Happiness Defined

(This is a blog post I wrote for my PLA course.)

The weekend I spent in Washington D.C. with the Presidential Leadership Academy was one of the most thought-provoking experiences I have had in a long time. I didn’t think it was possible to fit so much activity into three days, but even if it meant early mornings and late nights, I was so grateful to have been exposed to so many speakers, museums, monuments, restaurants, and more. I was also so grateful to have gotten to know so many people from all different years in PLA and become so much closer with our 2020 class. This weekend just confirmed my belief that the best way to bond with others is to travel with them. Nothing brings individuals together like talking for hours in a hotel room or spending nights exploring a city.

There were so many highlights throughout the three days, from hearing the diverse views of congressmen Glenn Thompson and Dwight Evans, to learning about the fascinating concept of urban/transportation planning from Eli Glazier, Sheila Borkar, and Ken Ray. I also loved Damion Thomas’ passion when he spoke of his experience curating the sports exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum itself was extremely impactful, and many of the quotes that I read on the walls have tattooed themselves on my brain and I can’t seem to shake them. The same thing happened at the Holocaust museum; going through places like these always strikes a chord in me and it’s so hard for me to wrap my head around the atrocities that have occurred in far too recent history. It’s simply unbelievable the experiences that many individuals had to endure, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture particularly emphasized the enduring prevalence of discrimination of minority groups in society today. The impactful opportunities that we were given in D.C. were unlike anything I could have gotten on a random weekend in State College, and I am so glad that I could get away and have this time to learn and reflect.

However, I wanted to particularly address the PLA alumni panel as something that was very influential for me this weekend. All four of these alumni were evidently successful in their chosen fields, but one theme in the conversation piqued my interest in particular. This theme was about how each individual on the panel defined their happiness. One woman, Sarah, said that she works in her dream job designing museum exhibits, but she is missing the social aspect because she works with “five introverts”. The other woman, Michelle, said that she worked for a long time in a job that she wanted but was very unhappy because of the poor relationship with her boss – unhappy to the point in which she would come home crying each night. She realized that she couldn’t deal with this anymore and now works in a much happier environment. The thing that stuck with me most, however, was when one panelist, Thomas, said that his happiness is defined by success in his career. At the end of the panel he said something to the tune of “show Ed and Helen that you are taking advantage of what they’ve given you through the PLA by going out and finding great success,” to which Helen responded something like, “But happiness and health are the most important things.”

While I understand the merit in defining happiness through career success, I personally believe that I want to define my happiness with much more. Of course, I want to find a prosperous career, but I want this career to be one that I enjoy. I want to form relationships with the people I work with, and I want to wake up every morning knowing that the work I’m doing is impacting others in some way. I never want to be driven by salary, title, or status. I don’t mean to imply at all that this is what the panelists want, but the conversation just got me thinking about what I want in my future. I really respected Michelle’s decision to remove herself from an unhappy environment, even if it was the job she had been striving for. I would make the same decision myself, because I want to feel satisfied with my work and life each day, rather than wishing the time to pass or feeling as though I was stuck in a place where I felt like I was suffocating. And I want my happiness to come from places other than work, as well. I want it to come from family, and health, and creativity, and a feeling that I am making a difference in the lives of others.

That sounds super cliche and turned into a rant that was longer than I intended. But now you can see for sure how thought-provoking this weekend was for me. I don’t know what my future will bring and I don’t need to know for sure right now, but I really appreciate weekends like this one in D.C. that help me to realize what I value and get me thinking about how I can translate these values into a career and a life.

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