“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Starting today, the column will be published weekly on Thursday mornings.
I am an inveterate scorekeeper. I can go back decades and find lists of goals I set for myself to gauge “success” by certain milestone birthdays. For example, in my 20s, I had a to-do list for the decade, the items on which more or less told the story of a penniless musician who had made some dubious choices. It included quitting smoking, going to the dentist, mastering my pentatonic scales, and finishing college. (I hit them all, although the last one mere days before my 30th birthday.)
There is nothing unusual about this tendency to keep score. Google “30 things to do before you turn 30” and you will get more than 15,000 results. Researchers writing in the journal Psychological Science a few years ago observed that people are naturally motivated toward performance goals related to round numbers, and birthdays in particular can often act as landmarks to motivate self-improvement. We naturally seek outside sources of quantitative evidence of our progress and effectiveness—and, thus, our happiness.
Building a “30 by 30” list, however, is a misbegotten approach to happiness. Not that anyone in our material- and achievement-oriented society could be faulted for thinking this way, of course. Every cultural message we get is that happiness can be read off a scorecard of money, education, experiences, relationships, and prestige. Want the happiest life? Check the boxes of success and adventure, and do it as early as possible! Then move on to the next set of boxes. She who dies with the most checked boxes wins, right?