How to Help College Students Overcome the “I’ll Be Happy When…” Syndrome

By Simone Figueroa, Co-Founder and President, U-Thrive Educational Services  

When I was in college, “I’ll be happy when…” was my mantra: I’ll be happy when I get an “A” on that test, I’ll be happy when I’m in a romantic relationship, I’ll be happy when I land that summer internship. But each and every time I accomplished said goal, the happiness that arose was fleeting. The most elucidating example of my “I’ll Be Happy When” syndrome occurred after landing my dream summer internship. Everything I had worked hard toward during my undergraduate career crescendoed when I was 1 of 2 junior year college students (out of a pool of 200+ applicants) who landed a coveted internship as a summer analyst with J.P. Morgan. “What could be better than this?”, I thought. Plus, I knew that these types of internships often resulted in a permanent position upon graduation if you excelled. And that is just what I did: excelled. However, amidst all the hard work, I was able to glean that I was NOT HAPPY.. Yes, I was making amazing money, especially for a twenty-one year-old, but I was working 12-hour days, 6-7 days a week and had no one to spend my hard-earned cash with and no time to do so. My heart sank as I tried to suppress the true thoughts ruminating in my head: How long will I have to do this job before I can do what I REALLY want to do in life?

With the support of my family, I knew that even if I was offered a permanent position (which I was), this was no way to start a career. I believe I was one of the lucky ones to come to this hard decision and that this is not the norm. Most college students accept the coveted job for the wrong reasons: prestige, parental pressure, financial pressure, the “this is what I should be doing” mentality, and not because they are passionate about their chosen field. The good news is that there is knowledge that can be taught to help overcome  the “I’ll be Happy When” syndrome, or at the very least, help college students understand it exists so they can make informed decisions regarding their direction in life.

Four Ways to Help College Students Overcome the “I’ll be Happy When…” Syndrome

  1. Understand that Happiness and Well-being are Not the Same Thing

Help students strive for well-being, not for happiness. Oftentimes happiness is thought to be synonymous with well-being, but it isn’t. Happiness is a positive emotion and only one component of well-being. It is important to recognize that well-being looks different for every individual, but one way of looking at it is through a framework in Positive Psychology known as PERMA. There five elements of PERMA: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Positive emotions are those that make us feel good, cause our brains to think more accurately, encourage us to connect with others, and see the bigger picture. Engagement refers to moments of being present in activities that are challenging yet enjoyable. Relationships, the number one predictor of our well-being, are the social connections that provide us with love and encouragement and help us build resilience when dealing with difficult life circumstances. Meaning is what matters most to us in life and occurs when people have a sense that their purpose is connected to something greater than themselves. Accomplishments refer to the specific goals (big or small) we set that provide great satisfaction once achieved. If you think of the five elements of PERMA like buckets, it is said that in order to flourish in life a person must have at least one drop in each bucket. The “drops” don’t need to be evenly distributed, but thriving becomes a challenge if any of the buckets become completely empty. 

If you think back to the story I shared earlier regarding my summer internship with J.P. Morgan, my engagement and accomplishment buckets were overflowing and my positive emotions bucket had a few drops in it, but my relationships and meaning buckets were empty. Having knowledge of this framework at the time could have been extremely helpful as it would provide insight into why I wasn’t flourishing. Focusing on the elements that contribute to one’s overall well-being, as opposed to focusing on, and striving for happiness, can be one way to help college students overcome the “I’ll be Happy When” syndrome. More specifically, PERMA can be a valuable tool that students can use to check-in with themselves and if they recognize that one of their buckets is empty, they can engage in activities that can “add a drop” so to speak.

  1. Money Can “Buy” Happiness, but Only to a Certain Point

Everyone always assumes that the more money they have, the happier they will be. While it is true that money contributes to happiness, its effect is small and there comes a point where it has diminishing returns. According to research, once we make enough money to cover our basic needs, save for the future, and have a little discretionary income left over to have some fun, making more does little for our happiness. According to research conducted by Dr. Ashley Whillans, professor at Harvard Business school, and U-Thrive Educational Services key contributor, when we’re asking the question, “can money buy happiness?” it’s not about accumulating money, but rather about being thoughtful and deliberate about how we spend it. Spending money on others, spending money on time-saving activities (such as paying someone to do chores you don’t enjoy), and spending money on experiences (rather than materials) are all ways that money can contribute to happiness. Having this knowledge might encourage college students (like myself back in the day) to pursue a major, or career path that they are passionate about, rather than one that solely has the potential to lead to a hefty bank account.

  1. Minimize Comparison to Others

One sure fire way to significantly reduce the negative effects of “I’ll be Happy When” syndrome is to provide students with a gentle reminder of the detriments of comparing oneself to others. We live in a culture where the “Keeping Up With the Joneses’” mentality is the norm and this has only been exacerbated with the advent of social media. It can be hard to remember that on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok people only show you what they want you to see and as a result it’s easy to think that everyone else is happier, or their lives are better than yours.Thus, when we look at what other people have, we tend to compare ourselves to them and think that we will only be happy once we have accomplished the things that they have. Not comparing ourselves to others might seem like an obvious and simple suggestion, but it is much harder to actually do. Implementation intentions, which are if/then plans used to link a situation with a behavior, can be used as a way to stop the negative habit of social comparison. For example: If I am on social media and find myself comparing myself to others, then I will turn off my phone and participate in an activity that brings me joy instead. Remember, things aren’t always as they seem. What works for one person and brings them joy and satisfaction, might not work for another. For example, I’m sure that many other finance majors would have loved the summer internship with J.P. Morgan, but I didn’t and that is okay. 

  1. Encourage Students to Find Their Passion 

One of the worst effects of the “I’ll Be Happy When” syndrome is that often we’re so focused on the destination that we forget about the journey and life seems to pass us by. Encourage students to really reflect on the reason they are pursuing their major, or career path. Is it simply a means to an end, or a necessary stepping stone to allow them the freedom to pursue their dreams sometime down the road? By helping students bring to the surface their true feelings about their chosen path, you might be able to help them avoid the very dreaded thought that recurred in my head on repeat: How long do I have to do this until I can do what I REALLY want to do? 

This article was adapted from key concepts taught by Dan Lerner MAPP, Dr. Ashley Whillians, Dr. Janet Ahn, and Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener from U-Thrive Educational Services Module on Well-being.

About the author

Simone Figueroa graduated Cum Laude from the University of Florida with a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and concentration in Spirituality and Health. Simone graduated top of her class from Columbia University with a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology in Education with an emphasis on Mind-Body Medicine. During her studies at Columbia University, she took a year long practicum in Positive Psychology and became fascinated with and quickly saw a need for Positive Education, which led to the start of U-Thrive Educational Services. Simone lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, Isaac, and her dog, Diesel, and has a passion for traveling, hiking, and spending quality time with family and friends.

Contact: [email protected] 

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