What’s the best thing about being a student? It’s the wonderful freedom, right? That giddy feeling that you can do pretty much exactly as you please, whenever you want.
Sure, you might have to attend a lecture now and again. But – the odd exam aside – there’s nothing much lingering over you.
Of course, these days students face enormous and crippling debt, so it’s less of a golden time than once it was.
But if you think about the stereotypical image of a student, it still denotes a hazy time of joy and opportunity. Of following your gut and feeding your soul. Of life spreading before you in carefree technicolour.
The selfish myth
Students have license to behave in the way that they do on the premise that their joy is finite. It’s implicitly understood that, sooner or later, “real life” will kick in and correct their feckless ways.
And anyone who fails to conform to this script is considered selfish, an oddity. Look at grown-up “student” characters on film. They nearly always get wise to their own fun-loving, egocentric foibles.
In About A Boy, Hugh Grant’s days are spent in leisurely half-hour segments of having a bath, reading the paper and other free-wheeling routines. But then it dawns on him that no man is an island, and he promptly takes on a whole load of baggage.
Bridget Jones is a pretty good student, all things considered, but she’s in a constant state of angst about it. She doesn’t seem to realise that being single, in London, with good mates and a job that she loves is sweetness personified. The smug marrieds she so resents would surely cramp her style, were she to join their ranks.
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In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen relishes being a bit of a bum, with his horde of fellow drop-outs. Together, they dance around an elusive soft-porn business concept that somehow never quite takes off. They have no money – but hey, they’re happy. Then Seth accidentally impregnates Katherine Heigl, and comes to understand that parenthood will be a powerful grounding force for him. He doesn’t need Beer Pong or lingering debt, he needs nappies and responsibility with a capital R.
Even in Three Men and a Baby, the three easy-come, easy-go New York bachelors have a wake-up call; a sudden epiphany that somehow their lives would be so much more rosy with a yowling infant in the mix.
Babies, mortgages… and happiness?
The problem with all of these narratives is that they suggest that doing what you want is somehow wrong, or morally corrupt. Living like a student – so says Hollywood, and society at large – is somehow empty and lacking.
Eventually you’ll bow to convention and grasp that Real Life – usually played out to the tune of marriage and babies, or at least a few onerous commitments – is the Best Way To Be.
But there are some major cracks in this perception.
A large body of evidence suggest that single people are actually happier than their married counterparts, experiencing greater self-growth and more vibrant social lives. Having kids is another life event that, statistically, will make you significantly less happy than being child-free. And despite what sunny estate agent ads would have you believe, even owning your own home is no guarantee of happiness.
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“People still view housing as a central component of happiness, but there is little research to support that,” says Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, who has spent years studying the link between happiness and consumerism. “People are making so many trade-offs in order to have that home [but] there are a lot of better things you could be putting your money towards.”
Must do, not want to
Nothing’s set in stone here. We all know people who are married, have mortgages and kids, and who are entirely content with their lot. But contrary to common belief, it’s not an elixir for happiness.
Responsibility weighs us down, it drags us into a quagmire of duty and commitment. It’s no coincidence that people aged 40-59 are most anxious; at a time when the demands of parenthood and ageing parents typically collide.
That’s not to say family life is a bad thing – far from it. Yet equally, it’s completely fine to say “no thanks, not for me” to that well-worn road.
A grown-up student is essentially a student who exists beyond uni, with a bit more ready cash. We’re culturally conditioned to believe that living like this is selfish. But, why so? Being footloose and fancy-free means you’re more open to the power of experience, and more likely to make connections with those around you; two things that are consistently linked with greater happiness.
And if you’re happy, you’ll reflect that positivity back at those around you. Little wonder single people are “more likely to frequently stay in touch with, provide help to, and receive help from parents, siblings, neighbours” than their married equivalents (according to this study).
A life that you want
There’s something more profound about the lure of being a grown-up student, too. Without any need or expectation to live a certain way, you break free from the obligations that weigh heavy on so many.
You’re not expected to conform to any particular role, because you’ve made a conscious decision not to hem yourself in with boundaries. And so you experience none of the insidious erosion of self that comes with obligation – or associated burdens such as FOMO, or an endless quest for money and success.
A grown-up student isn’t bothered about any of these things because they’re living life according to their own rules.
There’s no particular goal or end game in sight. It’s just about taking each day as it comes; perhaps at a gentle amble, but always attune to impromptu snickets of adventure that lie everywhere – to those who are open to seeing them.
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Living like a student doesn’t mean being selfish or feckless. Nor is it about achieving perfection or “living your best life” (bleugh). It doesn’t even mean knocking back Snakebite, or quaffing pizza at 11am in a grotty, hungover fug. Well, unless you want to…
The student within
When it comes down to it, being a grown-up student is about retaining or recapturing a sense of living in the present. But this happens naturally, with none of the self-conscious effort we tend to associate with mindfulness, or the art of self-care.
You’re simply living in the now as a result of responding impulsively to your own needs and desires.
Unlike so many others, you refuse to get stuck in a loop where you’re forever striving to meet other peoples’ expectations. You’re not ticking off “to-do’s” or trying to lead a life that’s somehow better.
Grown-up students know that such pursuits are a fool’s game; a vast sinkhole that will chip away at your soul.
So, do as you please, when you please. Eat, drink, travel, be merry. Ignore censure, ditch the doubters and follow your gut. Pursue happiness in an instinctive and directionless way.
No-one will thank you more than yourself.