A couple of months ago I was surfing through the trending Buzzfeed quizzes of the day and one caught my eye: “Find out what your dominant emotion is by answering these random questions.” Intrigued, I clicked on it and made my way through; turns out, my dominant emotion is sadness. Before you say anything, I know, I know. Buzzfeed quizzes are by no means a good source of personal reflection nor are they wildly accurate. But despite the lack of accuracy that most likely exists behind such a quiz, when I saw my results I wasn’t very surprised. If anything, there was some relief to my initial reaction — relief that there was something else that could see what I did.
Back in high school, I think if you asked any of my friends to describe me, one of the first words would be “bubbly.” Yet, if I gave myself the same task, taking into consideration my nightly battle of getting through homework, studying for upcoming tests and trying not to let anxiety get in the way, I don’t think “bubbly” would even make the list. I am not claiming that this is a unique experience in any way. There’s a reason why a survey administered by Healthy Minds Network to college students across the country found that 50% of the students tested positive for anxiety and/or depression while two-thirds admitted to struggling with loneliness — we haven’t been taught how to be happy.
Dr. Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University who teaches Psyc 157 – “Psychology and the Good Life,” believes that many high school students “deprioritize their happiness” to focus on getting into colleges which in turn leads to harmful life habits and worsened mental health. I know she is right about me. Looking back at my four years of high school, it is very clear that the looming pressure of college admissions played a huge part in the lives of me and my peers. For me, this translated into a crippling caffeine addiction consisting of three coffees daily and some Red Bulls, an insufficient sleep schedule averaging four to five hours a night and anxiety tics that are apparent in my fidgety manner of constantly playing with my hair and an inability to sit still. Yet even with all these bad habits, the worst consequence had to be my flawed system of finding happiness.
For so long I kept my motivation going and barely escaped burnout by getting myself to look forward to future things. Some days, something small would be enough: a 20-minute episode of “Friends” or a bowl of Cocoa Puffs before bed. But other days, the majority of the days, Chandler’s witty remarks wouldn’t cut it. I soon found myself constantly focusing on things weeks ahead, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, doing everything I could to escape the monotony and stress that my daily life would bring. Not only would this lead to huge waves of sadness after the major event I had been hanging all my happiness on was over, but it also meant that since I was so caught up in the future, I was never experiencing the present.
After college acceptances, when I began to really process my high school experience and registered how much of my life I had missed, I realized the true importance of one’s mindset. Though my particular mentality was unique to me, the fact that Dr. Santos’s class teaching students how to lead happier lives has been the most popular course in Yale’s 320-year history shows me that we have all been struggling. Moreover, it exposes a critical lack in our educational systems.
The idea of teaching students how to be happy, at first glance, seems silly. You’d think it’s not something that has to be taught, that it’s just something that we have. But as mental illness rates continue to climb, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to be taught how to hack our bodies — and that is exactly what Dr. Santos’s class does. Her course focuses on teaching positive psychology, which are the characteristics that allow humans to flourish, as well as behavioral changes to apply to students’ lives. As someone who has struggled, and continues to struggle, with finding the right way to think in order to prevent sadness from being a dominant emotion, I know I would appreciate such a class. All levels of schools, not just colleges, should endeavor to teach students psychological practices that will help them maintain more positive mindsets later in life. Even though I have started to take joy in the small moments that make up my day-to-day life, whether it be a funny moment with a friend or a jam session that hits, there is still more I have to learn until I have fully hacked my mind.
Palak Srivastava is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.