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2012 Fall Issue 1 (September 21, 2012)

Present Value of Happiness

September 24, 2012
By Hye Mi Ahn

The class of 2013 will graduate as the American economy experiences a painfully slow recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression. The national unemployment rate is still alarmingly high at 8.2% and the rest of the world hasn’t fared much better: the Euro-crisis seems never ending and even China’s indomitable growth has sputtered and slowed.

The deck is stacked against us and the future seems uncertain, if not downright miserable.  But statistics and headlines don’t capture that very real anxiety shadowing a graduating senior.

The idea of unemployment after college is terrifying, but fleshing out that visceral emotion is complicated. We envision different careers in the future, as do-gooders, aspiring rock stars and everything in between, and we have different dreams because we value different things, whether it’d be money, stability, family, power, or a suburban house with a white-picket fence. But there’s an underlying common denominator – the pursuit of happiness.

We forego the crazy party next door to study for a midterm because we’ve been taught that the sacrifice will pay off later. Years of practicing restraint and self-discipline made us good students and industrious people – we routinely make tradeoffs of immediate happiness for even better happiness in the future.

These days, it seems indulgent to take a study break when another cover letter could be written. Why play an IM sport when I could be revising my resume? Can I really afford to go have coffee with my roommate from freshmen year when a new job listing could be posted to the Tunnel any minute?

But consider this: economists – and anyone with common sense – would advise you that $100 paid to you a year from now is less valuable than the same amount paid to you today.  Your $100 could be put to work in a savings account, earning interest, which would leave you with more than $100 at the end of a year’s time. In other words, the ‘present value’ of $100 today is actually greater than $100.

I’m trying to wrap my head around a present value calculation of happiness. We now have one year left to be at this school and be with each other. We could spend that time studying maniacally and dedicate all of our free time to chasing the elusive job offer.

Or, we could take the $100 worth of happiness today and invest it meaningfully. We could devote that time to meeting new people and we could explore, discover, and learn things that don’t belong on a resume. We could spend this year in a way that thirty, forty years from now – when we’re professional do-gooders and rock stars with a serious case of nostalgia for Carleton – we can look back and say that it was the best investment we ever made.

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