This Little Thing Called College
Earlier this month I was struck by a snippet of a conversation I overheard. One friend said to the other, “I have to get through this little thing called college.” I was caught in the moment, thinking what a terrible mindset that must be. College is not a mere “little thing,” it is three to four years during one of the most formative periods of our lives. It is a place to learn, grow, have fun and find our place in the world. What a mistake it must be to approach this time as a painful stone that we must wait to pass. It is no mistake that those people who view college as a prison term provide the loudest voices of complaints. As Uncle Iroh from “The Legend of Korra” says, “[I]f you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see” (episode 2.10).
In the opening letter of his sefer, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler struggles with the question of the pursuit of happiness. It is futile to place the pursuit of happiness on material possessions. This misguided pursuit does not make sense due to the plentitude of upper-class citizens who are unhappy. The quest for money is deeply unsatisfying and never-ending. No economics class contains the secret to happiness. As Rabbi Dessler explains, “There is no happiness in the world in material things; there is only happiness in spiritual concerns. The one who enjoys a rich spiritual life is happy. There is no other kind of happiness in existence ... The more energy, the more drive, we put into attaining these goals, the happier we shall be” (Translation from Rabbi Aryeh Carmel, “Strive for Truth,” pg. 29-30). We need meaning and direction to guide our lives, and this can be provided by the Torah or certain outside sources. Full happiness is provided from a life of meaning, noticing the many wellsprings of meaning in the world, not one that only notices the lack of meaning.
There are multiple scientific studies that look into the relationship between gratitude and happiness, including a 2014 study that specifically observed undergraduate students. Grateful thinking has been shown to improve moods and counteract the dreads of loneliness. This leads to a healthier mind, a healthier body and allows students to strive socially and academically. The evidence speaks for itself, having an attitude of gratitude and appreciation is likely to spur happiness and well-being in all aspects of life.
There can be many solutions to the question of the pursuit of happiness, but it is evident what is not. The goal is not to ignore the bad parts of our life or sweep them under the rug but to not fixate on them and let them drag us down. A person can still improve their life with a gratuitous attitude. One can even argue that this will lead to greater productivity as they will be of greater mind and body due to a happier outlook.
There is no need to sugarcoat it, college is hard, expensive and a gritting challenge. Nevertheless, it is transformative, informative and meaningful. It is clear that letting complaints about college be the driving force in your life leads to disappointment. At the end of the day, your level of satisfaction when you get your degree is dependent on how grateful you were about the journey to get there. So no, college is not some little thing we have to deal with.
Photo caption: Wilf Campus
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University