Congratulations, graduates! (And parents of graduates, too.) As you gaze with pride on your diplomas, I’m sure you’re also thinking about what comes next. No doubt you’re planning how to build a successful life with your newly earned degree. I wish you the best of luck as you search for a job and embark on a career…but I also want to extend a viewpoint that you may not have heard in graduation speeches.
It’s simple: Happiness and success are not—let me repeat, are not—necessarily the same thing.
Aren’t they? you ask. I’ve been working my whole life to get a good education and to earn this degree—all so I can hopefully get a job in the field I want and do it well. You’re telling me that successfully achieving this goal won’t make me happy?
Well, no. Don’t get me wrong: Getting a promotion or being recognized for a professional achievement can make you really happy—briefly. But what about all of the weeks, months, and years of work that came before that moment of success?
Personal experience and extensive observation have convinced me that the lifestyle required to become “successful” makes you anything but happy. Long hours, devices that tether us to work 24/7, insufficient time with friends and family, and constant stress drive you into the ground, not to new heights of fulfillment.
The problem is, as a culture, we’re so focused on getting to the next rung of the ladder that we have forgotten how important quality of life is. We have accepted stress, unfulfilling careers, strained relationships, and little free time as the price we have to pay for the “good life.” Meanwhile, happiness has totally gotten lost in the equation, and the lives we’re living aren’t “good” at all.
So, graduates, here’s my advice to you if you’d like to keep your success from destroying your happiness:
- Do work you enjoy. First (as I’m sure you’ve been told before), try to go into a field that you enjoy—not one that you think will make you rich. While workaholism can sour any passion if taken too far, you’ll generally be a lot more fulfilled if your success is driven by work you like. If you reach the top because you’ve been doing something that you’re passionate about and that you feel is inherently worth your time and energy—and if you keep your work-life balance healthy—you’ll also be happy. It’s when you blindly pursue the symbols of success without regard for the other areas of your life that you run into problems.
- …But realize that you are not your work. What you do is certainly part of your identity, but it should never become your primary source of self-worth. If you ever begin to feel that the only thing you have to offer the world are achievements that happen on the job, it’s probably time to take a step back. I understand being proud of your career accomplishments and of other things in your life, but I have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can be truly happy only if you draw your self-worth primarily from your relationships: first and foremost from your positive relationship with yourself, and secondarily from your relationships with other people and with your Higher Power (if you believe in one).
- Understand that you’re never “stuck.” If you’re less satisfied with your field or career than you’d hoped, realize that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself and move in a direction that will make you happier. Find mentors, take classes, pursue certifications, or network—just don’t settle for dissatisfaction and a job you dread.
- Choose happiness every day. With all of the responsibilities on your plate, nothing is likely to improve unless you specifically focus on it. So make working towards a happier life one of the two or three priorities you absolutely must accomplish each day. To remind yourself, put a note where you can see it—maybe on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror. I could write a book (and have!) on how to infuse happiness into your life, but briefly, some happiness-boosting activities you can choose to incorporate into each day include: exercising, reading motivational material, learning new things, helping others, expressing gratitude, spending time on a hobby, fully engaging (sans devices!) with loved ones, etc.
- Look at the road ahead of you through the eyes of those who have traveled it. Yes, I know you’re young right now, but someday, you’ll be looking back at and evaluating your life. You don’t want it to be filled with regrets. That’s why I’d highly recommend reading an article called “Top Five Regrets of the Dying” by Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative nurse. Like Bronnie, I believe that individuals who are nearing the end of their time on Earth may see things more clearly than those of us who are still “in the thick of things.” And I also believe that it’s definitely not a coincidence that nearly all individuals who are facing death share the same regrets. One of them is “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” Turns out, professional success doesn’t hold a candle to being a good spouse, parent, and friend in terms of the fulfillment it brings.
Grads, you get only one shot at life. If you prioritize happiness and the things that really matter right out of the gate, you’ll also be creating a firm foundation on which to build professional success. Why? You have a strong support system, a soft place to land, and a healthy work-life balance—all of which will contribute to your creativity, motivation, and engagement over the long haul.
Congratulations, Class of 2014. Here’s to happiness!