Don't leave happiness in the dust of success

A college student once told me, "I don't need to be happy - just successful."

At the time, I let it pass - students, after all, regularly say surprising things. Indeed, I like this quality in their conversations.

But this assertion has an unsettling quality to it once you let it seep in. The student dismisses happiness and does so in such a perfunctory way. It's as if she's saying, "Let's get on to the important stuff" - professional success.

It's an odd juxtaposition. She needn't be happy - "just successful." She places one in opposition to the other.

She's not alone in her feeling. At a workshop for college professors, I listened to a drama professor describe an acting class in which he asked students to write about times in their lives when they had experienced strong emotions, such as anger or jealousy.

The emotion they found hardest to convey? Joy.

Students are today's expressions of tomorrow's practices. Their words can be the visible signs of the less visible struggles encountered by us all.

I have a memory from my own undergraduate years - a headline in my campus newspaper: "Why Aren't We Happy?" As the headline suggests, we fell far short of leading joyful lives. Yet at least happiness was still on the agenda. What underlies the tendency of many of us, like my success-seeking student, to give up genuinely trying?

I've often failed to enjoy Sunday because of my schedule on Monday. At bottom, it was simply anticipatory anxiety over the work of the week ahead - fear that there would be unexpected complications or that I would fail to measure up in some way.

Usually, when Monday came, I did quite well. Much of what I worried about never happened.

Yet each unrealized fear exacted its costs behind the scenes.

Joy has its own moral underpinning. There's a completeness to joy that does not allow us to exclude our sense of the person we should be. Pleasure is certainly possible in less-than-honorable actions. But the experience of joy requires more: It is pleasure taken in worthy things.

My student who stresses success divorces her pleasure from the achievement she regards as worthy, severing her higher aspirations from her immediate desires.

True joy requires choices that develop into habits that evolve into character. And that's work we can't delegate.

The essential first step is trying to live a less fearful life - one that avoids collapsing life's possibilities before exploring them. It entails welcoming uncertainty. It means being comfortably incomplete.

My success-starved student is uncomfortably incomplete, anxious over what she is not.

I wish I could tell her how much I enjoy my Sundays now.

Jeffrey Nesteruk is a professor of legal studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

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