Why I decided to go to my college reunion – and why it made me happy.

I wasn’t planning to go to my college reunion. I took a year off during college to work, so I graduated a year behind a lot of my friends; this enlarged my circle but also diluted my experience to a degree.

A friend said, “Come on, you have to go! It will be fun. You live so close – you can just take a two-hour train ride to get from New York to New Haven. You should do it.”

And I thought of all my happiness-project resolutions: Connect with my past, “Show up,” “Only connect,” “Embrace novelty,” Spend money on happiness priorities, etc. I also thought of the scientific finding that people are more inclined to regret the things they don’t do than the things they do – which suggested that I’d regret skipping the reunion more than attending.

So I decided to go.

As I took the train up on Saturday, though, I had second thoughts. No one had emailed me to urge me to come. No one had contacted me through Facebook. Would anyone be glad to see me? I’d heard from more than one person that it was important to go to a reunion with at least a few close friends, so you felt anchored – but a lot of my close friends weren’t coming. I worried that I would feel adrift, friendless, and ignored.

But I had an excellent time. From noon until midnight, I stood talking to people, many of whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was great.

I tried to figure out why it was so much fun. I’m not sure I’ve quite put my finger on it, but I think there are several things:

 There’s an ease in relationships that go back a long time, even if they aren’t intense relationships. Somehow, the fact that we’d all known each other for a long time gave a special quality to our interactions.

 I found myself talking to people that I hadn’t seen for years as if I’d seen them last week. It’s nice to realize that I remember these folks, and that they remember me. It makes life seem more continuous. More than one person asked me, “Do you still drink as much Diet Coke?” “Are you still running?” I found that surprisingly reassuring. I’m somehow always astonished to realize that I exist in other people’s minds.

 It was interesting to see how people had changed. From a happiness-project perspective, I noticed two positive trends: first, a lot of people had decided to pursue a career that they were passionate about, and as it turns out, those people are happy with their lives, even if they aren’t always hugely successful in worldly terms; the fact that they’re doing what they love makes them happy. Also, many people have started to re-invent themselves, to tackle something new, and they feel exhilarated, if a little apprehensive, by that. So I was glad to see that a lot of people were made happier by “Embracing novelty and challenge,” “Allowing themselves to enjoy the fun of failure,” and their own personal versions of “Be Gretchen.”

Everyone commented on something: everyone was so nice. That’s one advantage of being older – people tend to have better manners and behave in a more friendly way, and they seem to be less high-strung, generally. And that really does change the atmosphere.

On a less lofty note, I was happy to see that all the boys on whom I once had unrequited crushes were still looking handsome, had interesting jobs, and seemed happy with their lives. Now that I have the best husband in the whole world, and so don’t care about the unrequitedness of said crushes, it was just fun to catch up.

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Several thoughtful people sent me the link to this Q-and-A on Spending on Happiness from the Harvard Business weekly newsletter. Bottom line: people who spent money on other people were happier than when they spent money on themselves. I think this article simplifies the relationship between money and happiness a bit too much, but it’s interesting.

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  • Eva

    Amazing, isn’t it? I recently attended my college reunion and was struck by how very much I enjoyed it, despite most of my best college friends being absent.
    The cynic in me thinks it’s easier to connect not simply because of the common past, but also because you know it’s a bounded interaction–you know that you can have a great time and then return home without a deep obligation to be best friends with hundreds of these semi-strangers. To me, it’s similar to how it’s easier to talk to men when I’m in a relationship: we can be more friendly and have more fun because there aren’t expectations.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • MJ

    I think you have a point about getting nicer as we get older. I went to an absolutely miserable, hellish “Mean Girls” girls’ private school but midway through graduate school ran into someone from my class who was nice and lamented that high school had been so awful for most of us. Ran into her and another classmate about 3 years ago and we had a great interaction.
    That said, none of us are willing to even entertain the idea of the high school reunion, so I have no idea whether everyone else has also mellowed. There isn’t enough money in the world to consider doing that – graduate school or law school probably yes, college maybe, high school NEVER.

  • Glad you brought this up. Next year is my 10 year high school reunion, and I haven’t been able to decide if I want to go. On the one hand, I’ve always been a very shy person. There were very few people in high school who I even knew their *names*, much less had close friendships with. On the other hand, I’ve always regretted not being more involved in school activities, not going to dances, and leaving prom early. (I didn’t even go to my own prom — I went with some friends to theirs.)

  • Gretchen, what a cool post and I’m so glad you had such a good time! I am helping to plan my 25th high school reunion… yeah, twenty-five! Ack! It will be so much fun though, just to re-connect, even if temporarily, with some old friends. Maybe a fresh new friendship will come of it too, just because we’ve all changed so much and had 25 years of life experience under our belts. I am looking forward to it!
    ~Monica

  • I’m a grad of a large university and I don’t even know if they have a class reunion. If they did, the chances of my classmates being there are probably slim.
    Some of the previous comments are about high school reunions. I think this offers a better chance to reconnect. The thing about attending these events that brings a real joy is the acceptance of my wife by my classmates. You’d think she west to school with us.

  • LP

    The Q&A Gretchen links to from the Harvard Business School, about how spending money on other people correlates with increased happiness, really highlights an important thing about business people: they are not science people. The Q&A didn’t link to any of the studies cited by Norton, but the only fact he mentions in the Q&A is that people who spend more money on others report feeling happier. The article implies that spending money on others therefore must *cause* increased happiness, but isn’t it more likely that people spend more money on others because they are more connected with others (a trait which is itself linked to increased happiness)? In other words, I think the Q&A gets the direction of causation backwards, if there’s any direct causation here at all. Let’s all say it together: “Correlation is not causation.”

  • Liz

    My college reunion (25th) made me sadder. I realized how forced everything was then. I realized that I tried so hard to fit in. All I can say is somehow I straightened things out. I did make some excellent friends and get a first-rate education but being back there set off all sorts of flashback anxiety. I’m glad I’m not 18 anymore.
    I also realize that I see the friends I want to see and those other people I can take or leave.

  • Bryan

    Gretchen, I loved the reunion as well, and agree with you about why that was. And I am very happy to have just seen your one minute movie. This morning I was late for a Big Meeting and dragged my son by the arm running to the bus stop to put him on the bus to school. Tomorrow (weather depending), we’ll walk across the park together. So thank you for that!