When I walked into the Landmark Tavern last month, I knew I’d see more than a few familiar faces. It was the weekend of my 30-year reunion from Glenbrook North and many classmates were meeting in town on the night before the official event. Some flew in from out of state for the event; most who attended live in the Chicago area. I moved back to Northbrook over 18 years ago, I’m the proud parent of two GBN students, and I work with young adults as part of my life coaching practice.
If the metaphor for high school is a weird science project—take 14-18 year olds who share the same zip code, throw them into a petri dish, and watch what happens—then the metaphor for high school reunions is no-expectations speed dating. You spend a little bit of time with a person from your past, swap basic information about the current state of your lives, then move on to the next person knowing you won’t see most of them for another five or ten years. Sure, thanks to Facebook you’ll know what their kids are doing and what they ate for dinner at that restaurant last weekend, but you don’t expect a second date.
For several days following the weekend I thought about my classmates’ journeys since high school graduation. Who was happy? Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor of psychology and author of the book Stumbling on Happiness, defines happiness as frequent positive feelings accompanied by an overall sense that one’s life has meaning. And that got me wondering: Who among the GBN Class of ’85 has this kind of happiness?
So, I asked. I sent out a quick survey to my peers to get their reaction to a few questions. What were they most proud of? How is life different than what they expected? Who had found and stayed with their careers? Who, like me, had discovered their calling later in life and made a significant career change?
Of the classmates who responded to the survey, most mentioned their families as their greatest source of pride. “Having a wonderful wife and kids,” said one classmate. “My family and my 25 year marriage,” said another. Others mentioned professional accomplishments like leaving the relative safety of a corporate job to start a small business.
It can be difficult to look back and compare reality to expectations. My classmates’ responses included genuine surprise at their circumstances, “I thought I’d be a career woman,” said the mother who stayed at home for the past twenty years, and, “I thought I’d live in the big city,” said the person living in Utah.
Many expected that their lives would have turned out differently. “I feel less secure, emotionally and financially, than I thought I would be by this age,” said one classmate, while another answered with an obvious reaction to his current state, “I didn’t expect to be divorced and a single father.” Who does?
I was delighted to learn that those classmates who haven’t changed careers did so because they discovered what they love to do early in life and they continue to be challenged. “I have always wanted to be a psychologist and I am one. Love it!” said one woman. Similarly, many who have changed courses professionally have done so to pursue a passion or calling.
The last question I asked my classmates was, “If you could go back in time and speak to yourself when you were 18, what would you say?” Here’s a sample of what the GBN Class of ’85 would tell itself:
- Don’t sweat the small stuff
- Quit worrying about what you need to be happy
- Have confidence in yourself and your choices
- Don’t let others bring you down. Be confident in your own skin
- Surround yourself with friends who make you feel good about yourself
- Try to be the best part of someone’s day
My classmates’ responses reflect what I hope we’re telling our own children. Make an effort to understand who you are, what makes you tick. Then, make an effort to be true to who you are and live an authentic life. Doing that will help you discover your calling and live a happy life.
David Whitlock lives in Northbrook with his wife, two GBN students and a dog named Hudson. His column will shine a light on the science of happiness and positivity in our community. He is the founder of The Happiness Catalyst and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org