Rewind two years or so: I’m an anxious high school senior dreaming about college. Parties, new friends, classes with boys (all girls high school), the – wait for it – best four years of my life. I knew I would meet a ton of new people and I thought we would spend four years frolicking around campus without a care in the world. I pictured constant happiness. Several weeks into my junior year, I can confidently say that there has been more than enough partying, friends, and loving life. I would not trade the past two years or the people I have met here for anything. But what I did not expect was the moments of darkness in between all the bliss. I don’t talk about it often, but depression and anxiety gradually became a larger and more controlling aspect of my life when I got to college. Depression means something different for everyone: for me, it means that when something bad happens, instead of being upset for a bit and moving on, I become paralyzed. It first happened my freshman year when the weather started to get colder and I couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to leave my bed for days on end. Small and seemingly insignificant events would trigger these episodes. They still do.
But this piece isn’t about my experience with depression: it’s about the specific expectation of happiness I witness in just about every person my age. We have built an idealistic outline of what it means to happy: a certain amount of friends/social status, a relationship, a specific body type, a socio economic status, etc. But what happens when a person has met all of these ideals and still feels empty? Certainly no one can forget the death of Madison Holleran, the beautiful Penn track star who committed suicide. Suicide is not a particularly rare occurrence, but she made headlines because her suicide came as a shock. I read comments to the tune of “She had such a great life! Why would she do such a thing?” These reactions gave me chills. How do you know what her life was like? Her status as an attractive young woman with good grades says next to nothing about the whole picture. I cannot stress this enough: we do not know what goes on in someone’s head on a day-to-day basis. Evidently this perfect picture of happiness and success that we as a society have constructed is not working. Of course Madison Holleran was an extreme case and mental illness is an entirely different animal, but my point is that true happiness comes in all different shapes and sizes. Contrary to what society leads us to believe, it does not come from meeting superficial expectations or even from meeting some of the standards that we create and hold for ourselves.
I can no longer count on my two hands how many friends I’ve watched experience devastating breakups. And the part that’s fascinating to me is that they all describe it in the exact same way: “We planned a future together.” “I can’t picture my life without him/her.” And my response is always essentially the same: I know it’s terrible, but this is not the end of your life. You’re going to continue breathing, waking up in the morning, and life will go on whether or not you want it to. This advice may sound harsh, but all too often we cling to the past for so long that it interferes with our present. Of course a breakup is earth shattering. Of course you feel lost without your significant other. But there comes a point when we have no choice but to pick up the pieces and begin to rebuild our lives. Sometimes I reach a state after a rough patch where I simply feel tired of being sad. Depression is exhausting, plain and simple. Your girlfriend/boyfriend was part of the outline of happiness you created for yourself. Now they’re gone and the plan is thrown off. But as painful as it is, change is the only constant. People will come and go. The ones who are meant to stay will stay.
Maybe your plan was to be pre-med and become a successful doctor to make your parents proud. That was going to bring you happiness – until you failed organic chemistry. Now you’re trapped in the vomit-inducing limbo of “What am I going to do with my life?” But what I want to emphasize is that sometimes feeling lost is good for the soul. You will not be happy all of the time. We as a culture have grown obsessed with mantras along the lines of “24 Ways to Be Happy Every Day” and “#100happydays.” Of course everyone wants to be happy, but I wrote this because I have learned recently that happiness does not mean living in a constant state of overwhelming joy. I know far too many people who are unhappy simply because they think every person around them is happy one hundred percent of the time. It’s simply not true. Trying to live up to a mental state that in actuality does not exist only sets us up for failure. 34 percent of college students report being depressed in the past three months – how interesting that we still refer to these as the best four years of our lives. Life comes with apathy, heartbreak and regret. The condition of people who do not feel remorse has a name: psychopathy. We are built to have regrets. We are built to ask “what if?” It is okay if the current state of your life does not line up with the plan you made, whether that plan was the person you called your soul mate or the college you wanted to attend. In fact, it’s a good thing if your plan is off course. We are supposed to grow as individuals, and the paths our lives take change with us – what would be the point if it all went according to plan?
All too often we chase goals simply because they are what others have told us they are what we should be chasing. I’ve never been in a serious relationship, but there have been moments in my college career when I’ve wondered if that was what I was “supposed” to be doing. Why would I commit myself to another person for the sole purpose of fulfilling a cultural expectation? I’m more than content being single. All that I’m asking is that more of our goals originate internally rather than externally. Perhaps instead of expecting that losing ten pounds will bring us happiness, we should expect that doing a friend a favor will accomplish that same goal (science shows that it will). Did you ever consider the possibility that going out and drinking with the same people you see every night won’t bring you nearly as much satisfaction as staying in with your favorite Netflix show? The surest sign of insecurity is giving into pressure to live up to expectations of our peers who are secretly just as confused as we are. This cycle is simply the blind leading the blind, and it happens all the time. Profile pictures likes might do it for an hour, but what’s left afterward? Set aside time for a little introspection and ask what it is that really makes you happy – not a superficial “I’m out partying with all these cool attractive people my life is so great” happy, but “I am a good person surrounded by good people” happy. Of course you have your circle of friends, but there are probably a very small number of them that consistently make you feel better about yourself. Stick with them.
The only way to feel real happiness – not all day, every day, but on a healthy and regular basis – is to build it for ourselves, on our own terms, and to ignore prescribed expectations and definitions, whether they originated from ourselves, society, or the way we were raised. Life is not going to turn out how you planned. That’s a good thing. Don’t get stuck on something you planned when you were a different person than you are now. Stop wondering if you’re the only one who feels down sometimes – you are not. Trust in the fact that you get out of the world exactly what you put into it, and everything will really, truly, be okay – actually, it will be better.