Aliza Saunders
June 6, 2017

     Our lives constantly revolve around what’s happening next. What classes should I take next year? Which college should I go to next fall? What job should I apply to next summer? Where should I apply to graduate school next spring? Which job should I take next year?

   It’s one thing after the next—a perpetual cycle of working for something else, something better. But, what is that something we’re so passionately working towards. Is it that college we want to get into? That job we want to get? That career we want to start?

    But to what end? At some point, saying you went to that Ivy League or make that much money just isn’t enough. Our happiness comes into play. According to the World Happiness Report, a report released by the UN on International Day of Happiness that ranks 155 countries based on their happiness, America ranks as the 14th happiest country in 2017, falling behind countries such as Norway (#1), Switzerland (#4), Canada (#7), and Australia (#10). America dropped one rank since 2016, and since the World Happiness Report’s premier in 2012, America has never been in the top 10.

   According to The Washington Post, America falls behind in four of the six happiness variables: “less social support, less sense of personal freedom, lower donations, and more perceived corruption of government and business.”

    Even more alarming is that teens stress levels are similar to adults, according to The American Psychological Association in 2014. Stress levels in teens rise to 5.8/10 during the school year versus the 3.9/10 healthy level. Additionally, 31% of teens feel overwhelmed and 30% feel depressed or sad due to these increased stress levels.

    An article in The Washington Post, entitled “Why being too busy makes us feel so good,” explains American’s obsession with being busy. The journalist calls life an “exhausting everydayathon,” where being busy makes people feel important. “If you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life,” Ann Burnett, a communications professor at North Dakota State University, said in the article.

    The increased stress in teens, increased desire to be busy, and decreased happiness in the lives of all Americans cannot continue to be overlooked for the “better” things in life—good grades, a good college, a successful career, etc. It is imperative that we fix these problems in American society so that we can wake up a little happier each day.

    The answer to reaching this ideal level of happiness, whatever that might be, is easy: we must slow down, we must take a breath between our busy schedules. But the implementation is the hard part.

    In high school, it is an almost impossible balance between working hard and having fun. That calculus test or that party, the SAT or that concert. We are taught to put everything we have into school, and to some extent that’s beneficial: getting into college.

    I am as guilty as any to the pressures of school and pressures to be “successful.” I find myself working incredibly hard for this grandiose idea of college, but asking myself for what? For college, yes, but at some point there has to be end to the amount of stress I put myself through.

    For most, college is the obvious and praised next step after high school. Senior year ends in May and freshman year begins September. After thirteen years of hard-core school, and all we get is three months of relaxation? Students are encouraged, by either parents or society, to enroll in college directly after school, but studies and personal interest stories have praised gap years, a beneficial way to slow down where students take a year off between high school and college to travel, work, or volunteer.

    According to Joe O’Shea’s book, Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, students who deferred their admissions to college after taking a gap year enrolled at the same rate as students who enrolled directly after high school. Additionally, students who take a gap year are more likely to graduate with higher GPAs than those students who went directly to college.

    Instead of simply going to college for that one career you have in mind, The American Gap Year Association argues that gap years solve issues of academic burnout, re-ignite the curiosity of learning, a give college a purpose.

    In 2016, a The New York Times article, entitled “How Taking a Gap Year Can Shape Your Life,” interviewed now adults about the benefits of their gap year after high school. Kara Nelson, now a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, taught in a migrant camp in Zimbabwe. She encourages other parents as well as her own children to utilize these alternative educational paths. Nelson said, “The idea of knowing that my kids would be out there being autonomous and feeling self-directed and empowered by making decisions themselves makes me really happy.”

    Gap year programs, such as Beyond Borders and Youth International, help students take a break from the constant cycle of rigorous school curriculums with no time to take in the world around them. From volunteering to teach English in Guatemala to building houses in Atlanta to working at a startup, gap years offer new, exciting, and eye-opening experiences to its participants.

    Gap years, however, are by no means the right decision for every student; it can cause some students to lose sight of their goals and not to mention the dent in your wallet some of these programs will leave. But if students find a program that works for them, odds are they will become a more well-rounded and cultured person. Oh, and not to mention happier.

    While it’s hard to think about the future after college, and maybe even high school, it does exist somewhere in that oblivion. Yet, this constant motion of working towards the “next” thing and constant struggle for happiness still persists. Unfortunately, stress does not subside after college ends. According to CNN Money in 2015, Americans work an average of 34.4 average hours a week compared to Norway’s 27.3 average hours of work a week. Maybe this has to do something with America’s 14th rank and Norway’s 1st rank in the World Happiness Report.

    Americans not only work more than those European countries, but they also suffer from fewer benefits. According to Glassdoor Economic Research, a company that researches today’s labor market, reported that all European Union (EU) countries (which make up one fifth of the top 10 happiest countries) must give a minimum of 14 weeks of maternity leave. Ireland gives 42 weeks with over $200 dollars weekly. The United States does not mandate maternity leave.

    The EU requires at least four weeks per year of vacation days. Sweden (#10 happiest country), France, and Denmark (#2) give the most at five weeks a year. The U.S. requires no paid vacation at all. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average amount of paid holidays for all full-time employees amounts to a whopping total of 12.9 days. Most European countries give their employees two to three more weeks of time to spend with their family, travel the world, or just read a book. These few weeks of relaxation are most likely correlated to the higher happiness rating in these European countries.

   Lastly, the Netherlands (#6 happiest country) offers up to two years of sick leave, where employees earn 70% of their salary. Again, the U.S. has no mandate on paid sick leave.

    The point of listing of these statistics is not to complain about the lacking benefits in the American workforce, but rather to bring light to these not-so-great characteristics. Life doesn’t end after college, and it’s actually just beginning. But this is a beginning filled with almost constant work and little time to rest.

    While this editorial does not have the power to change the mindset of those in Annapolis or Washington to adjust the entire way the education system is assembled in our country or support better benefits for the those in the American workforce or, this editorial does have the power to affect your mindset.

   Whether you’re reading this between classes, on the bus ride home, or in your bed, I can almost guarantee that you’re thinking about the next thing you have to do. That is not an inherently bad thing at all, but I want you to notice it. Notice those times you are unnecessarily stressing yourself out about the most minute details or spending an exorbitant amount of time on the next assignment you have.

   Ask yourself why am I doing this [insert here]? If you have an answer, then keep doing what you’re doing. If not, take a step back away from the chaotic thoughts running through your mind, and just think. Try to slow down. Slow down those thoughts and slow down your body.

    And maybe, after slowing down, you’ll be able to notice that rainbow across the sky or appreciate the family of ducks crossing the road. And maybe, just maybe, a smile will creep across your face. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be a little more happy.

Posted by Aliza Saunders

A senior at Atholton, Aliza Saunders took journalism last year and was on the editing team, writing about topics ranging from a student's travels in Malaysia to school start times. Over the summer, she traveled to Israel and Poland and got to hike along Mediterranean Sea. Aliza has a passion for all things from Chipotle to social advocacy to tennis.