College students often receive misguided advice.
When selecting classes, choosing a major, exploring housing options, seeking internships, or questioning relationships, students are often told: “Do what makes you happy.” Those words often lead to frustration, discontent and sustained defeat. It is difficult to feel “happy” when you’re swamped with work, studying long hours, sleep-deprived, and trying to pursue your dreams amid challenging circumstances.
So, should we teach our students to simply reach for happiness? Or pursue something higher?
Because of a growing culture of compulsory happiness, students are too often pushed to deny the struggles associated with sustained fulfillment. They are also pressured to avoid conflict and submit cheerfully to an array of injustices and misfortunes, such as personal illness and public division. And when faced with depression, anxiety, grief and sorrow, they are pressured to “Look on the bright side,” or merely to “Get over it.” While there is power in positivity, in the midst of countless challenges facing our world we must recognize the vast difference between positive thinking and courageous living.
At Syracuse University, I am honored to be alongside an assortment of students seeking something far beyond happiness. They recognize that happiness is not only challenging to explain, but also difficult to attain and nearly impossible to maintain. Each day I witness our courageous learners attempting to engage the world as it is and maximize the various and vibrant opportunities they receive. Many of our students yearn to fully exist in ways that push beyond the blurry boundaries of happiness, as they crave fulfillment through the discovery of what some would call their vocation, a calling to live out our capacities and convictions in ways that serve the community.
While vocation is often considered synonymous with career, job, or occupation, a vocation is far more than a professional title or task. With its foundations in spirituality and ethics, vocation takes seriously the diverse and often difficult ways in which people seek to align their values with their actions, flourish in their places of work and beyond, sacrifice for the pursuit of excellence, and attempt to direct their efforts to confront hardships and contribute toward a greater good.
Higher education should ensure more opportunities for students to explore their gifts to better understand the potential arc of their distinctive lives, to grasp how and why their presence in the world has sustained significance. When we focus our educational efforts on such a life-long and life-giving exploration of vocation, students on their graduation day receive far more than a ticket to an entry-level job. They are offered a trajectory toward an extraordinary life. This is what “higher education” is supposed to be about.
The world is transformed when students are advised to reach far higher than happiness — and actually do. We, those who are committed to educating the whole person, can help to bring such a collective fulfillment into being. Instead of “Do what makes you happy,” we should invite learners to “be what you and the world needs.”
The Rev. Brian E. Konkol is dean of Hendricks Chapel and professor of practice in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University.