Where does happiness come from?

It’s not helpful for a Wall Street stock trader, with an Ivy League economics degree, to tell you that if you just work hard you can make a six-figure salary, just like him. It’s unlikely his six-figure salary is due to hard work, but rather to his good fortune at being accepted into an Ivy League school in the first place.

Nor would it be helpful for Michael Phelps to tell young swimmers that if they just work hard, they can be Olympic champions. The only possible outcome is disappointment.

The advice to work hard is well-intentioned, but often gets directed towards an inappropriate goal (six-figure salaries, championships, etc.) It’s probably better to drop the goal entirely, recognizing that hard work leads to happiness all by itself.

This passage, which I’ve shared in the past, comes from University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach, Anson Dorrance:

“When kids come to college, they come with a wonderful kind of idealism, and trying to be happy is at the top of their list. They have been given their freedom for the first time. And in their ambition to become happy, the typical freshman goes out the first couple nights and gets totally wasted. 

They are free now, and they think a part of this wonderful freedom is to go out and stretch their limits. They think this is going to make them happy. But they discover quickly that getting drunk every night doesn’t make you happy. Basically, it leaves you hung over and empty, and you really don’t gain much from that kind of total freedom.

There are some hilarious things that occur during those periods. But, ultimately, they don’t make you happy, even if every night is filled with riotous laughter. What happens is they discover the things that genuinely satisfy them and make them happy. And the thing that makes you happy – ironically for the people who look for a quick fix – is work. 

It’s satisfying to work hard at something. It’s satisfying to work hard at athletics. It’s satisfying to compete and do your best, and those are the things that ultimately come back and give you a depth of feeling and depth of character. The process itself is not always that enjoyable, but at the end of the day, the people who have worked hard feel good about what they’ve accomplished. There is a satisfaction that feeds them. 

There is a difference between fun and happiness. I think the most confused freshmen and sophomores we have believe happiness is stringing together a collection of fun environments. I once read that fun is something you enjoy while it is going on, but things that make you happy are what you appreciate once the event is finished. There are few environments where hard work and connecting personally are as deeply satisfying as in team sports. And if I have done my job properly, I think part of an undergraduate’s evolution is they come to that conclusion before they graduate. 

One thing that athletics does for people is give them that satisfaction before they genuinely understand what’s going on.”

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