I started teaching about 25 years ago. That's enough time to have taught people who weren't yet born when I started. In fact, it's enough time to have taught the children of people I taught. All of which is to say, it's a long time. And in that time one of the very common things I hear from students is that they want to be happy when they are older. Which, of course, makes total sense. Who doesn't want to be happy?
The thing is though, that I find a lot of these students are searching for a path to happy. Which is to say, there's an implicit assumption that happiness is a place you go, and the secret to getting there is to take the right path. These students are generally anxious about many things, including making the right decisions about their future education, taking the right courses to support those decisions, and perhaps most upsetting to myself as an observer, their inability to succeed in the courses they think they need to take. They have been programmed to think that if they can't succeed in, say, math and science, then they will never be able to succeed in life, and therefore never be happy.
This could not be more false. Let me dispel with a couple of myths, if I may.
Myth 1: You need math and science to be successful
It might seem strange, coming from a mathematician and math educator, to see that subtitle. After all, aren't I supposed to be the one advocating for the necessity of math and science? How can a math teacher be telling people that you don't need math to be successful? Especially one who wrote this blog? Well, it's not strange at all. It's true - you don't need math and science to be successful. Not that they don't serve some people well! Math has certainly served me well. Just that these academic disciplines are not for everyone. As teachers one of the saddest things we see are students who are so brilliantly gifted in some other area, struggling to eke out a credit in our course. These students work hard, devote themselves, and yet struggle daily. It crushes them. And as educators who want nothing more than to see young people grow into their best selves, it crushes us as well. And it doesn't have to be that way. The analogy I like to use in this situation is to sports, and specifically to the Olympics. Michael Phelps for example, is accepted by many as the greatest swimmer of all time (or at least one of them). For people who know a little about competitive swimming, this is not only not news, it is not surprising. He is literally built for the sport. He's tall, with disproportionately long arms, and disproportionately short legs, as described here in an excerpt from https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/what-makes-the-perfect-swimmers-body/
"Phelps has many anthropometric advantages. He is very tall, standing at 6 foot 4 inches, and he also has a 6-foot-7-inch wingspan and short powerful legs which are the size of someone who is 6 feet tall. He also has massive hands and feet, and his torso is the size of the one you would expect to see on a man who is 6 feet 8 inches tall, giving him both a high natural buoyancy and lung capacity. Phelps also possesses exemplary shoulder and ankle flexibility and has hyperextension in his joints. His unprecedented versatility indicates that he had an unusually high number of FT-A Muscle fibers, as no swimmer in history was able to win eight gold medals in a single Olympics."
Now, imagine if Phelps had decided that swimming was a silly pursuit, and he instead should pursue powerlifting. Consider this excerpt from http://www.temple-of-iron.com/perfect-body-for-powerlifting/
"Based on biomechanical principles for third class levers, the shorter the lever, the less work and torque are required to lift a load (e.g. the barbell). powerlifters who are of average or below average height with proportionally short limbs appear to be at an advantage compared with taller lifters with longer limbs. Powerlifters also possess a relatively large bony structure with wide dense bone mass (Johnson et al., 1990; Katch et al., 1980; Marchocka & Smuk, 1984)."
Had Phelps decided to try powerlifting, he'd have done miserably because he is just not built for it. Which I'm guessing seems obvious to you, but oddly the same principle in academics appears to be less obvious to students engaged in the equivalent of trying to take a swimmer's body and turn it into a powerlifter.
It is worth noting and taking note of the fact that Phelps's natural gifts alone would not have propelled him to the forefront of his sport. He had to devote himself intensely to amplifying his natural gifts through hard work, discipline, and dedication. That quality - the ability to work that diligently, could also admittedly have been applied to a different sport. Michael Phelps could have channeled all that energy into powerlifting. And he likely would have been able to make some progress, because hard work is not irrelevant. But he would have been battling all the way. His work often would have seemed wasted, as he watched athletes more physically suited to powerlifting eclipse his lifts. He would have had to battle not only the rigours of the training but the mental and emotional stress of working so hard to little effect. This can and will create growing discouragement that has a much wider impact on general self-esteem. Phelps may have ended up thinking of himself as not worth the effort in any pursuit, since his gargantuan efforts would be resulting in middling success, at best. He could have spent his life thinking about how he was a failure, because he failed at powerlifting. And how ridiculous a notion is that? Instead, by channeling his energies into swimming, he not only was able to grow and improve amazingly, he was also rewarded with that growth as he was training, which fuels continued efforts. It is damn hard to keep working at something that is not producing results, whereas working at something where the results keep manifesting is one of the most rewarding things we can do. And so my advice is always that you should pursue the things whose pursuit gives you joy, not those that make you miserable. Because amplifying our natural gifts is a spiral of growth - the reward of improving encourages the continued effort, which results in more improvements.
And that is what makes us happy. Which leads me to myth 2:
Myth 2: There is a path to happiness
Calling that a myth certainly sounds depressing, doesn't it? It isn't though. Because the myth is about the path - not about the happiness. There is no path to happiness because happiness is not a destination, it is a state of existence. And even if there was a path to happiness, how would it ever make sense that this path would be one that kept you in a constant state of misery? It seems silly to think that one could exist miserable for a great length of time and then suddenly, as a result, land at happy. But this is exactly what many students are doing. They force themselves into courses and programs that they do not enjoy, for which they are not suited, and work hard and long to eke by, which they can do. But they are generally miserable. My question is always, if this journey makes you so miserable, what makes you think the destination is something that will make you happy? For example, suppose you have decided that you want to be, say, an engineer, but you hate math and science. Engineering requires a great deal of math and science. You force yourself to take these courses, spend blood, sweat and tears for moderate results, and are miserable the whole time. You are essentially fighting your natural inclinations so that you can end up in a career that will perpetually require that you keep returning to the very thing that makes you so miserable. It's flawed logic, usually extending from some notion that you need a career that will "pay well", whatever that means.
Instead, consider this. If you do your best to pursue the things that genuinely interest you, and take courses where you thrive because you enjoy the material, two amazing things will happen. First, you will find that you are generally happy, even when and often because you are working hard. There will be times when you are carrying heavy loads, and perhaps even suffering in the moment. The difference is, you will always know in those times that you are suffering for a reason, and that there will be a payoff. This is not miserable suffering, but more like the kind of pain we get from really intense workouts. And so even in your pain you will find that you are happy. This is the secret - that there is no path to happiness, but rather that happiness is a way to exist on the path of life.
Second, these pursuits will naturally lead you to a career that leverages your strengths! So that when school is over, and phase 2 of life begins, you will have transitioned from a happy student to a happy adult. If you pursue and amplify your natural gifts, there will always be people who want/need your contributions. The career you are looking for will manifest, almost organically.
That is the real definition of success. And so the answer to the title "When Does Happy Happen" is ...
Happy Happens Now.
Thanks for reading,