Monday, March 20, was the International Day of Happiness, a day that would’ve gone otherwise unnoticed to me had I not serendipitously stumbled across a “Happy Acts” wall that asked me how I would go about spreading happiness. The answer came to me with surprising ease: “I will share happiness by: showing people that life gets better.” I was surprised, because a little more than a year ago, I would’ve thought that I had no happiness to give.

I’ve long been known as the happy girl, with a smile ever present on my face and a penchant for laugher but few people know that, for a period of about two years at the end of high school, the smiles were more of a facade. I’m not sure exactly when it began, but there became a time when I would dread waking up and facing the day, and trudge through it with complete apathy. I was filled with self-loathing, my self-esteem was at an all-time low and thoughts of suicide pervaded my life on a daily basis. It was a miserable way to live — if it could even be called living.

Although I was never diagnosed, a subconscious part of me recognized my symptoms for what they were. I didn’t dare tell anyone, because I was the happy girl, and happy girls who grow up in the lap of privilege don’t get depressed — at least, they don’t have any reason to be. Of course, I was plagued with many of the problems commonly faced by teenage girls — high-school drama, a severe lack of sleep and the stress of school — but in a world full of “real” problems so much more serious than mine, it felt silly to think that my problems warranted sadness and depression. My diary took the brunt of my private dark thoughts, while I pasted on a smile and forced laughter in public, because that was what was expected of me.

The end of my senior year of high school was a dark time, as anxieties about college built on top of existing anxieties, but things started to turn around at my high school’s all-night senior party, when an astrologist saw my depression in the stars. “You have been in a dark place since the winter of 2014,” she read with startling accuracy, “but things will turn around this fall.” Somehow, those words were the ember of hope I never knew I needed. Critical as I was about astrology and fortune telling, I was also desperate for some divine sign that there was light in my future. When one unexpectedly presented itself, I took it. Clinging to the hope that my stars were right, I gave life a chance, and it’s carried me through the aforementioned fall into a spring full of life and happiness.

I still don’t know if I believe in astrology, but that astrologist undoubtedly saved my life. It was not grand nor life-changing to anyone besides myself, but through the smallest pinch of hope, she gave me a lifeline. If I had followed through every time I seriously considered suicide, I never would’ve seen today, when I am finally content and at the pinnacle of my happiness. Again, I’m not exactly sure when my perspective on life began to change, but some time along the way, it felt like a curtain was lifted, revealing the beautiful world that depression had hidden. It’s difficult to describe, but the whole world seems clearer, and even the simplest of things, such as a sunny day or a Diag squirrel, can put a genuine smile on my face for the rest of the day. I lived for so long in a dark haze that it is important to me to treasure each and every day of clarity. If anything, I’m grateful for that period of darkness, because it gave me a much greater appreciation for life.

My journey to where I am today was a slow one, which involved lots of self-reflection and journaling, an attempt at fixing my sleep schedule and the gradual declaration of independence of my self-worth from arbitrary things, such as grades, other people’s opinions or a number on a scale. Tyler Knott Gregson’s poetry about chasing the light helped me in realizing that happiness is not something that simply happens; it must be sought, even in the darkest of times. It has been arduous, but being patient is well worth it, because the clarity that comes with a healthy state-of-mind is exhilarating. Positivity is the best lens through which to view life. Of course, I still struggle with putting things into perspective sometimes and sadness strikes everybody, but now, I can finally say that I’m a happy girl and mean it.

I do not tell this story for attention or sympathy; I tell it because I see so many people around me dealing with similar struggles, and I pledged on a “Happy Acts” wall that I will share happiness by showing those people that life gets better. Sharing my testimonial is the best way I know how. If just one person reads this and decides to live another day — a day that could potentially offer a glimmer of hope or a hand of help — I’ll be happy. It’s so easy to tie one’s self-worth to things like school and develop tunnel vision as the semester hurtles toward its end with astonishing speed, but it’s best not to forget that life is beautiful and very much worth living, worth persevering in the midst of depression. It’s important to remember that there are a number of resources that Counseling and Psychological Services offers for those who are struggling — resources I would’ve loved to have access to as a high-school junior — and that many university students experience feelings of inadequacy, depression or anxiety. You are never alone.

Perhaps my method of spreading happiness is not quite as affectionate as others’ — most of the responses on the board proclaimed that they would spread happiness by hugging more people, smiling at strangers and telling people that they are loved — but I believe that it is effective. After all, the clichéd saying that life gets better is a cliché because it’s true and offers hope. And hope is why I’m here today, the happiest I’ve been in a long time.

Ashley Zhang can be reached at ashleyzh@umich.edu.

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