When happiness eludes Brunonians

Being sad at one of America’s happiest campuses

Assistant Features Editor
Friday, October 7, 2011

The University recently suffered a serious bruise to its ego when its ranking on the Princeton’s Review’s 2012 “Happiest Students” list took a tumble from first to third this year.

A Herald poll this spring found that 72 percent of students reported being “very happy” with their Brown experience and only 0.5 percent reported they were “very unhappy.”  But what is it like to be unhappy, even temporarily, at one of America’s happiest universities?

According to many administrators, unhappiness at Brown is a much more common complaint than many students think — ­­or are willing to admit.

On College Confidential, a website that discusses admission and college life, a member wrote passionately about all the University has to offer. But it was not love at first sight.

“I was unhappy at Brown for the first semester, and it was frustrating with everyone else running around yelling, ‘I LOVE BROWN!'” a student with the username hollyert, who identified as a member of the class of 2013, wrote. “No one seemed to get it.”


‘Badge of honor’

David Soto, director of content development for Princeton Review’s “The Best 376 Colleges,” said the company’s ranked lists, which include categories such as best college library and best food, are calculated based on a survey of over 122,000 students per year. The “happiest students” list is based on a question that asks respondents to quantify how happy they are at their school on a scale of one to five, he said.

Ranked schools are directly surveyed once every three years, Soto said. The organization works with administrators to distribute questionnaires through email. On average, about 375 students per campus return a completed survey, he said. The University was last surveyed during the 2008-09 academic year.

“Administrators view this as a badge of honor,” Soto said of inclusion on the happiest students list. “It’s something to aspire to for all colleges.”


Black and white

Students’ relationship to Brown’s cheery reputation is often a “tricky one,” said Carol Cohen ’83, associate dean of the College. “It creates the expectation, perhaps more so than at other schools, that happiness is fully attainable and ‘maybe it’s my fault if I can’t attain it,'” Cohen said.

Such a label has caused otherwise truly happy students to question whether they are as “rip-roaringly happy” as they could or should be, Cohen added.

What might make it harder is the fact that Brown students actually do seem to be happier than those at other schools, she said.

Many students tend to view happiness in black and white terms, said Belinda Johnson, director of Psychological Services. Those who already feel isolated might find themselves more so because of the perception that they are surrounded by a swarm of constantly happy classmates, said Johnson, who sees a sizable number of students with these concerns.

“They’re thinking, ‘I’m absolutely unhappy, and everyone else is absolutely happy.’ The truth is probably somewhere in between,” she said.

For first-years, patience is key. The outward appearance that everyone has a solid group of friends and is having a good time is often far from the truth, Johnson said.

“It’s really common for students to put on a good face,” she said. “Remember that the face people put on doesn’t express everything about them.”

First-years tend to probe the question of their own happiness more often than upperclassmen, who are generally more settled in their community, she said.

Johnson said almost every student struggles with personal challenges at some point. And in some ways, that period of malcontent can be just as important as periods of happiness.

“It’s hard to grow in a substantial way without moments that feel like that,” she said.


Drinking the Kool-Aid

When students try and fail to engage in the community, constantly ruminate over their unhappiness or simply cannot stand to sit in one more class, deans may recommend a leave of absence.

Reflecting upon over 20 years of experience as an administrator, Cohen said she has never once had a student who regretted or has not had their perspective shifted by taking a leave of absence.

It is common for sophomores to wander into the Curricular Resource Center, said Peggy Chang ’91, director of the center, which aids students in the leave-taking process. Often, those students come in with the thought, “I was okay last year, but something isn’t quite feeling right,” she said.

Dorothy Thurston ‘13.5 is one such student. After a gap year spent traveling, she said she arrived on College Hill to find most of her first-year classmates still on the “bender” of newfound freedom.

Everyone had that “bright-eyed, bushy-tailed look,” she said. “Just really ecstatic, really happy. I don’t know if I fit into that.”

By sophomore year, she said “the bonanza of being a freshman … had kind of worn off.” She decided to take a leave to figure out what she really wanted from her college experience.

After several internships, Thurston said she came back with a fresh perspective — both on what she plans to do after graduation and on why she was initially unhappy at Brown.

“People either really drink the Kool-Aid or they don’t,” Thurston said, regarding the perception of total happiness that pervades the campus community. “I don’t think they know it’s okay to have a middle ground,” she said.

Rowan Sharp ’14 took an unusually long leave — four years. At the University on scholarship, she said she felt uncomfortable because of the amount of wealth on campus and her own lack of direction. “I’m normally a really happy person,” she said. “When I’m not, I tend to take drastic action because it’s not normal.”

In some ways, Brown as a whole seems almost incapable of acknowledging unhappiness, Sharp said.

“There’s a certain amount of branding,” she said. “Brown, to sustain itself, builds itself up as this really ideal thing in every way.”


Coming of age

There is also the underlying pressure that college is supposed to be the best four years of a person’s life.

“The tears that have been shed in this office over that statement,” said Janet Cooper Nelson, University chaplain and director of the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life. “Trust me. These aren’t the best four years of life.”

Cooper Nelson linked students’ feelings of malaise to the coming-of-age process. A student’s discovery that their experience is not living up to initial expectations represents “a move past the idealism that was present in all those shiny admission brochures,” she said.

Happiness generally associated with Brown might stem from the sheer range of choice open to students, Chang said. But Chang pointed to a 2005 Swarthmore College study that found more choices can make humans unhappier. The seemingly infinite opportunities often cause students to worry whether they have made the best choice, she said.


Behind closed doors

Both Johnson and Chang said that the isolation brought on by being unhappy at one of America’s happiest colleges is something not discussed as openly or frequently as it should be on campus.

“Conversations about what it actually means to go through the highs and lows or to struggle here are held behind closed doors,” Chang said. “I do think we need to have more collective conversations.”

Happiness can be questioned anywhere, but it is a particularly relevant issue at a school that brands itself as one of the happiest. The Princeton Review statistic is a point of pride  — it is frequently mentioned on the University website.

“You’re allowed to love pieces of it,” Thurston said, referring to the Brown experience, “and also be in hate with it.”

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