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Dorris '15: Who's the happiest?

I recently stumbled upon happiness in a seemingly unhappy place: the Sharpe Refectory salad bar. The very happy conversation went something like this:
"Don't you love this?"
"Literally, these garbanzo beans are like, so incredible."
"Right? This salad is like, so great."
I was surprised. Because somewhere down the line I realized that the Ratty salad bar is literally not so great. The tuna is dry and looks like my grandfather's toupee. Choosing a dressing reminds me of finding a dress - in one of those French boutiques where the clothes only fit chain-smoking 12-year-olds. And the word "incredible" should be reserved for that Olympian runner with two artificial legs. Not garbanzo beans.
I realized that either the Ratty salad bar had miraculously improved, or these girls were faking it. So has happiness become a competition?
Let's face it. We live in a time where perfectionism is no longer a diagnosis. It's a life skill.
We strive for maximum efficiency. We read magazine articles entitled, "Be Fitter, Faster, Sexier, Smarter." And if we can be all of these things, shouldn't we also be able to "Master the Secrets to Happiness" or "Find Happiness in 30 Simple Steps"?
It's no surprise that feigning happiness has become as common - and compulsory - as faking orgasms. In the past, discontent was a possibly endearing character trait. Now Grumpy, the seventh dwarf, needs Prozac. His entire personality is suddenly invalid. And did you hear? Oscar the Grouch and I are seeing the same therapist.
We are constantly performing. We press each other to do things that are worthy of photographs and 140-character descriptions. Because of social media, we're all celebrities. The problem is, we only use Facebook and Twitter to remind each other how interesting, confident and happy we are - not that many experts call Generation Y the most depressed. According to a 2009 survey by the National Institute of Mental Health, almost a third of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function."
Assuming we are not so different than any other college undergrads, there could be 2,000 severely depressed Brown students. That's not even including students with low-grade depression or long-term anxiety.
But you would never know it listening to us talk to each other. We put positive spins on everything from our love lives to workloads. In hopes of appearing happy, we even go so far as to lie about our achievements away from Brown. Suddenly "camp counselor" becomes "playground leader." "Unpaid laboratory custodian" becomes "collaboration with a Princeton professor." And living alone in an enormous city, working slave hours for no wages, becomes, "I had an amazing summer."
Is all this "happiness" just making us miserable?
According to a study published in the Academy of Management Journal, bus drivers who engaged in fake smiling throughout the day actually experienced deteriorating moods. In other words, trying to mask negative thoughts with positive ones may actually make us feel worse.
So why do we fake happiness? Is it because we're afraid to open up - is it because we're afraid we'll be disliked? Can someone who has a drawer full of Klonopin and visits his therapist more than his academic adviser ever fit into our romanticized image of Brown?
When we do encounter unhappiness, we often expect an origin. We'll say, "Oh, that's right. You had abusive parents," or "Is that a chemical imbalance?"
But what if there is no origin? Many of us are very lucky. We go to a prestigious school, we are surrounded by an indulgent support system, we are confronted by remarkable opportunities everyday. Our problems and fears seem laughable in comparison to everything else.
It's as if happiness has evolved into a social status symbol like money or body weight. Because if all men really are created equal, and if we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, should we be denied the right to unhappiness?
Don't misread this. I'm not saying we should all be unhappy. I'm saying that as a school, we not only minimize unhappiness, we are completely intolerant to it. We are constantly driving each other toward an ideal emotional state that is always out of reach. We feel tremendous pressure to be enthusiastic, to be satisfied, to just shut up and smile.
But maybe all that shutting up is why antidepressants are the number one drug prescribed in the U.S., and according to a study by the New England Journal of Medicine, why up to 50 percent of college students who seek counseling use them. Maybe that is why we starve ourselves into negative jean sizes, drink ourselves into EMS trucks, worry ourselves into semesters away and medical leaves. Maybe that is why we keep our schedules so jam-packed, so that we never have time to stop and actually feel something.
Newsweek calls us the fourth happiest college in the nation, but maybe we should all just opt out. In the age where even emotion can be perfected, the pressure to be happy is just making us sad.


Cara Dorris '15 can be reached at cara_dorris@brown.edu.
 


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