After a long day of classes, co-curriculars, and club meetings at Deerfield, the work is far from over — there is still reading to do, tests to study for, and projects to complete. And yet, if you ask students why they study for tests, the answer would probably be to get good grades. You ask, but why do you want good grades? Well, to get into a good college. Why do you want to attend a good college? To get a good job. Why do you want a good job? To make good money and have a good life.
This line of logic is common not just among Deerfield students, but among people all around the world. Superficially, this logic may seem convincing. In our capitalist and consumerist culture, we are constantly bombarded with all sorts of false messages and advertisements, promising us that buying some product will make us truly happy. We love keeping up with the Kardashians, pretending that we had their lives, escaping into the utter insouciance and bliss of wealth. We are tricked into believing that money will bring us happiness. For others, the thing that they most desire is fame. They wish to become a household name and will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. And still, others desire power and spend their entire lives attempting to crawl up the corporate ladder.
Even from a very young age, we are indoctrinated to view success in a certain way. When you ask an elementary school student who they want to be when they grow up, they say Bill Gates, Tom Brady, Angelina Jolie, Neil Armstrong. They say Barack Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, J.K. Rowling, Oprah. No child says that they want to become a small family farmer in some insignificant rural area. No child says that they want to work in a nursing home, feeding and cleaning up after discontent elderly people.
And yet, I believe that the conventional notion of success — that the most successful people are those who are wealthy, famous, and powerful — is fundamentally misguiding for a number of reasons. Even though there are many definitions of success, I feel that at some level or another, most of them are centered around the notion of happiness. We want to get that grade or earn that award or get that promotion because we feel that those things would make us happier. After all, if they did not make us happy, then why would we work so hard to achieve them?
If we believe that people pursue success in order to be happy, then a great irony is immediately apparent. Why are so many people willing to sacrifice their own happiness in order to achieve their goals? One of my classmates recently said that they mostly want to become a neurosurgeon for the money. Another said that they don’t really want to become a corporate lawyer, but they are willing to do it for the money. Though this logic is shared by a myriad of people all over the world, have you ever thought about how strange it is that people are willing to do so? Is it worth it to toil in a job you hate for 40 hours a week, every week, for over 40 years, just for a few blissful years of retirement? Or is it better to earn less money, but spend most of your life doing something about which you are truly passionate?
Moreover, people often lose sight of what is truly important in the mere pursuit of success. They work nonstop, and they allow their relationships and health to deteriorate. In the past, I, too, have fallen into this trap, sometimes forgetting to contact my family for periods at a time. When we are taken over by this workaholic mentality, we no longer take time to smell the roses; life turns into a beast that we must conquer instead of a ride that we can enjoy in the company of those who matter to us.
Nurses report that when people are on their deathbeds, they often say that their biggest regret in life is not having spent more time doing the things they love with the people they love. Not even the richest person on earth can buy back the time lost in the pursuit of success. Not even the most powerful person on earth can raise their loved ones from the dead.
There is no true and lasting happiness that comes from money, fame, or power. When we become rich enough to buy a better house, we may be happy for a moment, but soon we will set our eyes on an even better house. We will want to be even richer. We will want to be even more famous. We will want to be even more powerful. There is no end to this vicious cycle; like an addiction, we will never be satisfied, but we will always be left craving for more.
I believe that if we wish to be happy, we must redefine what it means to be successful. We must acknowledge that the pursuit of worldly interests like wealth, fame, or power will never truly satisfy. Rather, I believe that success comes from improving your life and the lives of those around you. Even though common people like custodial staff or factory workers are hardly ever recognized, society would not be able to function without their important jobs. In this view, the small farmers working in rural areas and the diligent staff working in nursing homes are just as successful and worthy of praise as people like Angelina Jolie and J.K. Rowling.
I believe that the best way to bring happiness is to give happiness. Whether it is volunteering to help those in need, making the time for the people that count, or complimenting a stranger on his or her outfit, these are the acts that make the world a better place for everyone. These are the acts that inspire a genuine, everlasting sense of warmth and happiness that cold, hard cash simply cannot.