I just finished Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, and it was excellent! While I think almost everyone could benefit from this book, I was struck by how relevant it is to young people today as they navigate their paths from high school to college and then from college to graduate school or work. There are many excellent points in the book, and I’ll share my personal takeaways periodically here.
In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin spent a year on an experiment to see if she could “change her life without changing her life.” Overall, she was quite satisfied - she had a happy marriage and two healthy daughters. She had a law degree from Yale and was a Supreme Court clerk before transitioning to a successful writing career. She also had wonderful friends and a good support system. Yet, she realized that the “days are long but the years are short” and there are things we can do to maximize happiness without major life overhauls.
“Be Gretchen”. Rubin got serious about figuring out what she liked and disliked – what truly made her happy. For example, she realized that she doesn’t care for meditation and isn’t “outdoorsy”, and that her idea of the perfect day is quietly reading, regardless of what others might think. She then got serious about being herself, being Gretchen, which … actually made her happier! Her seminal theme is simple, but profound. We’re all happier when we are our authentic selves, but it can be harder than it sounds. While popular culture touts originality, it pushes conformity, and this message hits young people particularly hard. Imagine the pressure of feeling like you should like something, but you don’t. That you should do – or be – something, but you’d really rather do - or be - something else?
Anxiety levels are incredibly high among young people, and many factors contribute to this. Living up to artificial expectations can make all of us feel isolated, misunderstood, and not good enough. For young people who are struggling to find their voices and fall prey to peer pressure, these feelings can be especially acute. As they navigate the rocky terrain of high school and college, they feel pressure to check the right boxes. This comes in the form of joining the “right” clubs, sports, and groups, getting the “right” internships and jobs, performing the “right” community service activities … even having the “right” hobbies and interests. All in a never-ending quest to grab a golden ring they might not even be sure they want.
As an educational consultant, and as a parent of two daughters in college, I’ve had a front row seat to this madness. During my 10 years at Georgetown University, if I had a quarter for every time a student implored me to tell him or her what to say, write, do, or be in order to get accepted to a top law school or land the perfect internship, I could fly to Tahiti. First class. I have steadfastly pushed students to reflection and discernment. Had I read The Happiness Project back then, I would have recommended it to all of them!
I am not suggesting that we jettison commitment, discipline and strategy. I’m certainly not suggesting that we encourage people to be less ambitious! What I am suggesting is that we help people be themselves. We can do this by teaching them discernment and reflection techniques, administering thoughtful questionnaires and, most importantly, by actively listening to them.
So, when a student asks me what type of community service project would look good to colleges, I respond “Don’t worry as much about what will look good. What work would feel good to you? There’s no shortage of worthy causes, so dig deep and think – what matters to you?” Be prepared to take the time to help students on this journey, as it rarely happens in an instant. Since I don’t subscribe to a fast-food advising model, that’s just fine by me. My goal isn’t just to help students get into top schools, it’s to help them get into the best schools they can by being who they authentically are. They’ll be happier and more successful. And so will I.