On Success and Happiness

Like many other American college students, I’ve spent the last few years of my life preoccupied with becoming both ‘successful’ and ‘happy’. I’ve worked two jobs that I not only love but that also look stellar on a resume. I’ve taken at least 16 credit hours per semester and pursued not one but two minors. And when the email came saying that I made the Dean’s List, I proudly notified no fewer than 15 people individually. At family reunions, I don’t have to dread questions like, ‘What’s your major?’, ‘Where do you see yourself going after college?’, or ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ because I have excellent, scripted answers to each of them. Between my iPhone, my Apple Watch, and my MacBook, I am constantly connected and aware of everything that’s going on. My life is polished, prolific, perfect. And honestly? I hate it.

I hate the way I sound in that paragraph – so pretentious and shallow. I hate that I am preoccupied with resumes and appearances and perfection. I hate that ‘success’ has come to mean killing myself with 16-hour days and sleepless nights and quick 15-minute bathroom breakdowns because my schedule can only afford 15 minutes of weakness. I’m tired and, recently, I’m sick. My mind and my body can’t handle what it’s taken to become ‘successful’ as a 20-year-old college student. My only comfort has been the steadily climbing digits in my bank account. At least, I tell myself, I have something to show for it allAt least I’m getting somewhere.

But after a recent unfortunate occurrence involving my bursar bill that rapidly relieved me of my savings, I find myself without anything to fall back on. I did not handle the situation with grace. I spent about two-and-a-half hours crying and much longer feeling worthless. I’ve done everything right. I’ve been on my ‘work grind’, I’ve put in the extra hours, I’ve paid my dues. Why have I been doing this, I’ve been asking myself, if nothing has come of it? 

The people in my life – who are wonderful, by the way – had some words of wisdom. My mom told me that I’ve been living very comfortably, and if my savings are a bit depleted, at least I’m not wanting for anything. My boyfriend told me that he was proud of me because ‘most people our age wouldn’t have even had that money in savings’. My best friends assured me that there’s plenty more money to be earned, and I’ll have more in no time. Yet, I still felt worthless, and vulnerable, and small. As I was curled up in bed at the end of that night, thinking about how I had to wake up in 6 short hours for another 16-hour day, I felt the most hopeless that I have in a long time.

I don’t know when I became this person, because I didn’t used to be so obsessed with material gain. But I think it comes down to something more than enjoying the occasional manicure or chai tea latte. It’s a matter of security, not vanity, that has me so obsessed with making money.

Venturing out into the real world is intimidating, to say the very least. Car payments and phone bills and mortgages and taxes and a hundred other potential obligations are all looming over my head, because I’m obsessed with someday.

Today, I live comfortably. I have everything I need and a little left over for savings and Sunday brunch. But it’s not enough, and it will never be enough, until I can find another way to feel safe. Because that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Working 16-hour days when you don’t really need to is about having enough tucked away so that if something happens – if you lose the people or circumstances you’ve been relying on – you can rely on yourself instead. This experience has taught me that I have a lot of trust issues, especially when it comes to trusting myself. I’m scared of the whole world around me because I don’t know if I can do it. Succeed. Be happy. Make a life for myself. And that fear has turned me into something I like even less than the idea of failing: a workaholic, perfectionist, control freak. This is not the person I set out to be, which leaves me stuck on the greatest quarter-life crisis of all: Who am I?

I’ve always envied people who seem so comfortable not being perfect. You know the type – wind-swept beauties who knock over their cup of coffee and somehow still look adorable, rumpled college students just climbing out of bed for class with a wry smile, and careless free spirits who seem so effortlessly joyful. Even before I was so overwhelmed, I was never that person. I’ve never been a free spirit because I’m too bound by guilt, and worry, and responsibility to ever really let loose. I’m proud of my talent for organization and the things I’ve accomplished, but part of me has always wanted to be a little more spontaneous; a little more wild.

Growing up, my mom always made it clear that my health is the most important thing. Some days, she’d tell me, we just need to stop and take care of our bodies and our souls. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I’m thinking that I probably should have listened to her a little more carefully.

I’m working on a serious attitude adjustment. Everything I’d saved in two years is gone, and that’s still a bitter pill to swallow, but I’ve realized that money is a fickle thing. My friends – my family – are not. They will always be here for me, and I want to learn to be here for myself. I want to redefine ‘success’ to mean something that’s not only manageable, but that actually enriches my life. I do believe it’s possible to be successful and happy, just not like this. On the other side of this, I think that if you’re taking steps every day of your life to get a little bit closer to the best possible version of yourself, you’re successful. There isn’t anything more than that. Not anything that can’t disappear in a single afternoon, anyway.

So now, with a lighter bank account and a much lighter burden to carry, I’ve decided on some changes to make.

When my junior year of college starts in the fall, I will only be working one job. I’m taking fewer classes, and more manageable ones at that. I’m going to put myself first, and listen to my body when it tells me I need to stop and rest. I’ll do things that are good for my body and soul, like resume my yoga practice and stop binge-eating m&ms (maybe). I’ll start attacking anxieties at the source instead of burying them under a few dollars an hour. And if relatives ask me questions during the holidays, I’m not going to feel ashamed to tell them that I’m doing a lot less, and I’m really looking forward to it.

It sounds like your typical run-of-the-mill resolution but this, for me, is different. I miss being happy. The people I know today might describe me as a lot of things, but joyful would not be one of them. I know the person I want to be is in here somewhere. The only thing it’s going to take to find her is mustering the courage to look inward and say, ‘Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Sophie. Who the hell are you?’