Through the Looking Glass: DDS — Dartmouth Duck Syndrome

by Sarah Salzman | 2/21/18 2:30am


For those of you who haven’t heard of “duck syndrome,” it is a concept often applied to college students who appear calm on the surface but are frantically suffering underneath. At Dartmouth, students can struggle to juggle numerous commitments and expectations. So many seem to do it all and still have their life together. Dartmouth students pride themselves on the ability to “work hard, play hard,” but are we happy?

Of course Dartmouth has many flaws, and so does society at large. Larger-scale structures can impose various adversities that impact individuals unequally. I don’t want to ignore the fact that some of the structural flaws of this campus affect a lot of people’s ability to be happy. Privilege plays an important role in challenging some, while enabling others. In this piece, though, I am going to focus on the inner and interpersonal side of happiness and ways we can become more content in our Dartmouth lives.

During my Dartmouth experience I have questioned my own happiness and the happiness of my peers time and again. Looking back on my years here, I cannot believe what a rollercoaster ride it has been — I have grown and matured in ways I could never have imagined. For the first time in my Dartmouth experience, I am so content with where I am in my life right now. I am thankful to be surrounded by a loving support system of friends, I am passionate about the classes and discussions I am engaged in intellectually and I love all of the fun activities and adventures I have been avidly partaking in as #senioritis sets in strong. Things are far from perfect in my life or at Dartmouth, but I feel like I have finally found a comfortable place where I am able to manage what comes my way.

My Dartmouth experience has included encounters with mental illness, losses of friends, family and acquaintances and a number of other massive sources of stress and struggle. These situations have understandably led me to feel upset but also very confused and alone. When I experienced periods of extreme loneliness, I felt like the rest of the students I saw around me seemed to have friends and communities to support them. They seemed to be happy and have it together. In reality though, how many students were truly like ducks furiously paddling to get by? How many were just like me? Reflecting on my composure at the time, I wonder if I also appeared to be calm on the outside. Was I just another duck on the water?

Since this period I have done a lot self reflection and thought extensively about ways to make myself feel more supported and self-confident. Looking back, here are some things I wish I could tell my first-year self:

Surround yourself with people who make you feel good and loved.

This is so important and has taken me so long to truly embrace. Actually think about the people you choose to spend time with and how they make you feel. You should be able to trust and be vulnerable with your friends without worrying about how they will react. Maybe it sounds simple and obvious, but it can be easy to get wrapped up in other things — the fun, the adventures, the memories — and not realize that a friendship is doing you more harm than good. Don’t stay friends with people who continually make you feel bad about yourself. Friends should support each other, not bring each other down.

Don’t go out if you don’t feel like it.

In fact, do less of what you don’t like to do. Granted, your homework and campus job are less optional, but a lot of things we do at Dartmouth are. Social life and extracurricular activities are two areas where you can focus and act on what makes you happy.

Be mindful of how you are feeling as you prepare to trek to frat row. Do you truly want to go? Or are you going because your friends are or because you need to get your facetime in? I can’t even count the number of times I have unwillingly pushed myself to be social, only to return a few hours later dissatisfied. We have so many choices available to us that we can opt for what will make us the most content on any given night: board game or movie nights, Collis After Dark activities, hanging at home with friends, shows at the Hop or maybe even catching up on sleep. These days I have been spending most nights watching the Winter Olympics with friends and cheering on my beloved Team Canada. Perhaps this is a lot of senior Sarah talking, but I do think that there are immense benefits to thoughtfully choosing how you spend your social time.

Extracurricular activities can take up a lot of time, and I know from certain experiences that a half- (or empty) hearted commitment to an activity is not very enjoyable. Have you ever questioned if your extracurricular activities are genuinely fulfilling? Are you just doing a particular activity for your resume? Ideally, if you are going to spend a lot of time on something, let it be worthy to you.

Recognize frustration and try to avoid it.

Try to recognize situations that make you irrationally agitated and, as much as possible, try to avoid them — especially when the outcome is out of your control. There are so many situations I have encountered at Dartmouth that have made me viscerally angry. While some anger is certainly a good thing, and spurs us to take action, too much anger can be unhealthy. I have been deeply frustrated by the flaws of this institution, the Greek system and people with different politics than me. Sometimes I couldn’t really figure out why my reactions were so strong, or if I was the one with the problem. Upon reflection I have come to recognize that it is sometimes the situations themselves that are toxic. Once I realize that I am feeling especially agitated with a given situation, I try to surrounded myself with friends instead or just remove myself from a discussion. While listening to others and being open to discussion is critical, let yourself have space from environments that agitate you. And of course, don’t be upset because you are upset — you are allowed to feel anger, but to some extent can also control how much you expose yourself to it.

Experiment with journaling.

Journaling seems like the classic recommendation to deal with emotions and with life. Getting counseling is up there too. There are many ways to journal, and I have tried a few of them in my time at Dartmouth. This is something I wish I made more time for, especially so I could remember all the good things in my college experience. Before sophomore summer, I had two older friends recommend that I take up journaling to get more out of the summer and keep me more grounded in my feelings. One easy way to journal is to write three positive things from your day, every day. I have found this method very effective at getting me to focus on the good in each day. It encouraged me to create or find happy moments where I otherwise wouldn’t have. You can also include the bad and the ugly, or just write a ranting entry when you feel like it, but I do think that making space to emphasize the positive can be very helpful. And don’t worry if you miss a day, or days — it is hard to always make time for journaling.

At Dartmouth we don’t need to fall into the trap of duck syndrome. In doing so, we may ignore how we really feel and not be as happy as we could be. When you stop paddling so hard, you can still float. You don’t need to conceal yourself from others or hide the truth from yourself. We can work on being more vulnerable and more open with how we feel. By being more aware of what is fulfilling to us, outside of the “work hard, play hard” mentality, we can work towards a fuller sense of happiness. In doing so, I hope we can make room for more honest human connection in communities at Dartmouth.