Happiness and Ancient Limits

Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote: “The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease. The happy man confines himself within ancient limits.”

Does that make happiness a limit? It’s an interesting theory, one that perhaps even holds a ring of truth to it. Entrepreneurs, leaders, and inventors all drive our world, after all, allowing the rest of us to pursue happiness. But as a self-admitted non-mover-and-shaker, the concept of happiness being a limitation doesn’t sound all that appealing. It makes it seem as if there’s something wrong with being limited, which isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s something we can all learn from.

One thing that becomes apparent after living at Harvard for a while is the vast amount of motivation, drive, and perseverance contained within my fellow peers. This isn’t surprising given that we’re at, well, Harvard. I don’t think having great motivation is necessarily a bad thing. But this constant pursuit of “onward impulses” create a type of herd mentality that can be overwhelming at times. Harvard may not always be a pressure cooker, but it is certainly a bubble of individuals residing within one. And at times I feel that despite the opportunities and great experiences available to us, not many of us are exactly happy.

As much as I admire the persistence and grit within my classmates, I admit to myself that at times I chafe at the mentality. By the end of the year, while many I knew were planning to travel the world, study abroad, or pursue internships at successful companies, I simply wanted to return home and rest.

Throughout these few weeks of the summer, I’ve been at home, enjoying the Southern California sun and thinking about this: happiness, success, and the divide between my hometown and Cambridge. As slowly passing as the school year can sometimes seem (especially during midterm season), life back home seems even slower. And it’s helped me appreciate the present a lot more, living in a season not marked by calendars, meetings, routine. Instead of looking ahead towards next semester, next year, or even life after college, I’ve taken my forward-looking glasses off, at least for this summer.

As much as college (and Harvard, in particular) is meant to be a place where we hone our skills for the future, building strong connections to create stellar, successful careers, I sometimes feel we focus too much on life after college or personal success and not enough on the opportunities and hidden enjoyments within our four years at Harvard.

I’ve found a great deal of happiness during my first year at Harvard. And it’s not necessarily through important, career-building relationships, by joining the “right” clubs, or by taking the “right” classes. It’s the freedom to make choices for myself and only myself, to fail and see what works best for me. If there’s one thing Harvard has taught me, it’s how to become a better thinker for myself, moving beyond others’ answers to questions and perceptions.

I’ve extended this to the question of happiness and how best to find it. I’ve realized it’s important to not rely on anyone else’s definition of happiness or its often-conflated brother, success. Happiness is not always success, nor is the converse always true.

Unfortunately, this is something I have often forgotten or failed to realize during the school year while surrounded by so many brilliant and successful peers. It is a bubble that can change and distort our perspectives. This is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, maybe my priorities are just very different from others’, but it does occasion a sense of dread at times, especially in someone as confused about their future path in life as myself.

But returning to my little middle-class L.A. suburb, a bubble all its own, has recalibrated my own thoughts towards success. The happiest people I know are not investment bankers or doctors or engineers (though this is not to say they are necessarily unhappy, of course). They’re restaurant owners, parents, and teachers. Their happiness is not necessarily drawn from money or power, but from their family, love, and small, intrinsic pleasures. And even if these are “ancient limits,” they’re well worth “confining” oneself in, regardless of the outcome. Limitation isn’t necessarily bad, both in terms of happiness and of life.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I wouldn’t give up any of the experiences I’ve already had this summer for any internship. Yes, I suppose there is some detriment to my future resume that’ll result from this self-imposed inaction. (Though I wonder: Will taking one summer off really make a difference?)

But all that can wait until next year.

Robert Miranda ’20 is a Crimson editorial and design editor in Pforzheimer House.


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