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Mills '13.5: Why so down on Brown?

 

A discussion of happiness has the potential to devolve into something needlessly existential. I say needlessly because, in my not-at-all-scientific assessment of what makes people happy, it's often small details - like the state of traffic on one's commute or, yes, whether or not the salad bar has garbanzo beans - that make or break a day.

Call me simple-minded, but if I'd been in Cara Dorris' '15 shoes at the salad bar ("Dorris'15: Who's the happiest?," Sept. 17), I'd think, "It's great that they're enjoying their salad so much!"

Admittedly, I'd also probably think something snide like, screw "garbanzo" ­- why can't we all agree to call a chickpea a chickpea?

And speaking of calling a chickpea a chickpea, let's consider the merits of calling a spade a spade. Me? I'm all for it. I'm taking my senior fall off from Brown and interning in DC, and I'm under no illusions: It's hard. Primarily because, even though I'm surrounded by colleagues all the time, my days can be incredibly lonely. I miss being with my friends, the people around whom I can be an unadulterated version of myself.

I very much sympathize with Brown's current freshmen, who are confronting the conflicting realities of starting college. They are both overwhelmed by how much they have to juggle and underwhelmed by Brown, by the fact that they have yet to truly "get" the hype. Many are likely engaged in the charade of not wanting to be the one who says "uncle" first and admits that he or she isn't quite at home.

And, as Dorris aptly points out, faking it doesn't necessarily pay off. She references an Academy of Management Journal study which notes that bus drivers wielding fake smiles "actually experienced deteriorating moods." Brown's so-called happy culture unfortunately cultivates the pressure to seem happy or else be left out.

But Dorris neglected to mention what else the study found, the information that people who are struggling can productively use. A New York Times article contemplating the same study elaborated: "On days when the subjects tried to display smiles through deeper efforts - by actually cultivating pleasant thoughts and memories - their overall moods improved, and their productivity increased."

So what Dorris posited as a hopeless study in fact had a very uplifting component. If we can find activities that make us genuinely happy in the moment, then we can create a positive reservoir of memories to draw upon when we're struggling. If we can strike a balance between wallowing and faking, we can at least get ourselves on the road to a more genuinely happy place. And if we can talk about the state of happiness at Brown in a productive way - discussing the problem, yes, but also posing solutions - our community as a whole can strengthen.

The hallmark trait of Brown students is not happiness, genuine or otherwise. The hallmark trait is accountability, whether we like it or not. We have been gifted the freedom to create something out of our experience here, something that suits our academic interests and human needs, even those that we can't quite put our finger on. Our support system, which spans from our roommates to our professors to our deans to our Meiklejohns to Gail at the Ratty to our family a mile or world away, is not "indulgent." It's exceptional. And it certainly takes courage to use it, to admit that things are not going quite as we imagined the day we first stepped through the Van Wickle Gates.

But the effort to find joy in the little things, as little as chickpeas in the salad bar, is crucial. The Ratty, a "seemingly unhappy place," is where I've had some of my favorite moments at Brown. It's where I sat with my teammates after an awesome crew race against Yale and relived every victorious second. It's where I studied for my Islam exam as I tried to cover a semester's worth of reading in the time it took me to eat "these-were-supposed-to-be-over-easy" eggs. It's where I loudly regaled my table - and probably those in the near and far vicinity - with the story of when I woke up in Health Services freshmen year. And it's where I discovered Magic Bars, which, again and again, have made mediocre days feel that much better.

As for who's the Happiest, though? Not me.

But I am happy, lower-case "h." And this is a subtle but crucial distinction. Whereas being Happy sounds overly declarative, has finality to it, happy is more humble, leaving room for other emotions in my day. I can be happy and stressed and uncertain about the ever-looming future. I can enjoy components of my Brown experience and still engage in an authentic conversation with my peers about how I can be happier still. I can delight in the chickpeas in the Ratty without being accused of performing because I have accepted the fact that the existential quest for Happiness is perhaps never-ending. In the meantime I have the right, the opportunity or even the responsibility to fill my days with meaningful conversations and genuinely joyful moments.

 

Liz Mills `13.5 will happily continue this conversation through email at 

ElizabethSMills@gmail.com.


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