The audacity of high hopes

Dreams of Earth-shattering eminence only lead us down the path of unhappiness.

By Emmett Rensin

[img id=”77191″ align=”alignleft”] I’m not quite sure who it is, but there’s somebody from my formative years who I resent. Somebody who instilled a neurosis in me that plagues me to this day.

The more time spent at this school, the more I realize that I am beset by the creeping suspicion that short of doing something world-changing—and what are the chances of that?—no accomplishment will ever satisfy me. It’s an absurd notion when stated flat out, but one that manages to persist, creating a massive detriment to my peace of mind.

I don’t think that I’m alone in this. After all, how often in the face of stress are we reminded that, in the end, it isn’t how important or famous or rich you are that matters, but rather how happy? It’s a nice, and at times wise-sounding, sentiment that’s designed to put that less-than-ideal paper grade or lack of a prestigious internship in perspective. And certainly, in the inevitable times when the work is too much or one’s goals seem unrealistic, this idea can, initially, be comforting. But then there is the inevitable next question: If all of this is driving me mad, what, then, would make me happy?

The answer, of course, is the problem. Certainly, it seems doubtful that many people—I least among them—actually believe that great accomplishment is the only way to become happy. It makes sense that one could be contented with satisfying personal relationships, enjoyable if not quite remarkable work, and some hobbies. Furthermore, attaining these things doesn’t feel as if it would be that difficult—I suspect most people at this university could imagine themselves finding their way into an acceptable job, a nice marriage, and a decent schedule without all the stress that one is subjected to here.

Yet we aren’t all dropping out to pursue the good life. Why not?

The reason, it seems, is this very neurosis of inadequacy. Somebody got it into our collective heads that the only satisfying end was greatness, and as a result, the consolation of the pursuit of happiness over success is no longer a comfort but a redoubling of the original problem. Though we might know what should make us happy, we have been conditioned somehow to feel ill at ease if we think we’re not moving toward absolute renown. We know that if we were to get out of the race and try to find happiness in a more simple way, there’s a good chance we would be bothered forever by the fear that we had somehow lost out on a greater possibility.

Though, since most of us are not destined for such Earth-shattering eminence, this presents something of a problem for the possibility of ever being contented. We spend days at this school either so overburdened with work that it’s unbearable, or bored and slightly guilty that we aren’t doing more. The worst part is that, as we probably realize, even if we were to achieve some measure of success on the scale we imagine, we still wouldn’t be particularly happy.

It would be one thing if simply realizing this condition could cure it. If we could just come to recognize that, in fact, the nagging insistence we feel to be someone isn’t all that important. But we already know that. Yet somehow, this internal pressure lingers on and that, for better or worse, is why we keep at it.

If there were something that could be done to find happiness in simple things, it would be fantastic. But until then, all there is to do is resent whoever put this ridiculous idea in our heads to begin with.

Emmett Rensin is a first-year in the College.