Senior year is halfway done, and the impending feeling of doom emerges as a reminder that the college bubble that has been keeping my life secure is set to burst.
What are we seniors going to do if what we feel must happen after college does not happen? In no time I will be pulled by the collar out of my happy-go-lucky ‘Eden’ world and plunged into an existential crisis about whether I will become what I want to be.
Fortunately, I read some good advice from Albert Ellis that eased my anxiety. I hope seniors and non-seniors alike can find value in it.
Albert Ellis was the developer of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy – a major psycho-therapeutic approach during the ‘cognitive revolution’ in psychology that emphasized the role thinking patterns have on personal well-being. He is regarded as one of the most influential American psychotherapists of all time.
Ellis looked at the way we utilize the words ‘must,’ ‘should,’ ‘ought to’ and ‘have to’ in our speech and thinking. Try to catch yourself using these words. They are what Ellis believes to be the main culprits for irrational thought.
We use these words to form necessary conditions for our happiness to take place. For example, many of us (cough, me) have what Ellis calls ‘low frustration tolerance.’
There are times in our everyday lives when we decide that if a certain condition is not met, we can’t experience happiness whatsoever. Whenever a bus is late or our computers slow down, many of us decide that we have no choice but to be grumpy.
It makes no sense that in such conditions we can’t have any happiness because getting upset won’t do anything to help.
Similarly, we can see this irrationality pop up as nightmares of post-college life come to haunt us. Here, we form conditions for our happiness and for our self-worth. Becoming a research psychologist is my dream job, and for that to happen, I will need to go to graduate school. I sincerely do feel that working in a dream job is what will make one most effective, happy and fulfilled in life. There is nothing wrong with this thinking.
If I don’t get my dream job, it should not be necessary that I become ineffective, and it does not become impossible for me to be happy or to be fulfilled. As Ellis and fellow psychotherapist Windy Dryden once wrote, ‘There is no reason why I must succeed. I would prefer to, but I never have to do well. So I’ll manage to be as happy as I can be, even with my constantly failing.’
It is an over-exaggeration to say that if we don’t get our dream job (or any job we pursue), it will be the end of the world. Perhaps we have a vision of ourselves becoming something in particular, or a certain career just feels right to us, and this vision is rooted within us.
Ellis would not say we shouldn’t have such visions or feelings, but rather we make this job the condition for our happiness, self-worth and fulfillment and then we will go crazy. If we don’t get the exact job we want, we probably are likely to get some less ideal job, from which we are still able to derive some happiness.
Even if this does occur, does it really make happiness, self-fulfillment or peace of mind impossible? We may not get these things the way we expect to, but we can find happiness and peace of mind in some other ways.
As Albert Ellis would say, avoiding such ‘must’ conditions may help us make the most of our lives. For instance, many of my fellow seniors hope that this semester will be the most fun ever, since it will be our last.
I suggest to my peers that they set goals to help make it so, but do not make the completion of these goals a condition for their happiness. They should set up possibilities for fun without expecting that fun must happen.
Then we can really enjoy fun when it comes, instead of worrying whether it will be there or not. I tell myself this too.
Tsao is a member of
the class of 2010.

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