I’ve come to the shaky conclusion that we probably won’t know true happiness when, and if, we feel it. We may catch a glimpse of it in hindsight, grab at it in the present moment or feel as though we’re always falling just short. But uncertainty lurks in every epiphany.
Instead, what matters is that we work productively towards meaningful goals which we set. And therein lies the beauty of this theory: there is no need to compare our goals to those of anyone else’s. The static benchmark of the survival imperative has disappeared. The benchmarks for our individual goals are completely context-dependent.
I’d say the clearest conclusion I drew is that consistent little wins made me happier than the achievement of a large goal. Going back to the grade example, instead of setting an end-product goal of an “A”, I say “my goal is to study twenty minutes each day”. Accomplishing something like that is not only more attainable but allows me to be happy seeing growth rather than focusing on some far-off result. Focusing on instilling success-inducing habits can be more satisfying than the success itself. Outside of school, it was important for me to find a community of people who I care for and care for me. My happiest episodes came when I was sharing a moment with someone else. Even if it didn’t have the sparkle of a new job, I found that it was these minutes I spent together with people important to me that made a lasting impression on my day.
Outside the classroom, with the reduction of organized outdoor activity, many students blessed with some free time are looking to fill the void with new hobbies. For those Cornellians loading up on credits, spending an abundance of time hunched over a computer in our dorms, many are looking for a low-anxiety, low-commitment, screen-free way to unwind. Or maybe you’re just looking for a mental health boost — understandable amidst such an in-flux, crazy year. With all the time we spend indoors, and for all of the reasons above, I’d like to recommend a cheap, surprisingly rewarding, soothing way to destress that has become one of my personal favorite activities and can add to your day in a number of scientifically-proven ways. All you need are a few seeds, an LED light, some soil in a pot and pH neutral water to get started.
The first time my boyfriend and I talked about the definition of love, we were in a New York City apartment. The summer was humid and scented with moss, and in a crowded kitchen, we talked about what love means — argued about it, really. We quickly realized this word required a definition neither of us could grasp — a concept simultaneously as expansive as the city awake around us, yet as narrow as the mortar between brick walls. We haven’t talked about that definition in a while, but I hear it discussed all the time around me, in cafés, in classrooms, in libraries. And as Valentine’s Day comes around, there emerges a widening rift between those who are lonely and those who are not, those who are cuffed and those who are eating ice cream alone in their bed, those who are happy and those who are heartbroken.
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.
Over spring break, I dropped my phone in the ocean. It broke, and for two days I felt estranged – no sense of time, no notifications, no detested yet familiar sound of my alarm in the morning or the reassuring faculty of documenting every instant. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, life is much slower – the bright color of the small houses shine in the hot afternoons, the tide of the sea oscillates calmly and steadily; roosters’ onomatopoeias resound somewhere in the distance, sangria is served with lunch and the sun sets late in the evening; coquis sing on your way home. After long days at the beach, we could never get rid of the sand – it was in between our toes, in the cotton white sheets where we slept, trapped between a cylinder of red lipstick and its lid. Sand was everywhere and it drove me crazy; I wish I could write that the slow rhythm of the colors and the waves and the separation from omnipresent and overbearing technology taught me to let go of the small things and accept things as they are, but that is not who I am.
Life can be frustrating. Things don’t always go according to plan. People let you down, the future seems uncertain, demands pile up and stress invades your life. You start to beat yourself up over mistakes. Life loses its shine.
Since 2012, the United Nations has commissioned three publications of The World Happiness Report, a comprehensive annual report published by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, directed by economist Jeffrey Sachs. With the advent of internationally comparable data measuring subjective well-being and happiness, the reports propose an approach to public policy that focuses not only on increasing individual wealth, but also on improving other factors that contribute to life satisfaction, such as political freedom, social networks and a lack of corruption. People report the highest levels of happiness in Northern European countries like Denmark and Finland, while the countries with the lowest levels of happiness are all in Sub-Saharan Africa. These reports fall under the domain of happiness economics, a growing field of study that takes a theoretical as well as a quantitative approach to measure happiness, quality of life and well-being by combining economic concepts with related fields such as psychology and sociology. In the neoliberal era, roughly characterized as a period of relaxed economic regulations in the wake of the 1980s and onward, humans have become actors in the market economy and every action is commoditized.