Why Haven’t I Been Truly Happy Since University?
I’m sure that the majority of people who went to university have at least some good memories of the experience. Whether it was the course you chose that’s stayed with you, the friends you made there or the endless nights of partying, it’s a universally agreed notion that university will be the time of your life.
For me, at least, that phrase becomes truer with each year that passes. No experience has even come close to the three years I spent at uni. It remains up there as the single greatest period of my existence — quite literally, the time of my life.
And I’m not the only one who feels that way about their time at uni. So many people I’ve spoken to over the years, either within my age group or generation or those verging on the generation below, have all espoused some variation of the same thing — that not only was uni the greatest few years they’ve ever spent, but that, since uni, they’ve never been quite as happy. Nothing has touched the bar that was set so high by their time in higher education.
This isn’t to say that uni will always be a positive experience, or that there aren’t difficult times. I know plenty of stories of people who dropped out of higher education for various reasons, the most common being financial or academic struggles, disputes with flatmates or good old-fashioned homesickness. My own second year was a far-cry from the highs of my first and third years. As much as people will sing the praises of university life, it’s still a subjective experience that won’t turn out the same for everyone.
In fact, it could very well be said that romanticising and lamenting the experience this way says nothing about university itself and instead speaks to something missing from my life — a missing piece that I’m replacing with fantasies of better times. Exploring the question of why uni is considered such an unmatched part of life for so many young people is exactly why I started writing this piece in the first place, and while I’m confident that I won’t find an answer to such a nuanced question, it’s still a fascinating thought — why haven’t I been truly happy since university?
University is often (but not always) an experience that separates childhood and adulthood, lying right between the two almost as a coming-of-age period. Here, I’m defining childhood as the time leading up to being 18 years old, and 18 and above as adulthood. Since most people go to uni after college, once they’ve turned 18, the above definition certainly applies, but I’ll be applying it loosely. After all, I didn’t start my first year of uni until I was 20 years old, so I was already two years into adulthood by then. But what matters here is not so much any technical definition of childhood and adulthood, but rather a sentimental one.
When we think of childhood, we think of safety, of fun, of living comfortably in the care of our parents. Most things are done for us, and we live to certain rules and standards set by those who raise us. We have a certain freedom in the sense that our obligations only go as far as school, homework, and the odd household chore here and there, but we’re also restricted by expectations, and the inability to make a lot of important decisions for ourselves. Obviously, this sort of childhood won’t ring true for everyone, but I’m only trying to paint a very general picture here.
Adulthood, on the other hand, brings to mind an image of solitude. We’re suddenly thrust into a very different kind of world, one that involves working a job we won’t necessarily enjoy, mortgages, bills, taxes and the likelihood that we’ll drift from friends we were once inseparable from. We feel ourselves becoming old, and we feel the pressure of expectations more keenly than ever. It’s a race to get that dream job, marry the one and have 2.4 children, all before we’re past it. While we’re free to make any and all of our own decisions by this point, the responsibilities of adulthood hem us in. We’re also far from the comfort of home, of our parents. The world giveth, and the world taketh away in equal measure.
University, then, is a stopping point, a buffer between two drastically opposing phases of life. It provides a way of easing into adulthood, a way to dip your toes into the pool and become used to the temperature before you’re inevitably submerged completely. In a sense, university is almost its own entirely separate phase of life — not quite childhood, not quite adulthood, but some hybrid of the two.
Of course, not everyone’s university experiences will be the same. I am, after all, drawing from my own, and from those who I knew well at uni. But time at uni is often defined as a time of freedom — freedom from childhood limitations but also from adult expectations. We no longer live at home but we haven’t been thrust out unceremoniously either. We don’t necessarily have to work a dull job but we do have the focus of studies. Nothing — or the bare minimum, like obtaining that degree you’re paying for — is expected of you.
You’re a student, and that label comes with a lot of free passes. A student house will almost always be obvious from its slovenly interior. A group of students will almost always be obvious at a bar or on a night out as they stumble about after one too many pitchers of sex on the beach. A student’s diet will almost always consist of anything that is absolutely not good for them. And being deep in your overdraft is a student’s rite of passage. We might look at these things as adults and know that we’re past doing at least most of these things — by 25, most of us know how to keep a kitchen tidy, or can handle our drink. But when it comes to students, parents, professors and regular Joes alike simply accept these as normal and even expected antics.
In short, it’s the last period of your life where you can act less responsible than a child and get away with it. Sure, you can get away with it as an adult, but there are always going to be people over your shoulder, wondering when you’re going to know better if you don’t know better by your late 20s. Nobody asks that of you as a student. It’s like the hen or stag do just before a wedding — the last night of complete and unbridled freedom before real life (and real accountability) begins in earnest.
On top of that, your finances are supplemented by the fabled student loans, admittedly to a greater or lesser degree depending on your situation. Even your studies are probably enjoyable, if you picked something you actually like. If you’re lucky, you’ve made good friends with your flatmates in your first year. If you’ve made it to your second or third year, you’re probably lucky enough to be living with whoever you’re closest to, and that is perhaps the greatest thing about university.
Undoubtedly, university is where you’ll likely make some of your truest friends for life. Having people you love live down the corridor from you in a Friends-esque setup, always there for an impromptu therapy session, takeaway or night out, is a priceless thing. That’s where you’ll make some of your best memories. It’s where the freedom and lack of responsibility really matters. You’re truly free in those moments, laughing over nothing in your messy, communal kitchen at 3 in the morning. Those are the moments you’ll remember, later on down the line, when you’re sat at your work-desk reminiscing on better times. Those are the better times. They certainly are for me.
And perhaps the university experience sticks in the minds of so many graduates because it’s the last, truly free, truly happy moment in life before the harsh grind of adulthood kicks in. That isn’t to say that adulthood is all bad — life is, after all, what you make of it most of the time. But when uni is over, the student loans have ran dry, you’ve moved back home and your friends have all flown back to their own distant corners of the country, there comes a terrifying realisation — that there’ll never be anything like it again.
That goes for everything — the relative ease of student finance, the close proximity to friends, and the sheer enjoyment of studying something you presumably love because you chose to do it. All in all, it adds up to freedom. And is it any wonder, when so many of us feel so trapped in our jobs, our mortgages, and our obligations, that that long-lost freedom is something we yearn for?