Malbreaux: The Pursuit of Happiness

We lose ourselves when we attempt to find a success prescribed to us.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 5/25/17 12:45am

Earlier this year, I published my first column in The Dartmouth, “Consumerist Masturbation,” in which I identified consumerism as seen in Kevin Spacey’s hit movie, “American Beauty.” Though it was released in 1999, the film’s satirical take on consumerism remains a relevant criticism of American society. Lester Burnham (Spacey) leads a miserable life: He has a strained relationship with his wife and daughter, a monotonous job that offers no corporate advancement and an unquantifiable amount of regret and unrealized potential. But the screenwriter’s focus is on the material that, by conventional measures, show his social rank: his two-story house surrounded by a literal white picket fence and a Mercedes SUV.

While none of these possessions are inherently bad, Lester’s attempt to replace his unfilled desires with material objects was dangerous — Lester dies at the movie’s end. But as the voice-over narration revealed from the very beginning, Lester was, in a sense, already dead.

Talking about death is thought to be taboo in the Western world. Asking someone about a dead relative or friend’s mode of death is deemed inconsiderate. Suggesting the possibility of someone dying after being admitted to the hospital for a serious illness is always untimely. It is so unspeakable that euphemisms are employed just so that the word “death” never has to be uttered. No one ever dies; they “pass away” or “move on” to whatever realm is next.

Different age groups also tend to view death differently. Younger people of today tend to look toward the future. The youngest in the college elite plan meticulously for their futures. It is not uncommon to meet an ambitious freshman who has the next decade of his life scheduled. On the other hand, older people often think less of the future because they have less of a long-term future ahead of them. Enjoying the present and looking back on the past is more important to those who are seventy-plus than it is for twenty-somethings.

Of course, this thinking of death concerns the literal conception of death, when the body is placed six feet into the ground and physical remains begin decomposing. But young people should question as Lester did whether there is only one type of death, a death marked by cessation of bodily functions like the ability to eat, talk, think or move. Death involves more than just the physical object of the human body. Death is also the end of an identity, and these identities can die a long time before a body rests inside of a grave.

Consider the case of a Dartmouth freshman who is pressured relentlessly by his parents to follow a particular career path, be it medicine, law or some other field. Parents all too often begin pressuring their children into choosing a certain career when the children are young. This priming at a younger age gears them toward outperforming other students in high school and eventually applying to exclusive colleges. It may be the case that the student excels at the subject and might quite possibly enjoy it. But pushing students primarily to get good grades in a subject takes the emphasis off true education and intellectual curiosity. The pressure to succeed becomes a numbers game as students strive for perfectionism in the classroom. Their innate interest for history or science dies, and the classroom becomes a breeding ground for fierce competition instead of a learning environment.

This pressure has been shown to have many adverse effects on students’ integrity. The Stanford Report in 2005 reported that professors identified a relationship between social pressures to achieve and plagiarism. According to the panel, students who felt the need to outperform others or maintain a high GPA were also more likely to cheat on tests and copy material for homework assignments. The darker side of the pressure to succeed can lead to substance abuse and subsequent dependency. New York University researchers followed a group of students from a selective private school while they were preparing to apply to colleges. Forty-nine percent stated that they felt a great deal of stress on a daily basis. Many also responded to stress with marijuana and alcohol consumption; nearly 40 percent of students reported getting drunk or high in the 30-day period before. While their low-achieving counterparts are also likely to use drugs or alcohol at some point under the age of 18, high-achieving students may do so because of a link to their motivation to achieve success.

As a first-generation college student, it is hard to imagine a life path directed so closely by my parents. I was given much leeway in terms of where I went to college and what I wanted to study. Although I knew that the stories of parental pressure were real, I did not know just how bad it could get until a recent conversation with a friend questioning whether he really wants to be a doctor. Like so many others, he was pressured by a family of surgeons and physicians. While listening to his story, I could not help but be reminded of Lester. A sense of family tradition may play a role in this pressure for a career path. But it is obvious that these professions are also forced onto students because of their prestige and salary.

Lester died in pursuit of those two hollow goods, but he was dead way before his body lay in a casket. His sense of self was defined by the unattainable. The parent-pressured student finds himself in a situation similar to Lester. It is my hope that at a place like Dartmouth, students who have let their true selves die out can once again reclaim the freedom to be passionately interested in the pursuit of happiness.