Happiness: The Pursuit

On Tuesday evening, I was sitting at the end of a long table in the Dining Hall, eating dinner with a teammate. When she got up to replenish her plate I stared off into space, brooding over the shambles that, in the short span of a week and a half, had become my life.

“Hey, are you OK?”

I looked to my left to see one of my freshman year roommates sitting at the opposite end of the table, eating dinner across from a friend. The two of us had lived in Dibble Annex together in a disgusting one room triple that was low key probably a human rights violation.

“I’m good,” I say, quickly snapping back to reality.

I figured it would be weird to abruptly unload any of my legitimate feelings upon her. Outside of the expected Noyce/Grill/Bear run-ins, the two of us didn’t see much of each other anymore.

“How are you?” I asked, desperate to redirect focus.

She paused, and after a moment said seriously, “I’ve been better.”

I was instantly disgusted with myself for visibly moping over my bullshit. The reality is, whatever she’s going through was probably much more intense, and a smiling face could have been just what she needed. I realized, though, that I wasn’t upset about not faking it-- I was upset that I didn’t have a genuine smile to give.

“I’m sorry...sorry for giving off bad vibes,” I said.

“No, no, it’s OK!” she replied, startled.

We looked at each other meaningfully, neither with any idea of what to say. When my teammate returned, we nodded at each other and went back to our meals.

I was frustrated because in that moment I couldn’t think of one question to ask or one piece of relevant wisdom to offer. I failed to express that I cared, failed to demonstrate interest, and failed to be of support.

And as a result, I found myself asking something that has probably been on the mind of much Grinnell as of late. How do we support each other when we’re struggling to support ourselves?

A few days ago I was describing to Max Christensen how, in the free time following the end of my basketball season, various issues which I hadn’t had the time to process were now flooding to the forefront of my consciousness. I became upset and overwhelmed. He asked if I had been working out, to which I responded that I hadn’t.

He looked at me as if to say “Ohhh girl, you know better,” and then proceeded to say, “Ohhh girl, you know better.”

And he was right. In an attempt to address my gloom, I had stopped going to the Bear, stopped listening to music, and stopped having positive conversations with my friends. My passions had to be put on hold while I figured out what was wrong. But by putting off happiness to combat sadness, I was, unsurprisingly, putting off happiness.

Don’t worry, this is not about to turn into “7 Tips for Wellness at Grinnell”. Neither lists nor inventing words to reframe elusive concepts is really my scene (wtf is “wellness?”). That being said, there will probably be tips, but also questions and complaints and confusion. Life isn’t formatted uniformly, so writing as such seems disingenuous.

The fact is, things are difficult right now. Because of the campus political climate, because it’s mid sems, because it’s cold, because we are in/approaching our early 20’s without a clue of what to do about it.

I’m probably not in the best position to be offering happiness advice, but I am sure about a few things. One of them is that a general cure-all, with a pretty stable success rate, is a good hug. And I’m not talking about a half-assed, one armed, see you after class hug. I’m talking about the type of hug that says: I sensed your vulnerability, I’m going to raise my arms up high to give you adequate time to prepare, embrace you warmly, rest my head on on your shoulders, and take a moment to be still.

Often times, using a 90-second cuddle to acknowledge that there’s not much to be said is the most useful thing we can do.

I’d also like to encourage us all to get some acts of spontaneity and originality going. Let’s remind each other that in addition to being extremely overwhelming and confusing, the world is also remarkably beautiful, and a pretty sweet place to live. So, cheer on people who try to print things in the JRC, lead a flash mob in the D-Hall, or do drunken whiteboard art all over Noyce. Help orient people towards the beauty, and maybe it’ll be contagious.

Another way to do this is by learning to identify and interpret the ways people express that they care about you. Personally, I express it by, when I feel a pang of love for one of my friends, saying “I love you,” followed by a short description of what triggered the feeling. But some people don’t do it like this. As a matter of fact, pretty much everyone’s methods are different, and some people’s are super coded. For example, I have one friend who says “I love you” by going to the gym to shoot with me even when she has way too much homework. I have another friend who expresses she cares by saying “Come entertain me.”

Seeking to identify and understand these methods will shift and broaden your perspective for the better. So go ahead and search. In the process of trusting the pursuit, you’ll usually find the elusive “happiness” that you were looking for all along.

Meanwhile at Grinnell, as we struggle to capture the enigmatic “college experience” in Snapchats and memories, we swing wildly between periods of wanting out now and wishing that time would stand still for the remainder of our dwindling college years. I think that part of the reason happiness is so difficult to sustain here is because immersing oneself in Grinnell requires you to give up what you had previously believed to be certain: ideas, values, interests, your entire conception of self.

This process causes a curious unraveling effect. The intensity of the Grinnell experience leaves you feeling guilty about your privilege, fairly out of touch with mainstream American culture, and entirely confused about your place in the world. And after taking very little responsibility for initiating what can only be described as individual quarter-life crises, Grinnell tells us all: now go figure out who you are, and also fix everything, you social justice warriors!

And this issue really matters. If we are all left angry, scared and confused, how is anyone supposed to get to a place that’s not?

For one, we should probably think a little harder about the fact that everything we do and say is shaping someone else’s perception of the world. For better or for worse, we are five feet away from each other at all times, densely enmeshed in a giant, inescapable feedback loop. It’s on us to make it a positive one.  

I don’t know much about how to actually do this, but here is one thing I do know: if you can’t find a way to participate enthusiastically in whatever you’re doing, don’t do it. The people next to you might care a lot, and it will make them feel good to know someone else cares as much as they do. Standing on the sideline talking shit can be good, but only in small doses.

In the spring when the sun is shining, and we’re surrounded by people who have found jobs and are playing pong on Mac Field and sitting on loggias smoking “cigarettes”, I’ll look back at this article and think-- it’s really not that complicated, you pretentious idiot, just be happy. Well you know what, present Alissa may be an idiot, but future Alissa is an an asshole, and I’m not sorry for searching. It’s the only thing we can do.

To close, I will turn to a pocket-sized quote book called A Simple Guide to Happiness that my mother gave me a few months ago. Despite the fact that it no doubt has all the answers to everything I’m whining about, I’ve instead spent the last two weeks running through Grinnell with my woes, convinced that I’ll just “figure it out myself” (you know how that typically goes).

What the random page that I flipped open to has to say is this:

“Joy is a return to the deep harmony of body, mind and spirit that was yours at birth and that can be yours again.”

Yes, I’m rooting for us to all get back there, and maybe some of us have already arrived. But passive fandom is not enough; we’re all responsible for each other’s happiness.

Finally, because my attempts at subverting the system are always accompanied by elements of conformity: for those of you who really just wanted 7 Tips for Wellness, here you go.

Breathe deeply, say thank you, get organized, put your library on shuffle, think about your friends’ accomplishments, and get to where you’re going.

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