Four months ago, I had an epiphany while working at my beloved sleepaway camp. As I lay awake in my child-sized bunk bed, feeling genuinely happy for the first time in a long time, I realized that I had things to say and I wanted to find a way to say them. Eight Daily columns later, I am ready to reflect on the heart of what I was really trying to communicate.
In my first column, I described how I began feeling empty and sad around this time last year. My heart and mind had finally come to terms with how disconnected I felt at the University, and I had trouble thinking of valid reasons to get out of bed each morning. Luckily, I was able to rediscover happiness over the summer by doing what I loved (working at my camp) with people I loved (shout out to my campers and co-counselors). Yet even while on such a high, I was perceptive enough to worry that I might relapse into depression as soon as I set foot on University property.
Miraculously, it’s finals week and I’m just as happy as I was back in August. However, I had to completely change my attitude this semester to ensure my happiness would stick, a process that I described throughout my columns. Learning to see life through a positive lens has been draining at times, especially on bad days when I want to give up and revert to my old mentality. But staying optimistic has also made life so much more enjoyable.
According to Forbes contributor Travis Bradberry, specific steps are required to stay optimistic, such as identifying positive thoughts and writing down negative thoughts to evaluate them more rationally. My attempted optimism began more haphazardly. I decided I was sick of being sad, and therefore I no longer tolerated sad thoughts. Whenever one surfaced, I attributed it to sleep deprivation and moved on.
Unsurprisingly, my simplistic optimism failed, and I crashed from my happy summer high right before classes started. I had just Skyped my best friend from home, who told me I was the most smiley and enthusiastic she’d ever seen me. I informed her that I had finally attained true happiness and my depression was gone forever. But as soon as I hung up, the wonderful feelings vanished. It dawned on me that I had to finish two more semesters at a place that didn’t feel like home, with people I didn’t connect with. I wasn’t sure if I could get through it, and worse yet, I felt disingenuous for proclaiming that I had finally found happiness when I clearly hadn’t.
In retrospect, I’m glad I crashed as early as I did. When I woke up feeling happy again two days later, I realized this wasn’t depression. This was just a bad day. If I could get through this bad day, then I could get through all the future bad days thrown my way. As the semester progressed, I rediscovered coping strategies, such as journaling and working out, which reduced my bouts of sadness from days to mere hours. And of course, taking time to connect with people and do my favorite hobbies gave me something to look forward to every time I started feeling down.
At first, I thought having a positive attitude meant being positive about everything in my life. But eventually, I realized it meant knowing when to step up versus walk away graciously. While seeking new connections with people who made me happy, I sacrificed a lot of superficial connections that had contributed to my emptiness and depression. I called my mom several times and told her I felt like a quitter, but she assured me I made the right choice and that I needed to re-label it in my head to sound more empowering. Like the song from “Frozen,” I wasn’t giving up; I was letting go.
With all the positive changes in my life, I finally feel true happiness in relation to my college experience, and I no longer worry about the good vibes disappearing. Though it took me longer than most, I think I figured out how to do college right and I can’t wait to see where my positive attitude takes me next semester.
I’m in a place where there is no shortage of opportunity to do what I love, and no shortage of people to whom I can connect. I’m curious to see what will happen when I graduate and find myself in a whole new environment. After my first column, a University alum reached out and said that the coping strategies she learned while dealing with tough situations in college prepared her to deal with future challenges in her life and career. Based on her experience and my own unwavering optimism, I’m confident that I will be prepared for whatever obstacles come my way.
Finding a platform to say all the things I wanted to say this semester was such a privilege. Thank you so much to everyone who supported me along the way.
Annie Humphrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.