A Culture of (Un)Happiness

Depression “is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44,” writes the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH). Roughly 15 million American adults experience depression at least once in a year. An additional 21 million adults suffer from depression at least once in their lifetime. Put it all together, and the NIMH finds that one in four Americans has some sort of a mental disorder.

Young people especially face challenges. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for young people, with 13 deaths by suicide for every 100,000 people aged 20 to 24.

Clearly, depression is an important topic for college students. The National College Health Assessment, conducted in spring 2006, found that 62 percent of students surveyed had felt hopeless at least once in the past year. 44 percent had felt so depressed it was difficult to function. According to a different study, more than one third of students with one or more incidents of self harm reported that no one else knew about it.

Stanford is not immune.

A 2008 study found that more than 38 percent of Stanford students were experiencing distress at the time of the survey. Seven percent reported having depression. Additionally, a telephone survey of Stanford students conducted in 2007-08 found that 33 percent of students experienced high levels of stress and that roughly one in eight students had thought of suicide in their lifetime.

But it doesn’t seem that way. Not here.

There is a huge emphasis at Stanford on appearing laid back, successful and happy. Think back to the last time you asked a friend how he was. Did you receive a response other than “well” or “fine”? The University expends untold sums of money to mask the dry fields that populate the foothills with green grass and bright flowers. Similarly, we students live in an apparent paradise. We’ve set a standard for each other where the ideal Stanfordian has a 4.0, is president of her club, works out every day and is still leisurely and stress free.

Yet, this standard is attainable by no one.

In so doing, we have established two types of competition: competition with ourselves and competition with our peers. Comparing ourselves against this impossible ideal, we create a false binary in which we either fulfill these impossible conditions or we fail. One student in a focus group labeled it “dog-eat-self” behavior.

With this turmoil boiling on the inside, we compare ourselves to our peers, each of whom seems to us to be fulfilling that ideal. Knowing this, we engage in a consensual dance, where one tries to outperform his partner both academically and emotionally.

While many members of our community may be genuinely happy, a significant number are not. The superficial happiness and leisure espoused only encourages those with depression or other mental disorders to disguise their condition with faux smiles and insincerely positive responses. But managing these emotions can be exhausting and only serves to perpetuate depression.

It’s sad that this isolation from our peers is coupled with isolation from the administration. When a fellow student committed suicide in 2012 — an event which had a profound impact on many in our community — we heard almost nothing from the University. While administrators must respect their students’ privacy, their non-recognition of mental health issues suggests to us that these issues are not of concern.

Moreover, our institution has enormous resources, diverse opportunities and a remarkable environment. Each of us feels incredibly lucky to be here. This fact, coupled with unhappiness, makes one feel guilty: How can I justify feeling unhappy when I am at such a beautiful and prestigious university?

It’s okay to feel unhappy.

The University could better acknowledge the mental health issues facing its students and promote more research into them. The 2008 Task Force on Mental Health and Well Being was a good start, but because depression and associated disorders continue to challenge students, it should become a perennial study. This would have the added benefit of allowing the task force to test solutions’ effects over time.

Similarly, the ASSU and the University could improve resource coordination. The various institutional and student-led groups focused on mental health, such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and The Bridge, do amazing work, but they largely act independently of each other. Greater collaboration between these resources could allow students to benefit from resources that already exist.

But even now, 15 percent of undergraduates and graduate students use CAPS at least once a year. CAPS Director Ronald Albucher believes this increasing number is because “more and more people are comfortable accessing the service.”

This is the culture we should be working towards, one that reevaluates how we think about being happy, one that accepts unhappiness, depression and anxiety as natural human emotions. Happiness, put simply, cannot be measured in academic accomplishment. The Stanford Task Force on Mental Health and Well Being “discovered that academic success is not a reliable indicator of emotional well-being.”

The purpose of this University, as our founding grant says, is to “qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.” To that end, Jane Stanford said, “It is the duty of the University authorities to send out into the world students with good physical health as well as with good mental attainments, in order that they may successfully fight the battle of life.”

Succeeding at Stanford, and in life, is not defined by grades or money. It is about making an impact on our community. By recognizing as a student body this fact, as well as the diverse set of ways happiness can be attained, we can each find a way to be individually happy.

I’d like to conclude with a challenge: Next time you ask someone how they are doing, ask a second time: “How are you really doing?

 

Contact Nick Ahamed at nahamed@stanford.edu

About Nick Ahamed

Nick Ahamed is a liberal political columnist at the Stanford Daily. Previously on campus, he has served as the President of the Stanford Democrats and led President Obama's reelection campaign efforts at Stanford. He was later involved in policy in Washington, D.C. Issues of race, inequality and Islamophobia motivate his current research. He is a junior from Minneapolis, MN majoring in Political Science. To contact him, please email nahamed@stanford.edu.
  • Kay Dannenmaier

    I think you make a good point when you say that we need to acknowledge our unhappiness more at Stanford, and that it “needs to be ok to be unhappy.” Unfortunately, however, you undermine that point by encouraging students to go to the mental health resources on campus. If it’s ok to be happy, why are you so determined that students fix/change that unhappiness?

    You don’t discuss at all the reasons why we might be unhappy: away from home, in a highly competitive environment (which is often a good thing), under pressure to choose the rest of our lives, knowing that our choices (and successes/lack thereof) will affect our opportunities down the line. These are things that any reasonable person would be stressed about — and may be unhappy about. The solution isn’t for us all to go to CAPS — for one thing, I doubt they have the capacity — but to acknowledge our stress in a public sphere, so that we know that we are not alone. Not to institutionalize our fears, but to be open about them; to acknowledge them as normal.

    The solution isn’t to ask a friend: “How are you really doing?” which sounds more like an accusation than a helpful question, but to begin the conversation by being vulnerable yourself: “I’ve been pretty stressed this week, and I feel kind of overwhelmed. I really don’t know what to do.” Maybe the other person won’t have a good response — probably you’ll still feel overwhelmed at the end of it — but by discussing your unhappiness in public, you’ve at least refused to be ashamed of it. You’ve been honest about it, and once you’re honest about it, you can begin to look closely at its causes. And, who knows? Being vulnerable with your friend may encourage her to be vulnerable with you when she’s feeling unhappy.