The danger of college’s self-obsessive allure

Matthew Gillham

Yeah, this one is, ironically, for you freshmen—but it’s also for me, too. Just don’t spend too long thinking about yourself while reading it.

Between goodbye hugs from your parents and helping your roommate sneak a 30-rack into your dorm room, this is it. Eighteen years of living in older brother Timmy’s shadow (you’re not even that smart, Timmy) and listening to your mom hound you to make your bed (why make it if I’m just gonna mess it up 12 hours later?) have been a necessary sacrifice for a time to finally focus on YOU. Do what you want to do. Become who you want to be. Find that perfect friend group. Get the most fun out of college because there’s a 55/45 female to male ratio at a SEC party school. These will be the best four years of your life!

Yeah, I get it. I can see the eye rolls now. You know where this is going. And yes, some of that sounds ridiculous. But I think if we’re all honest with ourselves, we’ve believed a version of that more often than we’d like to admit. I have a finite amount of time, so I will do whatever I can to maximize my happiness. Just simple utilitarianism.

And it all sounds really great – until it’s not. Until you’re eating your first (or tenth) meal alone at Lakeside. Until your 25-year-old cousin’s glamor stories of college tales and “Animal House” sound more myth now than they did in high school. Until you’re sick of your roommates and realize these newfound friends don’t really, fully know you.

College has a way of emphasizing the supreme importance of you – your thoughts, your feelings, your wants. And, to an extent, it’s healthy. Do find out what you enjoy. Do figure out what energizes and excites you. But when you put so much weight on your own happiness and fulfillment, the moment you feel alone, depressed, sad – and trust me, it happens – your sandcastle of esteem and purpose crumbles.

My sister, being the wise, old owl she is, told me as I entered freshman year to set aside non-negotiable time each week to do something to remind myself I’m not the center of the world. To remind myself I’m not nearly as important as I think I am. To remind myself that my sense of happiness should be a symptom of a fulfilling life, but not the obsession (I’ll ignore the desire to get too existential here). It’s underappreciated, underrepresented advice about life that centers on the idea that, despite what we all want to believe, we spend far too much time thinking about ourselves. Don’t think about yourself so much. I needed to hear it then, I sure as heck need to hear it now, and in ten years, I’ll need it just as much.

So go to the community service center, the Honors College, wherever, and find something to do that isn’t about you. Read to elementary school kids, help underserved communities with tax preparation, serve in a food bank – force yourself to leave the “me” bubble each week, and no, don’t you dare call it resume building.

But if my rather poor attempts to travel back a few years and put myself in the mind of an unknown, self-inflated freshman fail to resonate with you, please ignore them. Just don’t ignore the message. The next time you find yourself alone contemplating how your romanticized image of college turned into an empty dorm room, remember that focusing on your happiness will leave you frustrated and empty. But devoting time each week can help transform a mindset that’s been bombarded with “me, me, me” messages to one that remembers the other 7 billion people out there and, frankly, you shouldn’t be spending so much time thinking about your own happiness. Like any good paradox, chances are you’ll probably be a lot happier because of it.

Matthew Gillham is a a senior majoring in economics. His column runs biweekly on Fridays.