Come On, Get Happy!

The mythical pursuit of happiness in college is ultimately unattainable, but we can change our mindset to achieve a healthier balance.

By Annie Dhal

These past couple weeks have been rough for me. Actually, all of last quarter and the one before that and the one before that one have all had the same kind of film over them: a blank, numb grayness that I have struggled to cut through with tears and Student Wellness appointments and promises to myself to make each next week a better one—all of which have fallen just short of any real fruition.

Truly, when I reach back, I can’t think of many moments in my college experience that are dyed with real, vibrant joy, the kind of stuff from coming-of-age movies and music videos, as violently colored as a VSCO profile. This isn’t to say that I haven’t had some perfectly wonderful times with some truly wonderful people, but rather that all my time at college has long been strained under the weight of wanting something more. This—the burden of expectation to be happy in a specific way—is not unfamiliar in a defining experience like college, but the pressure to perform can be debilitating.

To be honest, I’m not certain that this is something new. I feel as if this pursuit of happiness has plagued me for years, lived inside me for as long as I can remember. My ever-evolving focus on a nebulous “better” has probably stolen other moments of actual joy from me: I think now of a specific car ride with a friend in early high school, our eyes on the skyline, on our respective futures and college expectations. I remember making plans, making promises, and wishing that we could catapult forward to college to live them out. Three and a half years later, I am not at the school where I thought I would be. I am not in the same major or on the same career path I planned. And I don’t talk to that friend anymore. But I do remember the startling blue of the day, Texas fields to each corner of the universe, the open road unfurling before us—I remember this with far more precision than the thousand anxieties I’m sure clouded me then. What seemed absolute and pressing then does not matter to me at all now. What was good has stayed good even if just within the crisp confines of memory. I want to use this as a template for a new mindset. We should take joy as it comes rather than burden it with idealizations of how it should be.

I don’t mean to suggest that happiness is purely a state of mind or that it is easy to achieve in the face of adversity. Instead, what I want to draw attention to is our pressure to reach a certain unattainable level of joy, which will always, always, prove elusive. Much of the pressure to achieve or at least showcase this high degree of happiness results in ignoring or dismissing more pressing mental concerns. Happiness and good mental health are not the same thing, and conflating the two is a dangerous weight to place on college students. Happiness is an emotional state and consequently should not be treated as a sustainable default. It exists on the plane of other emotions, less blatantly positive ones—anger, sadness—all of which are healthy and important to feel. If our focus is on achieving just happiness, the urge to ignore these other feelings is strong, but damaging. Good mental health, which is as much a condition of wellness as physical health, involves feeling everything, the good and the bad, and the pure focus on one or the other can result in a numbness, an idea that life is passing by you.

Nearly half of all college students across America struggled with a psychiatric disorder in the past year. More than 70 percent of students will experience some sort of mental health crisis during their time at college. So much is not in our hands but in our past traumas, our genetics, our wildly changing circumstances. While there are resources already present to help those struggling with ongoing issues, there are still serious measures colleges must take to ensure collective progress in mental health for their students while at school and beyond, including wider reach with mental health professionals and a better overall work-life balance. There is absolutely no shame in asking for assistance and no shame in needing it. There is an absolute amount of strength in working toward a better state of mind for yourself. The need to present or perform a certain level of happiness can be a detriment to seeking out actual care for this, and the constant cloud of expectation to make these years the greatest four years of your life can quickly turn sour. What we can do is turn our attention to what we do have and gather joy from what life gives us.

If we are looking to be fixed entirely, if we are to measure every inch of our lives to a nebulous idea of what perfection ought to look like, if we are looking for the kind of blanket happiness that wipes out any sort of distress, we will be searching for a very, very long time. Instead, we can craft small joys where we are, keep our hearts open to a better future, all while making a home of what we have now.

Annie Dhal is a second-year in the College.