March 5, 2018

PARK | On Happiness and Success

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As intelligent, young Ivy League students, we seem to know it all. We know how to tackle complicated economic models, apply thermodynamic analysis and develop successful medical practices. And where our classes lack, our countless pre-professional organizations fill in the gaps to teach us how to capitalize on our assets, develop our career goals, and move up in this world.

But when it comes to filling our lives with meaning, finding fulfillment and happiness in the real world, we don’t have a clue. We view happiness as a byproduct of success, rather than the means through which we get there. We assume that we’ll be happy once we get a 4.0, gain membership to the most elite organizations, cop a Goldman internship and can finally fit into our skinny jeans.

When I first entered Cornell, I reveled in the newfound freedom of college life. After 18 years I had finally shed the constraints and expectations of an Asian household and walked through my first few weeks wide eyed and open hearted. I woke up every morning excited for intellectual growth, new people and the opportunity to find myself. I looked upon my first Ithaca fall with wonder and lay under the Johnson stars thinking about how lucky I was to be there.

But halfway through my fourth semester, I find myself bound by the self-imposed expectations that come with integration into this pre-professional culture of competition and hunger for success. I’ve fallen into line in this corporate campus, following the assembly line of students from class to club meeting to library, bolstering my resume virtues and setting myself up for assimilation into the professional world. I hurry across the suspension bridge in the morning; I busy myself throughout the day; I forget to marvel under the Johnson stars at night.

Whether I like to admit it or not, I buy in to the same belief that dominates our campus: that good grades, leadership positions, internships and jobs breed success which, in turn, breeds happiness. This mindset does not function independently at Cornell; it underlies the way we run our schools, companies and lives. And it’s fallacious.

Harvard researchers found that 90 percent of long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world but by the way our brains processes it. Treating happiness as if it’s dependent on success makes it impossible to achieve. Every time we are successful, we just change the goalpost of what success looks like. We can always get better grades, take harder classes, do more extracurriculars. The same holds for the rest of our lives: we could always get better internships, higher salaries, better jobs. These can be valuable endeavors, but to stake our happiness on it is to resign ourselves to the rat-race of life.

It is not success that drives happiness, but happiness that drives success. Our brains are 30 percent more productive when we think positively than when we think negatively or neutrally. That’s because dopamine not only makes us happy, it turns on the learning centers in our brains. If we can reverse the formula, if we can find a way to be happier and more positive in the present, we can increase intelligence, creativity and energy levels in our brains and, in turn, we’ll be more successful.

This is not meant to be some finger-wagging harangue about what we ascribe meaning to. But for the first time in our lives, we get to call the shots: we get to wake up every morning and decide how we want to spend our time. We get to craft our own meaning, choose what to worship and determine who we want to be.

As I near the halfway mark of my college experience, I’ve come to the realization that I still have no idea how I want to contribute to this world. I find myself bound everyday by the stressors of prelims, organizations and internships unsure what exactly I’m chasing. I fear that if I don’t break free from these standard paths of success and seek meaning and fulfilment outside this realm, I may end up living out someone else’s dream.

I’m not trying to decry our pre-professionalism or endless quest for success, I just want us to make sure that we are determining what we want and that happiness should not be some far-off goal. It should be something we work toward every day — and I’m not talking about short term pleasure — I’m talking real, deep-seated meaning in our interactions and satisfaction with our contributions.

Sarah Park is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. S*Park Notes appears alternating Mondays this semester.