My first year writing students are 18-19 years-old. Here’s the prompt for their first paper:
Irvine argues that people often lack a “grand goal of living” and a coherent philosophy of life because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about specific reasons for living; instead it provides them with an endless stream of distractions. He contends you’ll most likely squander your life without a guiding philosophy. He adds that even if you have a “grand goal in living” and can explain its importance, it’s unlikely you will attain those things in life you take to be of greatest value if you lack an effective strategy that specifies what you must do as you go about your daily activities. Explain why you agree or disagree with Irvine’s assertions. Also, explain a few things you want out of life and why.
Irvine proposes an updated version of Stoicism as a guiding philosophy. Most of my writers find meaning in some stoic concepts, like the trichotomy of control, but generally aren’t down with Irvine’s thesis that they need a “grand goal of living”. Most argue they’re too young to have formulated very specific life goals, let alone one “grand” one. Often, they thoughtfully point out that a highly detailed roadmap doesn’t make sense given life’s unpredictability.
When it comes to what they want out of life, an increasing number want improved mental health. It’s difficult to overstate the extent of young adults’ anxiety today. When I listen to them describe their anxiety and depression in class and read about it in their papers I have two reactions. Overwhelming empathy and curiosity as to what the hell is going on.
The third episode of the Happiness Lab podcast with Laurie Santos, “The Silver Lining”, might provide a clue. It’s about our tendency to compare ourselves to others who we perceive to be the most well liked, the most social, the most wealthy, the most together, the seemingly most happy. The episode’s title comes from research into Olympic athletes that suggests bronze medal winners are much happier with their medals than silver medal winners because silver medal winners are focused on not having won gold while bronze medal winners are focused on everyone that didn’t medal at all. This concept, “point of reference”, partially explains why happiness can be so illusive.
A Cornell psychologist in the episode contends social media compounds this problem because everyone carefully curates their online image to appear artificially happy. Among other remedies, Stoics advocate for internal goals to counter our self-sabotaging “point of reference” tendencies.
The gravity of the situation has me convinced that there’s no one explanation to “what’s going on”. Another factor could be the pressure my (admittedly selective) students feel to have their adult lives figured out just as they’re beginning them—whether to go to college, how selective a one, how to pay for it, what to study, what internships and other resume building activities to pursue, whether to go to graduate school, which career path, which grand goal for shits sake.
Parents, intensely worried about the vagaries of the economy, and desperate for a return on their considerable college investment, think that if their young adult children just pick the right thing to study—nursing, engineering, and other pre-professional fields—and develop a detailed plan, their college graduate sons and daughters won’t end up living in their basements.
This was what I was thinking about when struck by a related idea during a recent run. This time of the year, in North Olympia, Washington, it’s pitch black when running before work. Most of the streets are not lit, sometimes there’s fog. My uber-headlamp provides about 20-25 yards of visibility.
North Oly roads roll with a constantly changing mix of gentle ups and downs. Picture ocean swells, the Palouse in Eastern Washington, or the Norwegian countryside. Normally, I realized during the run, seeing roads ahead tilt upwards plays with my mind. At least a little. “Here it comes,” I think, “this is gonna take a little more effort.” And then, “Okay, almost topping out, hang in.”
But on this pitch black, foggy, autumn run, there was no such internal dialogue because I COULDN’T SEE AHEAD. The only way I knew I was starting a climb was my breathing became more labored. “Oh, okay, climbing now.” Because I couldn’t see the road tilting upwards ahead of time, my mind was free of that small, subtle nagging dread of having to work harder. As someone whose prone to look too far down the road of life, I was digging running in the moment. Don’t tell me what’s ahead, let me just be present.
Freed of anticipatory dread, my mind turned to my students. They lament how their teachers, beginning in middle school, ask about their life plans. And how it continues through high school. And how their parents too often pressure them to have a plan.
Some of them end up crafting faux-plans just to stop the insanity. As a placeholder of sorts. Some, like a previous writing student, declare nursing upon entering college only to realize in the middle of our first semester seminar that they didn’t really like science.
Maybe we should give our high school graduates headlamps and encourage them to focus at most on the year ahead especially since life is fragile and no one is guaranteed a long life.
What if our message was this.
In the next year, while working, traveling, or going to college; focus on improving your health; nourishing your spirit; investing in new friendships; finding one way to make others’ lives better. Don’t worry unnecessarily about the mountains and valleys that lie ahead in the distant future. You’ll be okay. And if not, let me know how I can help.
Young adults’ mental health might improve.