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So, what have I learned from this happiness study anyway?

This semester of exploring happiness is coming to an end and it is time to reflect on all that Anne and I have accomplished. Often I wish I had devoted more time to this exploration so that I could have done more to meet the insanely high standards I often hold myself too. But one thing I have learned from this independent study is the way you tell the story matters. It’s only fitting then, that the story of an exploration such as this should be a happy one.

“Many ancients… rejected the idea that happiness should be our goal. It is for them, just a by-product to the life well-lived” (Unhappiness, 9). The quote featured on the top of this blog can be interpreted in a very different way than I initially read it. I started my happiness exploration (almost a year and a half ago) with this goal clear in my mind. Studying happiness WOULD make me happier. However, throughout these last few months of my journey, the ancients (along with many other disciples of various happiness related advice) have convinced me that lusting after happiness could never be the right way to actually achieve it. Hector’s seventh lesson is listed on my most important for a reason: finding happiness really means taking small steps towards contentment, making little changes to daily routines, and learning to appreciate the everyday.

I’ve been spending most of my life looking to the future. “In the future everything will be better; in the future I will finally be happy.” But that’s not really how it works. It is up to me to decide that I am happy now. Nothing magical is going to happen to my mindset, my depression, or the circumstances of my existence. These will always be pretty much the same, but I do have control over how I live in these circumstances and how I deal with the mindset I was given. Even if sweeping changes were to happen to my life, as Jonathan Haidt points out in “The Happiness Hypothesis,” winning the lottery will only do so much for your level of happiness. Sure, things might seem better for a while, but eventually you return to your natural level of contentment. If I can’t learn to redefine happiness for myself now, I never will.

Placing too much importance on the opinions of others is something I have struggled with a lot over the last two years. Other people are constantly at the center of my decisions everything from the job I will have when I graduate to how I will spend my Saturday night. In many ways, I do not really think I know who I am anymore. The definition of who I am has been crafted to meet the expectations of others. Now that I am graduating, moving, and almost completely starting over, I am intending to begin my new life with this lesson in mind. One key to happiness is letting go of what other people think and expect of you.

Religion, perhaps more than any other topic, has been at the center of this happiness exploration. Religion makes people happier and live longer. Hector even wonders “whether belief in God was a lesson in happiness,” but ultimately  he realizes “he couldn’t make that a lesson because you don’t choose whether to believe in God or not” (68). I’ve thought about God, I’ve talked to God, I’ve gotten back in touch with the religion of my childhood, but I have not yet found my place in the world of faith. Maybe Hector’s right and we can’t choose whether or not we believe. Most of the time I’m sure I believe in God, but sometimes I doubt. I’m a Christian by culture and upbringing and an agnostic by mindset. I don’t think you need a traditional religion to be happy, but I do think you need conviction in something to have happiness. So whether your religion is running, the sciences, or the tooth fairy I’d say you’re on the right track.

The Alchemist taught me a number of things including that “the secret of life…is to fall seven times and to get up eight times,” “if you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man,” and “there is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve, the fear of failure(vii, 85, 141).  I hope I, like Santiago, am able to follow my personal legend one day. I’m not sure what my legend may be, but I have faith that I will find it. I have to admit, although I have failed often (and sometimes quite epically), I am still extremely crippled by a fear of failure. This semester I have spent so much time fearing what my grades will be at graduation, fearing that others will think I failed in comparison to them. Spending time fearing these things has done nothing to help me; it has only added a first and second dart to my already overly anxious head. In the Alchemist, Santiago lets go of all his fear and achieves an amazing feat. In this, the last week of my work as an undergraduate, I am going to do my best to let go of my fear of failing. My failures have taught me many important lessons and I know that if I don’t get what I think I want, I might end up getting something even better.

Buddha’s Brain provides practical applications and mediations to help change the way your mind works. The idea of being able to change the way you think was such a foreign concept to me before this semester. I still don not entirely believe that I am capable of changing the way I think, but I know I will continue to work on it. Buddha also brought up a topic that has always been difficult for me: “Everything changes. That’s the universal nature of outer reality and inner experience. Therefore, there’s no end to disturbed equilibria as long as you live” (33). I have never been good with change, other than the obvious the thing I find myself seeking the most in life is stability (which doesn’t always bring happiness by the way). Change makes me anxious, upset, and afraid. I probably will not ever be the best at dealing with change, but Buddha’s Brain (along with many of the other works I’ve read this semester) have given me the tools to address this problem and change it.

Not only have I gained the tools for emotional preparedness, but I have also read about preparing for the unexpected from a financial standpoint. I worry a lot about money. Most people worry a lot about money. I knew in the beginning of the semester that I would soon be entering the work force and that learning about the financial decisions I would be making would be a good idea. So I read books, and talked to my parents, and watched Suze Orman specials on PBS…and I am so happy that I did! I found my apartment months before my friends even began thinking about looking, I secured my first independent credit card, and I’ve begun selecting the index funds I intend to invest my retirement savings in. It feels great to be so prepared for the next steps of my life and being prepared has helped me to fear the change that much less.

Of course I would like to be able to say that I am graduating from Bryn Mawr having successfully applied all of these lessons to my own life, but (yes, this is another lesson!) that’s not really how it works. I spent this semester discovering the lessons I will spend the rest of my life applying. Happiness is not the goal because it is not a finite state. I will be happy, but I won’t stay that way forever. Happiness is a process I must actively choose to participate in everyday and hopefully I’ll be keeping you posted on how it’s going.

It’s funny, but I feel that in some ways this exploration of happiness has the same “head fake” as Randy Pausch’s last lecture: It’s not really about achieving the goal of happiness; it’s about how to live your life. Mistakenly, I believed this independent study would help me reach a goal. Really this independent study has help me recognize the unhealthy habits I have allowed myself to keep. There is no one to blame for my unhappiness but myself. I need to choose to be happy and I hope some day soon I will be able to do just that.

Posted in Alexandra Funk.

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