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Columns

Do Unto Others…

Our interest in our peers increases our own happiness

By Kathryn C. Ryan

Before just about every social event I went to while I was growing up, from scholarship receptions to weddings, my mom would tell me to stop thinking about the way I looked and acted, and instead pay attention to other people. While in this case my mom was saying that I wouldn’t worry about my skirt being wrinkled or having something in my teeth if I was truly focused on what other people were saying, I think she was really sharing a greater point. When you start worrying about other people, you stop worrying so much about yourself.

In light of the Crimson article “Bring Back Banter” that was published last weekend and several other recent pieces about student life and student happiness, perhaps the Harvard student body could use some of my mom’s advice as well. Are we so caught up in our own lives that we’ve forgotten how to be interested in the lives of others?

Before I came to Harvard, I considered myself pretty good at remembering other people’s names. Now I have trouble remembering the names of those I’ve met multiple times. In high school, I made a point to always buy my good friends a birthday present and my more casual friends at least a card. This year I almost forgot my own roommate’s birthday. Before Harvard, I always asked my friends how their game, performance, or show went on the rare occasion I couldn’t actually be there. Now I can hardly remember when my own games are. And that’s the problem. Our own lives are so overwhelming, so busy, so hectic, so scheduled, and so ostensibly important that it seems nearly impossible to fit in the lives of anyone else. However, in making that decision, we not only alienate ourselves from our peers, but we also only have ourselves to worry about.

Now, I’m not saying anyone here needs more worry. I think most of us have more than enough of a burden on our shoulders. What I am saying is that we lose an important part of our own lives when we forget about others’ lives.  Last week, I ran into a casual friend in the dining hall and happened to remember that he was in Math 21a, which just had an exam. When I asked him how the exam went, a look of shock crossed his face. He then broke into a smile as he said, “I can’t believe you remembered that I had an exam.  It went well! Thank you so much for asking me about it!” His response made me wonder if anyone else had remembered that he had an exam. Had his roommates and friends, like so many of us, been so lost in a world of their own that they hadn’t cared about his midterm? At the same time, his response made me smile. In the midst of my pre-midterm stress and never-ending problem sets, it was nice to know that someone’s life was going well. Like my mom always preached, when we concern ourselves with others, our own worries seem so much smaller.

Yes, Harvard is missing banter. Yes, Harvard is missing a healthy emotional culture. But perhaps more so, Harvard is missing compassion and interest in other people. Ironically, by losing interest in others, we also lose the joy and satisfaction that other people’s experiences can bring to our lives. I’m not saying that you need to sit down with each person in your section for 30 minutes each to learn about their lives, but maybe remember the name of the person who sits next to you and ask “George” how his week is going next time you go to class. I’m not saying you need to have front row seats for every one of your roommate’s shows, but at least take 30 seconds to send him or her a “break a leg” text. Maybe you could even go crazy and include a GIF.

Harvard student life is messy and Harvard student happiness is complex, but maybe the solution to our happiness here lies in making our own lives a little bit messier. Life here does not preclude us from being decent human beings to each other. Neither the possibility of having spinach in our teeth nor the difficulty of number seven on our problem set should excuse us from caring about the people who surround us. By way of our interest in each other, the wrinkles in our skirt become unimportant and we find our own happiness. I guess Mom does always know best.

Tessa A.C. Wiegand ’15 is an engineering sciences concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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