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Being happy at Princeton

One night, coming home from the Street, I came across a close friend who was sobbing. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me she hated Princeton and had made the wrong decision in coming here. When I pressed her to explain more specifically what she meant, she spat out, “Everyone here is so douchey!” None of my attempts to cheer her worked, and she stormed away. The next day, when I ran into her and asked vaguely how she was feeling, she brushed the episode off.

“It was just a depressed moment,” she said. “We all have them. I don’t actually hate Princeton.”

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Fine. Chalk it up to moodiness. But there are definitely things about college that are worth bursting into tears about — very few, in my opinion, but even these merit attention rarely found in the Princeton community. As high achievers, we Princeton students expect to be successful in every aspect of our lives — even emotionally — and often we deny our discontentment, which is why my friend dismissed her tears and why I felt awkward bringing them up, like I was calling attention to a personality flaw.

Another friend of mine had our parents in stitches over dinner at Parents Weekend while riffing on how Princeton students will never admit to being incapable of handling everything on their plates. Nothing is ever too much for us, she joked — not dance practice, club swim tryouts, homework, rush or long-distance relationships. Even when moaning about how much we have to do, we won’t take any steps to make our lives easier because we’re also bragging a little. To admit to being overwhelmed would be to lose the contest of who can do the most without breaking a sweat.

What my friend didn’t say is that the flip side of nothing ever being too much is that nothing is ever enough. I have friends who, no matter how many service organizations they join and how many challenging classes they take, are plagued by a sense of inadequacy. They’ve told me they feel like they’re wasting their time here, that they’re letting opportunities pass them by. It’s not just them — it’s a generational thing. This expectation of quick and easy triumph, even when undeserved, has earned us the nickname “trophy kids,” and I’m sure college students across the country have the same problems.

In addition to desiring academic and extracurricular success, there’s a lot of pressure on the college student to be socially successful. Over and over again, young people are told that college years are the best four years of their lives — and not because of easy access to academic resources. From Animal House to Asher Roth, there is a cultural expectation that college will be a boozy, wild affair, and to be unhappy while surrounded by friends and alcohol would be a disaster equivalent to failing a class. We also cannot escape the knowledge of how valuable a college education is, especially a Princeton education. To feel all this and expect to feel constant good cheer can make it really hard to do just that — not that we’d ever admit it.

I know it seems hypocritical to say now, but I’m happier at Princeton than I ever was in high school. I don’t feel any of the pressure I hear my peers complain about: to get perfect grades while also being the perfect member of all the clubs they’ve joined. At Princeton, I’ve made friends, I’ve found extracurricular activities I enjoy and my academics are fine. I can think of one moment when I was miserable, and — uncharacteristically for me — I dealt with it by telling my friends how upset I was. They were comforting and supportive, but it was really the act of confiding in them that helped the most. All I needed to do to be happy again was admit that, for an instant, I was not.

I think people like me, who struggle to tell others when they’re unhappy, feel that to admit that they’re unhappy is to admit that they’re less than perfect. As people accustomed to being pretty close to perfect, Princeton students are often reluctant to admit any failures on an emotional level. We avoid talking about unhappiness like we avoid talking about bad test grades. It happened, and it could happen again, but we won’t call attention to it.

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This is why I’m concerned by my friend’s refusal to admit that her doubts about her decision to come to Princeton aren’t gone just because she stopped crying. It’s why I don’t believe my ridiculously overextended friend when she insists everything is fine and then regularly pulls all-nighters. It’s why I was anxious about my friend who had a bad experience with rush and assured me she was fine as tears of disappointment welled in her eyes. What we don’t understand is that being happy isn’t like being a good student; emotions aren’t graded. If they were, the only way to get an A would be admitting to others and, more importantly, to ourselves when all we want to do is cry.

Susannah Sharpless is a freshman from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at ssharple@princeton.edu.

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