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Happiness is a Project for the Present

At Boston College, many of us seem to defer personal happiness. Because we think we’ll be happy after achieving a goal, we're willing to forfeit happiness on the path to achieving that goal. One common example is students who put a lot of effort into getting their desired grades. In the midst of all the studying, they may set aside their mental and physical health, relationships, and recreational pursuits to the detriment of their well-being. All too often we reassure ourselves with the promise of relaxing after a goal is achieved, only to fall into the same pattern again when a new goal presents itself. This mindset can lead to constantly deferring happiness and never actually experiencing it.

While diligence and the ability to delay gratification are good traits to have, placing all hopes of happiness in some future accomplishment or event is not only a faulty understanding of what happiness consists of, but also harmful to one’s current state of happiness. This is arguably more important than some future happiness, which may not even come to fruition.

In 2012, Australian nurse Bronnie Ware published The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, a book consisting of the regrets of Ware’s patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. Strikingly, the most common regret of men was working too hard. "This came from every male patient that I nursed,” said Ware. “They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship… all of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

People work for financial security and future happiness, but that happiness may not be all that it is cracked up to be. The men in Ware’s book regretted experiences missed out on and relationships lost that in the end were more important to them than the material goods or higher standard of living that they aimed to achieve. In fact, other common regrets that Ware’s patients mentioned were not staying in touch with friends and not letting themselves be happy. Both of these issues can result from focusing so much on work and pursuing goals that other aspects of life are neglected.  

It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip,” said Ware. “But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away.” Ware observed that happiness is ultimately a choice, and that many people do not do the things they know will make them happy because they get stuck in old patterns or wait for happiness to come to them.

Partly because of America’s Protestant roots, the virtue of hard work is deeply ingrained in our culture. At BC, students compare themselves to their peers in terms of how hard they work, and many end up feeling inadequate or lazy because they are not as involved or busy. Students often feel guilty for having “too much” free time. Even after the necessary schoolwork is completed, there is a need to find something else to work on, otherwise one will be labelled complacent.

While hard work should be praised, the mentality of always having to work and not taking the time to rest has resulted in an increase in mental health issues on college campuses. A 2014 survey by UCLA reported that 9.5% of college freshmen suffered from depression and 34.6% felt overwhelmed by schoolwork. Both numbers were higher than in 2013, and researchers observed that this rise correlated with students spending more time studying and working and less time socializing and pursuing hobbies.

Like Ware’s patients, college students work hard in hopes of reaping the benefits in the future, but they end up jeopardizing their well-being in the process by neglecting their relationships and satisfaction in other areas.

Relationships are usually the first to go when people are consumed with their work in the pursuit of supposed future happiness, but ironically, research has shown that relationships are one of the strongest keys to happiness. A 72-year Harvard study following the lives of the same group of men, beginning when they were sophomores at Harvard, showed that good relationships were by far the strongest predictors of lifelong happiness. The men who were satisfied with their relationships were happier and healthier, and the lack of good relationships was correlated not only with unhappiness, but also with poorer health and higher rates of mortality. The study found that power and money did not add to happiness, rather that contentment with one’s work was the more relevant factor.

We spend so much time working in the hopes of finally feeling content when we enjoy the fruits of our labor. Yet, it seems that what we lose when we focus too much on work is what actually makes us happy. Cultivate happiness right now by maintaining relationships and taking time to recuperate. Save yourself the regret of waiting for happiness and never truly living it.