The Pursuit of Happiness at Dartmouth

by Sarah Adelman | 2/25/16 7:33pm

Stepping off the bus for trips and instantly being attacked by upperclassmen dressed in flair and flailing their limbs, it was hard not to imagine Dartmouth as a happy, lively place. And, to an extent, I have been correct. The Dartmouth student body is, at least from my perspective, a relatively cheerful one.

However, some people stick out as especially happy and joyful. You know who I mean — those people that you never see without a smile on their face, whose laughter is infectious and who instantly put you in a better mood even if you just see them for a moment. So, I asked, what can we all do to be as happy as them? Is there a happiest person at Dartmouth?

(I would like to make a note that for this article, when I refer to unhappiness I am not talking about depression or anxiety resulting from mental health issues.)

Carolyn Susman ’18 considers herself to be one of the happiest people here. She said she achieves this by making a conscious effort to stay away from people or activities that make her unhappy, but more importantly, by choosing friends that make her laugh. She emphasized that humor is an integral part to maintaining her happiness.

“I think that I surround myself with people that make me happy,” Susman said. “I want to be around people who make me genuinely laugh, because its those people who bring you happiness.”

Psychology professor Mark Detzer said that being social and having a strong network of support significantly contributes to happiness. He noted this is especially true when people’s physical and mental health are compromised – which can, naturally, occur in college.

“Looking at the literature, it is evident that a social support system is huge,” Detzer said. “In health psychology, we look at how people cope with illness, and across different illnesses, having a support system is really key.”

Susman also said that finding activities you genuinely enjoy is essential to happiness, as much as finding the right people with whom to spend time. She said these activities can be organized or serendipitous and spur-of-the-moment.

“It’s little things, like going to the grocery store once every other weekend, or playing squash,” Susman said. “Finding activities as much as people is important.”

Leigh Steinberg ’18 commented that her introspectiveness allows her to be happy, because she feels very connected with and attuned to her emotions.

“I’m in touch with how I’m feeling every day,” Steinberg said. “I allow myself to feel.”

In a similar vein, Susman recognized sadness to be a vital ingredient for happiness. She said she believes that people who want to be happy all the time pressure themselves into ignoring their true emotions, and it is often those people who struggle the most because they’re being dishonest with themselves. Susman also commented that without those occasional negative emotions, she wouldn’t feel happiness as fully.

“I would consider myself a very happy person, but it wouldn’t be that way if I didn’t get sad sometimes,” Susman said. “I’m very emotional I feel a lot of things, but it signals to me when I’m happy. You can’t be 100 percent happy every day.”

Detzer expressed a similar sentiment, explaining that it’s not biologically or psychologically normal for people to be content all the time. He said that, in fact, viscerally feeling emotions, whether they’re negative or positive, is what will help propel people to true happiness.

“People think you should be happy all the time, but it’s not human nature. Having ups and downs is what makes people happier,” Detzer said. “Being present — having bad days — helps you metabolize them and move forward.”

Elizabeth Hart ’19 said she considers herself to be not particularly on either side of the happiness spectrum.

“I guess I’m happy here...I’m not particularly not happy,” Hart said. “I’m definitely not the happiest person here, but I’m also not the saddest.”

Hart acknowledged that she could take steps to increase her happiness at Dartmouth by becoming more involved with activities that she enjoys. She said, for example, that she’s interested in global warming, and could find an outlet for environmental activism on campus.

“I should talk to more people and make better use of the resources available to us,” Hart said. “The happiest people at Dartmouth are involved in what they are passionate about.”

Hart said that as a freshman, she’s heard that Dartmouth loses its appeal the more time you spend here. However, she expressed skepticism about whether or not this is true.

“I’ve heard everyone [eventually] gets jaded freshman year, but I still want to run up to tours and yell ‘Come here it’s great! I can’t imagine going anywhere else,’” Hart said. “I’ll see how I feel in 2019, but I’m optimistic.”

Detzer spoke about the often difficult transition to college life that freshmen can experience. He said this often occurs because students need a support system, and naturally, that takes time to cultivate when you’re in a new place with people.

“Students who have a rougher transition here because they feel isolated can’t find their tribe,” Detzer said. “You need a group within the system — people to weather the storm with.”

Detzer said that another source of unhappiness on the Dartmouth campus, from his perspective, is the pressure to be involved. People here might feel stressed or concerned, he said, when they can’t balance schoolwork with multiple extracurriculars.

“There are a million things so do here, so how can you not do everything?” Detzer said. “But, if you feel you are pressured and overcommit, then you’re really not enjoying your undergraduate experience.”

Detzer said, too, there’s an implicit pressure to be happy purely because of the privilege of going to school at Dartmouth.

“I can see students feel they should be happy all the time because look where you are,” Detzer said. “It’s such an opportunity to be here.”

Danny Gridley ‘19 said he identifies as an enormously happy person, but that’s due to his own innate nature more than circumstances here at Dartmouth.

“I’d say I’m very happy at Dartmouth, but that’s more of a product of who I am in general than just here,” Gridley said. “I’m no happier up here than I am at home. What’s key for me is the way I approach life.”

Gridley says one simple phrase guides his life: “No bad days.” He says this phrase allows him to appreciate life for what it is, and encourages him to try to make each day better than the last.

Dartmouth’s physical beauty was also a source of happiness and escape for all of the students I spoke with. Steinberg said that Dartmouth’s scenic campus has often been a calming and gratifying influence for her during difficult times.

“We all live a hectic crazy life. Sometimes I’m walking around the Green and I take a second to appreciate how beautiful this place is,” Steinberg said. “Dartmouth is like an oasis in the woods. The nature is always there to calm you down.”

Hart agreed, noting that spending time outside — in her case, exercising — contributes to her own happiness.

“The outdoors contributes greatly to my happiness,” Hart said. “I love to run. I can’t imagine going to college in a city, because nature adds a fresh perspective on life.”

After hearing about interviewees’ personal experience, I turned to more general questions. For example: barring any sort of mental health issue, does everyone have the chance to be happy here?

Steinberg took an optimistic stance, believing that all people have the capacity to be happy, whether at Dartmouth or otherwise. She believes that a good and positive attitude is the most important feature in a happy person.

“I think everyone can be happy at Dartmouth, but I think everyone can be happy at general. What I’ve learned from my parents and experiences is that it’s your mindset that affects you,” Steinberg said. “Good things will outweigh the bad if you focus on them. Having a positive mindset is accessible to everyone here.”

Like Steinberg, Susman said that happiness is self-motivated and accessible to all. However, she was not as confident about the likelihood of happiness here — she said she believes that satsisfaction at Dartmouth is contingent on how open you are to campus and everything is has to offer. She said it can take effort.

“It depends,” says Susman, “How willing are you to allow this place to be a part of your life? To let the people here impact you? It’s a self-determined accomplishment to be happy at Dartmouth. You have to want it an work at it.”

Susman reflected back on her freshman fall, noting that it was a time when her personal happiness was low. She said, though, that it was just a problem with adjusting to college, nothing specific to Dartmouth.

“The transition was really hard, and my expectations were too high,” Susman said. “But that wasn’t Dartmouth — that was just college.”

Steinberg recognized that Dartmouth is an institution filled with high school over-achievers who are over-involved, but said it’s important to step back and find the activities that make you truly happy, instead of what you think you are supposed to be doing.

“We all had to be overcommitted to get here and we are hardwired for that. But we need to focus on the things we want to be doing,” Steinberg said. “It could be academics, or a house, or affinity group, or a sports team, but whatever it is, college should be the time to let the extra stuff fall away and only do the things that make you happy.”

Even when one tries to pursue activities they enjoy, though, gratification is often not immediate; nor is a sense of belonging. Hart said that finding a niche here can be difficult but will be worth the wait.

“I think everyone can be happy here,” Hart said. “There’s a place for everyone, but it can be hard to find.”

Susman echoed this sentiment, saying that she has a sense of trust in Dartmouth and the inevitability of happiness here. She just advised that all good things take time.

“I think there’s a sense of faith you need to have. In who you are and where you are. My mom who was an ’89 met her best friend in the basement of Mid-Fay during her freshman winter completely by chance. I know its scary to have faith in the system, but I’ve seen good outcomes countless times. Things take time.”

Susman also believes that expressing gratitude and exposing vulnerability can be powerful ways to bond with people.

“Tell people how you feel,” she said. “When you appreciate someone, tell them. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and feel things. Its never too late to show your gratitude for someone.”

Steinberg agreed with Susman about appreciativeness, emphasizing that it can have a large positive impact.

“It feels so wonderful when people tell you that they value you as a friend or tell you how much you mean to them,” Steinberg said. “It is very powerful and under-utilized. By showing gratitude, you can bring happiness to other people and yourself.”

Detzer says the key to being happy, along with surrounding yourself with a support system, is helping others and finding something that excites you.

“If you’re struggling, help someone else,” he advised. “Find something you’re passionate about. Find a connection and a sense of meaning. What are your core values? What is important to you?”

At the end of the day, Dartmouth is a special place where everyone deserves to be — and has the potential to be — happy. So get outside, show your appreciation to the people around you and be patient. The results might surprise you.