What does it mean to be unhappy at the happiest school in the nation?
In 2010 and 2011, Brown topped Princeton Review’s list of the colleges with the happiest students. Despite Brown’s dislike for rankings, this solidified for many what was already conventional wisdom: Brown is the “happy Ivy.” With our laissez-faire attitude about requirements and grading (and sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll), how could Brown students not be in nirvana?
My freshman year, this narrative defined my experience here. My freshman Facebook album title was Utopia; I was certainly attending the happiest university in the nation, if not the world.
But sophomore slump came, as it always does, and it got me thinking: can Brown’s reputation as the bastion of happiness be damaging for us? And who and what does this narrative let sit below the surface?
I drafted an anonymous survey, sent it out and received an overwhelming number of responses. It seemed Brown students from all corners of campus had something to say about this.
Before continuing, I’d like to clarify that neither this survey nor this article were specifically tailored to the experience of students struggling with mental illness and whether or not they feel Brown structurally supports them. Many responses to the survey did deal with this equally important issue and I felt those voices would best be served in an upcoming follow-up article specifically centered on the matter.
Instead, the survey attempted to look at happiness culture and its subsequent effects from a broader lens. The first question was:
What do you feel is Brown’s culture/reputation regarding happiness and wellness of students?
“If you’re not happy at Brown, you’re doing something horribly wrong.”
Every single respondent agreed that Brown’s reputation was that of a happy school. Many respondents connected this image of Brown to both lists of the happiest universities placing Brown at the top, and to misconceptions about our academic culture, such as ‘not having grades’ and ‘not having any requirements.’ (This is only true when talking about general distribution requirements but not true for one’s concentration. Concentration requirements cause a great amount of stress for students.)
Unsurprisingly, many Brown students felt that ranking something as intangible as happiness is ultimately detrimental to the students at the ranked schools. One respondent described Brown’s happy reputation as “damaging,” while another respondent felt that entities outside the Brown community (such as the Princeton Review) describing Brown as a happy school actually influences how students interact with each other and with the university, perpetuating certain unhealthy cultural elements at Brown.
“I have been discouraged from talking about [my unhappiness], because it might seem like I’m not smart enough or not strong enough if I’m unhappy,” someone said.
Another student recounted feeling like an invisible segment of the Brown community when phe was unhappy and was even “constantly dismissed and belittled.”
Other respondents felt Brown’s reputation held more or less true for them.
“I think Brown students really do tend to be much happier than other college students most of the time and that the culture of the school facilitates happiness,” someone said.
The next question explored whether Brown’s exuberant culture facilitated getting out of a funk or actually perpetuated feelings of despair, aimlessness, stress, etc. It was:
Have you ever felt ‘down’ for an extended period of time at Brown? If so, has Brown’s student culture helped you get out of a rut or been an obstacle?
“Brown students really strive to hide their struggles from everyone — most everyone goes day to day pretty much at their limit of what they can do so no one can really complain to anyone else, but everyone feels the burn.”
Most respondents agreed that there was a gap between how most Brown students present themselves and what’s going on for them internally. This tacit pressure to present yourself as always happy weighs on many students, according to the survey — and is particularly difficult during sophomore year.
Most respondents identified either sophomore fall or spring as a low point in their Brown career, anecdotal evidence of the reality of sophomore slump. For some, it was just the honeymoon phase of freshman year wearing off. For others, it was feeling locked into the self one created freshman year, in terms of friends, academics, extracurriculars, et cetera.
According to one respondent, being at the university when you are dealing with internal issues is extremely difficult because “you feel like everyone else is happy.”
This extends to academic, extracurricular and social spheres. In academia, the happiness pressure most aggressively exerts itself in the form of “cool” culture.
“I think there is a culture of trying to seem like you are really smart and good at your classes effortlessly,” a student said.
This is an especially interesting point when you look at Brown’s selectivity in the past decade. The class of 2008 had a 16.9 percent admission rate. A decade later, the Class of 2019’s admission rate was 8.8 percent. While I don’t endorse the legitimacy of these rankings, Brown has not made an appearance on Princeton Review’s happiness index in the past two years, the two most selective years in Brown’s history.
For other students, happiness pressure comes from the tension between living in dense social spaces yet still feeling lonely.
“How is it that so many people are partying and cheerful and happy when I’m all alone in my room, anxious and wanting to cry?” someone asked.
And the constant pressure to “make the most of your Brown experience” is yet another stressor for some.
“I think we have a mentality of having to be busy all the time, otherwise we are not good enough,” said one student.
Yet, other respondents did feel that Brown students’ enthusiasm and love for the school lifted them up.
“I have definitely had weeks where I’ve felt pretty down but seeing all my friends and classmates getting such joy out of their day-to-day lives at Brown and out of the little things (such as magic bar day at the Ratty) always lifts me out of my funk,” a junior wrote.
How do you see yourself fitting into this narrative? In other words, do you think the reality of being a Brown student matches the reputation?
“Not at all. As a senior, I feel a lot of regret and feel like I missed out on a lot because of feeling ‘down’ for an extended period of time. Many students have had struggles during their time at Brown, as I came to realize more and more. However, I feel a little bit like I was cheated out of the college experience I expected from Brown’s reputation and seeing friends and family members at other schools. I’m not sure how much of what I felt was due to Brown and how much would have happened no matter where I went to school. At times, it can be difficult to not feel like an outsider, but I have come to realize that many people have had similar experiences.”
Many respondents acknowledged a gap between the purported experience of Brown students and their reality of Brown, and stated that others grew uncomfortable when they tried to talk about their less than positive moments here. Others felt the reputation and reality fit snugly.
“A lot of people don’t really know how to respond when I talk about my ‘real’ experiences at Brown, so I’ve been forced to create a new ‘happier’ version of what I’ve been through here and downplay what actually happened. Funnily enough, I’ve found that there is a fairly big community of students here with similar experiences as me–sad that we have very little visibility,” one person said.
However, even those who have had a hard time at the university conceded that the happy narrative, generally, does hold true for many students. However, pressure imposed from both external and internal forces that promote a single version of the Brown experience may make it harder for some to have their Brown experience.
“I think the ‘happy Brown student’ narrative is the reality for some/many students, but I think everyone would be better off without the sometimes immense pressure to be happy and, perhaps more importantly, have ‘THE Brown experience,'” one student said.
This, again, extends to all spheres of campus life, perhaps most markedly in the social sphere. One student emphasized “how difficult it can be to be social and less lonely when you’re not a ‘go out and party and get wasted and hook up’ kind of person.”
Academic and social pressure is obviously not limited to Brown and many students found some of the issues brought up throughout the survey to “have more to do with rich, selective schools in general,” as one respondent put it.
And money has more than a little bit to do with it. As one respondent said, “Your economic situation [and] level of preparation before coming to college…can make students more likely to not be as cheery as their more affluent and privileged counterparts.”
The general consensus among respondents was that there is a large segment of the Brown community that is as happy as the reputation would suggest, and that a large part of this has to do with the way Brown is structured. Happiness culture is achieved top-down (from administrative initiatives and policies) as well as bottom-up (deriving from the students themselves).
But — and this is a huge but — there is an equally valuable segment of the population left out of the story sold to many as the “Brown experience.” Continuing to sell Brown as the happy school without paying attention to these voices is dangerous and diminishing to the experiences of both students with mental illness and those who are just having a tough week, month, semester or year.
As one student said, “I think that the reputation is well earned but by no means universal.”
Image via Jokichi Matsubara ’18.