no one guaranteed us happiness, only the right to pursue it. What my inquiring mind finds strange is that no one really took the time to tell us what the terms “success” and “happiness” mean exactly, nor did they tell us if success and happiness are measured in absolute or relative terms.
Unfortunately, I think many young college grads storm out into the world with the belief that they can be both happy and successful right away. Most of them are setting themselves up for a lifetime of unhappiness because no one had the decency to the tell them that real world is cruel and doesn’t care about their grandiose ambitions. In the words of Chuck Palahniuk, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”
Success, conventionally speaking, is often equated to one’s career, fame, finances, and lifestyle. The conventional connotation that surrounds the notion of “success” is that it’s a relative term, in other words, it’s about being better or more successful than others. Not everyone, however, can be above average (unless you’re living in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”)
We live in an award happy culture that gives out ribbons for 10th place in an event with 10 people. One nasty side effect of the “everyone deserves an award” culture we have created is that awards don’t really mean anything and it gives people a false sense of self importance. Conversely, it’s also dangerous to think that the world is going to care because you were an elite athlete or student at your high school or college. For most people, it can be a rude awakening to get out in the real world and to learn that they aren’t really part of the greater elite. If you suspect that relativity matters to your happiness, and I suspect that it does to some degree, it would probably be wise to ask yourself the following: Would I rather be a big fish in small pond or small fish in a big pond?
What they don’t tell you at college graduation (at least at mine) is that very few people achieve success (in the conventional sense) and are happy with their life; I think most of us would be lucky to achieve one or the other. The happiest people I know aren’t necessarily “successful” and most of the successful people I know don’t seem very happy. Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is: Do I want to be successful or happy?
At one point in the article, Brooks writes: “It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.” And I think he’s right. People will admire you and try to emulate you for being excellent and successful at something, but rarely will they do so simply because you are happy. In the end, however, I think it’s the happy people who are the successful people, but I suspect that happy people are the only ones who understand this point.
Naturally, we all look forward to things we think will make us happy, but we often fail to realize how short-lived the happiness will be. Welcome to life on the hedonic treadmill! On the bright side, the experiences we believe that will make us miserable often fail to deliver the long term gloom we expect too. This process is called “hedonic adaptation” and it works both ways.
Many of the things we consume do indeed bring a quick hit of euphoria; however, the feeling dissipates rather quickly and only leaves us hungry for more. In the same vein, many of the things we think will make us miserable only do so for a short time. We adapt and reset the way we think about things by adjusting to our new surroundings. One of the interesting things about hedonic adaptation, though, is that relative comparisons are more important than absolute ones.
The bottom line is that all of us are stuck running on the hedonic treadmill. We may be at different metaphorical gyms and running at different paces, but there is no escaping the hedonic treadmill. Let’s call it “running with the Joneses”. The sad news is that our neighbors pace does have some affect on how we feel about our pace. If we’re running at a pace of 8 minute miles and our neighbor is running at a pace of 6 minute miles, we’ll surely feel worse about ourselves.
Oftentimes, I think having the wisdom to choose the right gym is more important for your happiness than how fast you’re running.
According to Daniel Kahneman (one of the fathers of behavioral economics), we are more confused than ever about what happiness is. I’ve watched this fascinating talk by Kahneman several times now. In the talk he explains that there is a distinct difference in being happy with your life and about your life. This can be explained because of your experiencing self and your remembering self. The experiencing self lives in the present and is a good indicator of our general well-being; however, most moments of our lives are ignored by the experiencing self. The remembering self is the story teller in our minds that narrates our lives and this has a very powerful effect on how we feel about our lives.
Do you think you’d be happier if you were living in a place with a nicer climate, e.g., California? The answer is: it depends. Kahneman explains that your experiencing self will not actually be any happier in a place like California (climate is not important to the experiencing self), but your remembering self will certainly remember being happier when compared to living in a place like Ohio.
Ultimately, your experiences determine your overall well-being, but your memories of events in your life matter more than the experiences when it comes to happiness about your life. I hope you enjoy the talk as much as I did.