Before leaving small-town Ohio for Northwestern, I faced many crises of varying levels of seriousness. One of the less profound personal struggles I underwent involved whether or not my baby blanket should accompany me to college. There were pros — being able to bury my face in it after a hard day of class, for example — but ultimately the fear that something would happen to it led me to leave it at home. At the time I had no idea that my blanket would be so symbolic of the mental transition between high school and college.
As high school students, we are taught to see the world in a certain way, to strive for good grades and participate in a thousand extracurricular activities because it’s what we’re “supposed to do.” When I arrived on campus, I brought that same mentality, and I applied it to everything from how to meet people (I’m supposed to place myself in the door frame of everyone in my hall and make forced conversation until a friendship is forged) to what to do on weekends (on Saturday nights, I’m supposed to be hit on by drunk guys who don’t even offer a first name — and like it). I applied that mentality to my career path too, and I asked myself, “What am I supposed to do to reach that wonderfully vague peak known as success?”
If you don’t see a problem with this line of thinking, you may well be setting yourself up for a “successful” life that lacks one crucial component — happiness. A recent New York Times blog examined America’s recession-fueled cultural obsession with “practical” major choices in a job market that is reliable only in its instability. However, the pressure to be practical — whether it comes from one’s parents, teachers, the media, or even from within — is a principle that is at best misguided and at worst backwards.
The blog cites a study by Daniel Hamermesh, a professor and researcher at University of Texas at Austin, which found that despite popular belief, when a student’s “ability, achievement and effort” are taken into account, his or her earnings are largely independent of undergraduate major choice. The Times article comes to the (obvious, to some) conclusion that students who major in fields they are passionate about and interested in are generally better off in the long run, in terms of GPA, transferability of job skills, and overall career satisfaction.
So, in other words, your major may not negatively affect your lifetime earnings, and beyond that, your earnings won’t necessarily have an effect on your quality of life. Research by University of Michigan professor Ronald Inglehart indicates that beyond a baseline salary — the ability to “afford life’s necessities” — additional money doesn’t carry with it the kind of additional happiness many Americans seem to think it does. So what does?
According to Inglehart, satisfaction in life is linked to a state known as “flow.” You have hopefully experienced this state somewhere in your life — the term is used to describe the zone in which a person’s mind is actively engaged without viewing its work as a chore. A person who seeks happiness rather than a lucrative salary should then, it seems, choose a major in which he or she finds the coursework interesting and engaging, not overly stressful, easy or dull.
But there it is again — that imposing pressure to do what you should or what you’re supposed to do. In truth, your personal quest for happiness cannot be solved by the advice of a third party, and if you truly believe you will find contentment in nothing short of endless riches, then by all means disregard what this article says you’re supposed to do and chase down your dollar-sign dreams. But if you find yourself staring at your homework with disgust and thinking instead about the classes you’d rather be taking, maybe it’s time to acknowledge and reconsider those sidelong thoughts.
If the research is any indication, though, the equation of wealth with happiness seems to be America’s cultural security blanket — the idea of looming “success” comforts us and allows us to justify present dissatisfaction. Sure, there is something to be said for recognizing that we must endure things we don’t necessarily enjoy to get things we want (“veggies before dessert” ring a bell?), but in the grand scheme, your own desires regarding the direction of your life should outweigh those imposed on you by others.