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The Stanford bubble of positivity

Spring quarter at Stanford is a beautiful thing. As I biked to my first class of the quarter, I grinned as I felt the sunshine hit my back, soaking in the warmth and listening to the cheerful chirping of birds in the blossoming trees around me. I could see the excitement of the new quarter on the faces of students biking past me: spring had sprung, and it seemed that on our beautiful California campus, nothing could bring the spirits of my fellow classmates down.

And yet, I think sometimes this sunny bubble of bright smiles and friendly hellos can make it difficult to express negative emotion. I was joking with a friend the other day that there’s a sort of script one follows when interacting with casual acquaintances:

“Hey, how are you?”

“I’m good! How are you?”

“I’m great! Have a good day, dude!”

“Thanks, you too!”

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this interaction, and it’s certainly a pleasant exchange, it’s also a good example of the expectation of positivity on campus. Don’t get me wrong, one of the things I love most about Stanford is how friendly and welcoming virtually every single person I’ve met thus far during my time here has been. The fact that Stanford is a place with such a diverse student body that fosters such positive interactions among students makes it a truly wonderful learning environment. But I think it is important to consider what kinds of emotions are normally expressed to others on campus.

We have all heard of the Stanford “Duck Syndrome,” the idea that while students might seem calm and collected to their peers (like ducks floating peacefully across a pool of water), they are actually paddling furiously to stay afloat under the water, as they deal with the stress of managing academics, extra-curriculars and social life. This “Duck Syndrome” is closely related to the norm of positivity in interactions: coming across as happy, confident and chill projects a Stanford student who is competent and in full control of their life.

This norm of almost overwhelming happiness means that I occasionally find myself walking away from a conversation and feeling like I wasn’t fully honest with the person I was interacting with; it can be easy to put up a screen of false positivity in the context of the happy-go-lucky Stanford bubble.

We all have days where we feel low: getting a Stanford education and simultaneously managing all of our commitments is not an easy feat. And on these days, I think it is important to remember that it is okay to be vulnerable, and that vulnerability in our relationships with others actually enhances and strengthens those relationships. When we share more with other people, they in turn feel more comfortable sharing with us, and we can create a more honest community. I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to perpetuating this norm of sometimes false happiness, but I think if we begin to more consciously acknowledge this mode of interaction and the power in being more willing to share more negative feelings, our community can and will grow even stronger.
Contact Julie Plummer at jplummer ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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