Kempis: The pressure of the pursuit of happiness


Nicole Kempis, Columnist

Arriving in the United States is like being bowled over by a wave of chipper, smiling, enthusiastic conversation that always inquires how you are doing but disappears before it hears the answer. This is an interaction that confuses a lot of foreigners, because internationally it is considered extremely rude to walk away in the middle of a conversation. However, after a year at Northwestern I feel as though I am beginning to understand why Americans use “how are you?” as their standard greeting as they swiftly walk on by. I’ve realized now that people don’t wait for the answer because they already know what it will be. Invariably, the response is, “I’m fine.”

But are we fine? Upon my arrival in the U.S. from Hong Kong, I was struck by how extraordinarily friendly and happy everyone seemed — “seemed” being the operative word. There is a pressure that I have noticed at NU, and I believe it is ubiquitous in the U.S. It is the pressure to be happy at all times. The cafeteria staff is happy, the bus driver is happy, our friends at the University of Chicago look ecstatic on social media and apparently, so do we.

Except that we aren’t, because no one is happy all the time, and we aren’t meant to be. This seems like an obvious statement, but in a society that teaches us individuals are responsible for creating their own happiness, it is easy to become trapped in a cycle of unhappiness and self-criticism. Unhappiness is a natural part of life, one that is accepted and even revered in many societies. In my opinion, the unrelenting demand to be happy causes us to feel anguish over negative emotions that are a natural part of life, and this is a factor in the increasing rate of depression at American colleges. In short, it is not unhappiness that makes us depressed, but the inaccurate conviction that our sadness is shameful, abnormal and abhorrent.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence uses the “pursuit of happiness” as an example of an unalienable right, but often we treat happiness as a paramount end. The pursuit of happiness has become the only worthwhile pursuit, as our liberal ideology teaches us that our individual, subjective feelings dictate our success. It is this assumption that gives a fatal weight and significance to temporary feelings of happiness and sadness.

Buddhist teaching follows the principle that we are not freed from misery by experiencing contentment, but rather that we experience ultimate liberation when we realize that all emotions, both positive and negative, are fleeting and thus unworthy of becoming our fundamental pursuit. As Hebrew anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari wrote, “Buddha agreed with biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings.” It seems that the less importance we afford our emotions, the less control they have over our choices and experiences.

During Wildcat Welcome, we are told how to contact Counseling and Psychological Services and given important resources that can help combat depression and mental illness. But are we ever honestly told that we will feel sad, we will hate it here and we will be lonely? Psychological illnesses are real and should never be invalidated. However, I can’t help but wonder how many of us would fare much better if we had known from the beginning that unhappiness is just part of the college experience and part of real life. Perhaps then sorrow wouldn’t seem like a disgraceful secret, perhaps then we could confront the person darting away after asking us how we are by fearlessly telling them, “You know what? Today I feel like shit.”

Nicole Kempis is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at n[email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.