My first semester at Barnard College was not easy. Actually, it was downright hellish. New to New York, homesick, and left alone to cope by my thoroughly unavailable RA, it was baptism by fire. The few memories of NSOP that I have not blocked still make me cringe. It's important for me to note, however, that Barnard is not entirely to blame for my rocky start. My standard answer when someone from home would ask about my life in college quickly became, "Well, I don't think I'd be happier anywhere else."
Happiness is a slippery concept. For starters, it's subjective—like all emotions, happiness' causes and expressions vary from person to person. Yet, although it varies from person to person, we all want it. As pioneer psychologist William James once said, "How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive for all they do." The choices we make are largely determined by what we think—hope—will make us happy. Unfortunately, making these decisions is not always as clear-cut as one might wish.
A psychological principle important in understanding happiness is the adaptation-level phenomenon. This theory, as described by David G. Myers in his work, The Pursuit of Happiness, describes the human tendency to judge various stimuli and situations relative to those we have previously experienced. A sensory example of the adaptation-level phenomenon would be wearing a tee shirt outside when the temperature is 60 degrees Fahrenheit in April, but wearing a coat when the same temperature occurs in September. Because in the spring we are used to colder weather, our "neutral" level for temperature, (the point at which the temperature is neither hot nor cold), is lower than it is in the fall, when we are used to a warmer climate. Our sensations, our perceptions, are all relative. Same goes for emotions. If I were to awake tomorrow with a perfect body, boyfriend, and GPA, I would be euphoric, but only for as long as it took for my "neutral" happiness level to recalibrate. I would, eventually, adjust to my new life and return to having a mix of good and bad days, achievements and disappointments. Like it or not, our lives are a cycle of wanting, fulfilling, and wanting again.
This cycle creates a conflict that is all too familiar. When we believe the pursuit of happiness to be a natural, basic human right, how can we not infer that unhappiness is therefore unnatural? I think many Americans have experienced a pressure to be happy, or the sense that, if one is not, then something is "wrong." There exists a pull between the desire to achieve whatever happiness we can and the reality that, even when we do succeed, that happiness is fleeting.
With that in mind, consider the attitudes that characterize our generation. Teenage angst is by no means a new phenomenon, but now we see this widespread acceptance, and even glorification, of depression like never before. I encourage readers to look up "emo" on Wikipedia. The page describes the history of "emo" in terms of music scene shifts, with the "first wave" occurring from 1985-1994 and using the term "emo" to refer primarily to a genre of music. By the "third wave", 2000-present, however, "emo" is used to describe a cultural movement mainstream enough to border on "generic" and "homogenized." "In recent years," Wikipedia claims, "the popular media has associated emo with a stereotype that includes being emotional, sensitive, shy or introverted. It is also associated with depression, self-injury, and suicide."
Is emo culture's rise in popularity a direct response to frustration with the dissatisfaction inherent in our lives because of the adaptation-level phenomenon? No. Could it be a contributing factor? Definitely. Our economy is weak, resulting in cut-throat job and real estate markets. An unpopular war rages on as our position as a world power becomes increasingly unsteady. And with the technology boom, more people are watching the country and world disintegrate more often and in more detail than ever before. There is so much to be upset about, that there exists some sentiment that it is selfish for anyone to be happy.
So instead, we seem to have found some satisfaction or happiness in being collectively unhappy. Depressing, right? It doesn't have to be. If you're happy being unhappy, then congratulations, you've found a way to break, or at least cope with, the cycle. Otherwise, I see two more optimistic ways to interpret the adaptation-level phenomenon. The first is that the phenomenon is cyclical—after every down, there is an eventual up. The second is that it applies to both the bad circumstances as well as the good. During that first semester at Barnard, my neutral level of happiness went way down, but over time I adjusted, and gradually things weren't so bad any more. The human ability to adapt is certainly something to smile about.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in English.