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A Feel-Good Harvard Year

By Ella J. Deans, Crimson Opinion Writer
Ella J. Deans ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Currier House.

My time at and before Harvard has been defined by goals. Academic. Athletic. Personal. There is no path to a hyper-selective college like Harvard that does not demand constant self-appraisal. In high school, I routinely assessed how impressive my goals were and how they might measure up to those of other applicants. The ability to become my own admissions officer may have helped me get into Harvard — yet, upon entering Harvard’s gates, this tendency lingers so powerfully that at times I forget to live my life for myself.

This is why from now on, I will be driven by only one goal: to feel good.

Such a goal might seem trivial, but during my freshman spring, this state of being was not a given for me. After contracting Covid-19 in February, I developed an array of maladies that persisted for months, including loss of concentration, headache, and depression. Even before these symptoms, life at Harvard had often felt overwhelming; perpetually feeling physically unwell only made matters worse. When I recall my most recent semester at Harvard, the harder moments come to mind first: being hopelessly bedridden, drowning in schoolwork, and crying… a lot.

If I dig a little deeper, though, other memories begin to surface, much brighter in color and lighter in weight. I rejoice in the new friends I made during the spring and the older friendships that strengthened. I think of the special moments I had with the many people I came to love: eating BerryLine by the river, dancing in the rain on Widener steps, placing second in an international a cappella competition with the Opportunes. I remember conversations I had with people I knew I could lean on — late nights spent sharing little pieces of ourselves with each other, one fragment at a time.

When I allow myself to focus on these memories, the good ones, they come crashing down like waves, their foam concealing darker times hidden beneath the surface. But can we strive to feel good all the time by merely allowing goodness to wash over the negative?

In any place, but especially at Harvard, I would say that idea is unrealistic, fraught with traces of toxic positivity — a mindset characterized by “dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy.” Although appealing in theory, an attitude of toxic positivity avoids deep engagement with emotional struggles, leaving one unable to grapple with difficult emotions that will inevitably turn up again later on.

That's the thing about the ocean: as the tides change and currents shift, the depths of the seafloor churn to the surface. Life will stir up your world whether you’re ready for it or not. You can't escape feeling bad sometimes.

At Harvard, feeling bad has become endemic. From 2014 to 2018, nearly one in three Harvard undergraduates reported that they have or think they may have depression and anxiety. This was before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a 25 percent increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide and an even worse mental health crisis on our campus.

In such a pressure-filled environment, it can be really hard to feel good. The average Harvard student overworks, undersleeps, and finds themselves hard-pressed to choose between academic excellence and social satisfaction. Desiring to appear “successful,” many act like they have it all together, though few actually do.

One part of the problem is our narrative around success, which often focuses on end results rather than the journey to them. When we define success by grades, internships, or awards, we rely too heavily on external metrics for fulfillment, abandoning our internal selves in the pursuit. Our daily experiences become stale and difficult to appreciate: we rush walks to class, allow passions to fade into obligations, and let precious time spent with friends become transactional and stressful. Entrapped by a constant need to optimize, we take a backseat in our own lives. We become sick. We feel bad.

This semester, I’m redefining success to revolve around feeling good, if only by slowing down just enough to appreciate all the good that is already around me. I want to seek out moments that bring me joy: dancing on the Quad lawn, singing with the Opportunes, and laughing with my friends. I want to sleep a little more, stress a little less, and redirect my thoughts towards gratitude as much as possible. I want to fill my ocean up with as much love and appreciation as I can, while I can.

That doesn’t mean ignoring the bad. When life at Harvard inevitably sends the waters churning, bringing tough emotions to the surface, I want to meet them with more self-compassion and give myself more grace.

You can’t strive to feel good all the time through focusing on the positive. It would be exhausting to try. But perhaps feeling bad gives us an opportunity to feel good about the way we can care for ourselves — to appreciate our capacity to direct kindness inwards in the same way we project it out. If I could do this consistently, that would be all the success I need.

I feel good just thinking about it.

Ella J. Deans ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Currier House.

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