Measuring a life

August 25, 2009

Note: What follows is a column I wrote for my university student paper.

The Princeton Review recently ranked Washington University as fourth in quality of life. Rice took first, followed by Bowdoin, and then Claremont McKenna. This ranking is based on students’ responses to questions about food, the campus, the local area, student interaction, friendliness, and happiness. So basically, they aggregated all of their other statistics together to estimate the quality of life.

While it is impossible to rank someone’s quality of life, it is possible to approximate. We know that someone who does not need to worry about where his next meal is coming from has a better life than someone who does need to worry. Once people have shelter, food, water, and safety, you must look at harder to quantify areas. This is where the approximating comes in.

With the physical needs met, relationships, esteem, love, and self-actualization must be considered. If this all sounds familiar to you, it is because Abraham Maslow thought up this system back in the 1950s. He outlined a hierarchy of needs with the physical—food, drink, sleep—at the bottom and at the peak self-actualization. Self-actualization is doing what you were born to do. For example, writers write, teachers teach, and directors direct. When all of these needs have been met, your quality of life is the best it can be.

How do you measure someone’s progress to self-actualization? That would mean knowing what the person was born to do and how close they are to achieving it. You cannot measure this for yourself, let alone another person. However, you can estimate the quality of someone’s friendships, love life, and esteem through questionnaires. Using these you can extrapolate how near someone is to self-actualization, but extrapolation is inherently inaccurate. So, take that quality of life ranking with a large grain of salt.

Self-actualization is the something missing when nothing else is missing. The need for self-actualization makes otherwise comfortable people restless. College is the time for this restlessness, as all of our other needs are best served by the academic environment. All of our physical needs are provided for, and the needs of belonging, love, affection, and esteem can be easily satiated. You can knock out at least two of the four by simply joining a fraternity or sorority. Freshmen RAs jobs include making sure these needs are being met.

At no other time in your life will you live surrounded by people your own age all working towards the same goal. Now is the time when all of your friends are no farther than a walk. Taking advantage of all of this privilege to work on your last need makes sense.

Finding out what you were born to do and doing it is a tall order, but it only gets harder when you have other commitments—a job or a family. When you finish college, your good friends may be too far away or to busy for you to have that conversation that makes you reevaluate how you see the world. College is the time for restlessness, as evinced by most people changing their major at least once (especially if they come in as a BME at Wash. U.).

In changing your major, you gain the experience of having tried something. It seems the best way to find out what you were born to do is to do it. Go for it. Try new things, but more importantly meet new people. Wash. U. prides itself on its diversity of race, but diversity of thought is what is most needed.

We are truly privileged to be at Wash. U. Resources to improve our quality of life surround us. St. Louis is a Metro ride away. The Loop a short walk or shorter bike ride. Olin library is in the center of campus. Your new friends are down the hall. Be restless and go for a trip.


One Response to “Measuring a life”

  1. Noel said

    Absolutely your best article for your school’s paper that I’ve read so far. “College is a time for restlessness” is a good way to frame the constant drive toward self-actualization and fulfillment, I think. Maybe they should have titled that Princeton review ranking “quality of process” rather than “quality of life” :) Nice work!

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