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Finding Happiness at Harvard

By Tina Wang

Throughout my time here, it has every so often occurred to me how absolutely, utterly spoiled we are. Our beautiful, roomy suites have regular bathroom-cleaning service. Our exorbitant (yes, exorbitant) investments in undergraduate social life include tens of thousands of dollars put into Yardfest and the multi-million dollar project that was the pub. Grants from the school are available for us to do almost anything, such as party, travel almost anywhere in the world, work at any place that cannot pay you, or feed other Harvard students. Our undergraduate library became 24-hour and featured a new café, purely because we, students, wanted it. An astounding number of jobs on campus will pay you at or over twice the minimum-wage for doing very little. There are professors (many of them, including tenured ones, as I’ve discovered) who will reply to student emails at three in the morning.

We have the simple perks too, like the ability to have Harvard pay for DVDs we want to watch for pure pleasure by ordering them through the Harvard College Library website. And we, seniors, are given a leisurely week to hang out before we graduate (whereas other schools give their students the boot a couple of days after the completion of exam period).

When I was doing a study abroad program at Beijing University—China’s “Harvard”——people were crammed six to a single room, there were bathhouses instead of private showers, and lights had to be out by a certain time. There was no centralized course catalogue (a CUE Guide? Forget about it! My.harvard.edu? Are you kidding?). There was no financial aid system (or book fund, or winter clothing fund, or Student Events Fund) to somewhat try to efface felt class differences. There was no grants system that exuded money like ours does, so that we can do anything with an academic, research, public service, or “meaningful” purpose. And in the fall, I’ll be going to a foreign university where the start of the coming academic year still has not even been set by the president’s office.

Yet people at Harvard still seem so unsatisfied. Two years ago, national newspapers made much of the fact that Harvard, in terms of surveyed student satisfaction, had ranked almost at the bottom of 31 elite schools. It is difficult to forget all those banner headlines, basically enthusing, “see? They’re not happy with Harvard!” The responses of last year’s graduating class in the annual senior survey were better but continued a “three-year trend of dissatisfaction among undergraduates,” the Crimson reported.

I wonder if, based on all that we already have, Harvard can ever satisfy us. In fact, I wonder if anything will ever satisfy us. This year, two of Harvard’s recent Rhodes Scholars penned myriad complaints about the scholarship program and Oxford University, including the inadequacy of its library system, on the pages of this newspaper. I have the feeling that no institution we enter hereafter will ever fulfill our expectations or the standards we’ve become accustomed to, just as Harvard “never” did. Are we insatiable?

There is a fine line between constant dissatisfaction such that we are never completely starstruck and therefore can critique and strive to improve ourselves (and our school), and a perpetual sense of dissatisfaction such that it weighs on our happiness with ourselves and our life in this environment, devolving into insatiability.

I do not mean to simply say that we’re ungrateful. Perhaps we’re just preoccupied by a certain outlook such that no matter how much Harvard invests in us, we’re not going to be satisfied. It is as if rather than even concerning ourselves with actively trying to be happy, we want to be made happy. The majority of the student population can sit back and say to either the administration, or members of the student body, “okay, organize something for us, and let’s see if we like it.”

I’m saying all this with the knowledge that I am just as guilty of all of this. I probably complain about something at Harvard every week (or every day, depending on the period of the year). And I am probably just as sick as you are of reading another piece about what’s wrong with all of us—and what’s wrong here. But I’m using this “parting shot” to remind us that thinking about all the things that Harvard does not and cannot satisfy isn’t the only way to approach life here. Unless we realize that there are infinite ways in which life at Harvard has been so generous and considerate, we risk being continuously unsatiated and insatiable.

I haven’t always felt happy here. Many times, I have felt disillusioned—my Harvard education hasn’t always been genuinely inspiring or empowering. It didn’t inspire me to explore for the future a subject or question I feel wholly passionate about. It didn’t empower me to have faith or feel equipped that I can handle the world or make some significant change in it. Instead, with impending graduation, I feel that roads before me are narrower than ever—people take similar paths, and only a few select paths seem possible, or even socially desirable. I feel like I have spent the last four years just trying to keep up—with everyone and everything.

But at the same time, maybe we cannot just expect to sit back and be educated and thus be inspired, empowered, or made happy. Perhaps no amount or “brand” of education can ever do that. There is a lot of hype that Harvard—this huge, shining name—is going to make us (and our lives, our futures, our parents) happy.

But if we’re forever looking to Harvard to make us happy with our lives and environments around us, then we’re very likely to be on our way toward looking for something we cannot ever really find, expecting a school to do something for us that no school can really do. Nothing will ever seem enough—even when we have so much around us. Maybe our expectations are all skewed.

Right now, I’m still struggling to figure out how exactly is it I’m supposed to feel about Harvard. My parents grew up during a time and in a place with a quite different value system and political circumstance from ours—the turmoil of China in the 1950s to 1970s, during which anything around you could change at any time and any provision could be taken from you at any moment.

After an environment like that, it feels absolutely wonderful to be able to get an education and the treasure that is an educational environment (as my parents and others of their generation know). Life—student life—is not always about looking to be satisfied, looking to be made happy, perpetually evaluating your institution and giving it a good, mediocre, or bad mark. It is about seizing every bit of extravagance that has been made available to you—and being happy, just being happy.

Tina Wang ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. She was a senior editor of The Crimson in 2006.

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