Happiness and its many faces

“What do you want to be or do in the future?”

It’s a question that haunts me and I’m sure many others. Voices of well-intentioned parents, equally bewildered peers and our own ambitions seem to trail behind no matter what we do. For every person on campus, there may be a different answer. However, I think they all circle around one all-important and seemingly omnipotent word. 

Happiness. We want to be happy when we grow up.

Yes, it might sound childish, but it’s a childhood dream that many of us never grew out of. Deep down, we all want to be happy. The problem is none of us have a clue as to what happiness looks like. We’re struggling enough as it is just to go through the motions. 

Many modern-day sages (and Pinterest quote boards) tell us that happiness comes from within. It doesn’t come from money, fame or anywhere else. We create our own happiness. Therefore, happiness becomes somewhat at odds with money or other materialistic pursuits.

Now, I wholeheartedly agree with the belief that we are agents of our own lives and our own happiness. What doesn’t sit right with me is telling others: this is the true face of happiness. Why can’t money or fame be a face of happiness that some people choose?

Call me a lazy, superficial and materialistic girl who’s tone-deaf enough to further promote a materialistic culture. Fortunately, I’ve been raised by amazing parents in a way that I know being able to see (let alone choose) from the many faces of happiness is the most luxurious privilege. I feel the need to acknowledge the luxury I, and many Duke students, have been afforded. My column doesn’t pretend to speak to or for a social criticism crowd, but rather to the thousands of students here wrestling with the idea that money may be a part of their happiness.  

Personally, money has always played a role in how I try to answer the loaded question of what I want to do in the future. The potential for a high post-graduation salary led me to Duke with its weighty name and connections. I’m sure I’m not alone.

However, deep down I always felt guilty about how important money was for me because I didn’t want to come across sounding conceited or superficial when everyone else valued passion and condemned materialism. My desire to sound noble and conform, by completely removing money from the equation, drove my career aspirations. I felt empty, stressed and unhappy but also dirty or defective for not being satisfied myself with solely passion.

It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with the discomfort. Money in itself can’t make a person happy (unless they have a tree fetish), but it can buy the freedom and ability to choose happiness without batting an eye. A high-salaried job can provide the financial independence to look at all the faces of happiness and choose the one you want at that moment.

Too much of a sweet thing can kill you. I’ll put in a plea now not to toil away for decades in a high-earning job that you hate. That is letting money control you rather than using money to control and choose your happiness. Balance is also a face of happiness. What I’m trying to say, however, is that money can also be one of those faces.

For the people that chase after a profession out of pure passion regardless of the salary, I applaud you and I respect you immensely. But I’ve stopped pretending that I am one of those and I’ve stopped feeling guilty for what happiness looks like for me. 

Plus, it’s not even like money and passion are mutually exclusive. A higher salary or a promotion might boost your passion. Obviously, there will be tradeoffs at times.

Happiness has many faces. There are no superior or inferior ones. There are no right choices, only personal ones. If money is one of those choices, don’t feel ashamed, dirty or less than. I’ll be the devil’s advocate and say sell your soul to consulting, banking, corporate law, tech, engineering or whatever it might be if that’s what makes you happy. Embrace the face or faces of happiness you choose and don’t let anyone–even yourself–talk down about the decision you make. Be happy, whatever that means for you.

Emily Maceda is a Trinity sophomore. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays. 


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