Fostering a Culture of Happiness

April 28, 2017

Elizabeth Pankova

Happiness is the idea an innocent child lives by; it’s the sound of the school bell ringing for recess, the smell of delicious chocolate chip cookies baking. Happiness is the color yellow and a warm fireplace in the winter. Whether it’s through ice cream or Mom’s hugs, happiness is real and present.

But as we get older, happiness seems to become less of a constant. We become jaded. Our worries take over our hearts, and we don’t give attention to the little things that once gave us so much joy. Lately, I’ve been asking myself what it means to be happy. With the stress of school and the intimidating future waiting around the corner, what does happiness really look like?

Happiness is found in the present moment, and it is this present moment that we so often neglect. As the sun sets beautifully over the Potomac, we hide ourselves in the depths of our frustrations and fail to appreciate what’s around us. Whether we’re running from class to a meeting or internship, we’re only thinking about what is next. We say that we’ll take care of ourselves and be happy after we graduate. We’ll be more mindful when we’re not worried about our future. We’ll take time to reflect when we can, but now is just not the time.

Often when my workload is light, I still feel the need to be as stressed as everyone around me. I feel guilty for taking in some sun or spending a few extra hours with some friends. Even having an afternoon free feels wrong. There is something really unhealthy about this. We’ve turned into machines that crank out papers and into robots that spit out facts. I question what we’re really learning and how we’re truly transforming ourselves. It’s not natural to be sleeping only three hours every night, nor is it natural to be constantly moving frantically from one stress-inducing activity to the next.

Research supports that our happiness and mental health drive our success. Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, explains that “positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels.” Our happiness is not only good for its own sake. It also inspires more effective learning.

Regardless of this scientific research, if we aren’t happy doing what we are doing, what’s the point? There’s no denying that my happiness and mental health haven’t been my first priorities at Georgetown. I’m sure that this is probably the case more times than not. So what can we do about it?

First, we must accept the situation. Our experiences of emotion are just as important as our experiences of bodily pain or sensation. Mental health is physical health. We should go to the therapist when we feel stressed, just as we should go to the doctor when we break a bone. We can no longer say that we don’t have enough time to go see Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) or get professional help elsewhere. It’s imperative that this stigma on campus is changed. Any test we have tomorrow is not nearly as important as taking care of ourselves.

Second, we must allow ourselves to take breaks, even if our work is piling up. Taking a break will give us the chance to engage in other activities that bring us joy. Whether it’s spending time listening to our favorite music, painting with a friend, or going for a walk, this time we devote to ourselves—and nothing else—will bring happiness along with it.

Third, to the professors reading this: give us time to breathe on breaks, and help us make our Georgetown experience more than just homework and studying. Whether it’s Thanksgiving or Easter, we should be spending time with our loved ones and refreshing ourselves. If there’s a community event happening, cancel class that day or find a compromise so we don’t miss out on all of it.

Finally, and most importantly, we must find love and support in each other. It should be okay to be vulnerable. Vulnerability lets us recognize how we are feeling and how we can transform it. It doesn’t make us any less intelligent or any less capable of changing the world.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t ever be stressed? Of course not. I see happiness as a mode of living. Even in happiness, we can feel tired, sad, angry, and lonely. Happiness grounds us in those feelings. Part of a healthy and happy mindset is recognizing other emotions and letting ourselves feel them. Happiness just means living with an open mind and full heart, permitting ourselves to absorb the environment around us, and allowing our energies to resonate with others. Becoming one with who we are, where we are, and the people who surround us, gives us the chance to appreciate the little things once again. Like the child who finds happiness in the ringing of the school bell and in the taste of ice cream, we too can find happiness in our everyday encounters.

Beyond the world-class professors and incredible courses, this community has so much to offer. I have met some of the most beautiful, down-to-earth, genuine, kind, and selfless people at Georgetown. Because of the fast-paced, head-down, headphones-plugged-in culture we find ourselves in, we miss out on human moments. What if we all took a second to say hello to the stranger in the elevator? How would campus life be different if we smiled at every stranger we passed by?  Life isn’t a race and we should stop treating it like one. A culture of happiness can be created at Georgetown; it’s just going to take some effort. Call me a snowflake—I’ve heard it many times before. But I know that if we start taking care of ourselves now, we won’t melt as quickly.

Aly is a sophomore in the SFS.

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