Finishing finals week my first year at Oberlin felt like a relief and a victory. This year I left my finals imbued with a sense of anti-climax (and some anxiety about how my Linguistics exam had just gone). Much of my fall semester felt like an uphill bike ride from Tank to campus during a small blizzard. I kept my head down, pedaled hard, hoped I wouldn’t hit anything, and arrived, disheveled and mildly out of breath, at my destination. Like the rest of my semester, reaching the end of finals week this semester felt a bit like those short but arduous journeys through freezing rain. I was busybusybusy, emerged, didn’t have time to process anything, and now I’m home writing this post after four months of not seeing my family or my mountains.
When things happen fast, it’s easy to forget them. My first semester at Oberlin went by quickly in its own way, but every little accomplishment was something to be proud of, and by the end of the semester, I felt like a cycle had passed and I had been so vividly aware and conscious for all of it. It’s odd to say this, but I don’t remember much of this past semester. I feel like nothing and everything happened and now I’m home for six weeks without taking in any of it. I feel like I went through a wormhole, ripped out of time, emerging disoriented in a galaxy that I may or may not know.
For me it has been harder to measure success in college than it was in high school. During high school, in addition to trying my best to be a dedicated student, I was in three professional ballet productions a year. Marking my progress and accomplishments with shows and good grades was easy and kept my confidence up. After finishing my first semester of college, I felt a well-deserved sense of accomplishment and progress. I had survived my first semester of college! I had made friends and done new things and become more independent! I had done well in all my classes! This semester, recognizing progress seemed so nebulous. Of course, when I think about it objectively, I did manage to do some new things more or less successfully, like being a PAL, joining a co-op, making new friends, doing reasonably well in my classes, and declaring two majors (ok, so I admit this is like, kind of a lot). But still, as I ended this semester, my dominant emotion wasn’t pride or a sense of accomplishment, I was just…tired.
Probably a month ago, I had gotten a lower grade on an exam than I wanted, and I went to spend time with a dear friend, who comforted me as I cried over a litany of ~feelings~. I felt that without performing in dance productions, there was no way that I was visible on campus (which is a whole other issue for a future blog post), and that any possible measure of my accomplishment or progress was measured only by my grades. I have always had high standards and always put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve. When I got to college, I had expected to have to adjust my standards, but my first year at Oberlin I did well enough that I still have (maybe unhealthily) high standards. I don’t say this to brag about my past successes. I say this to show that I still put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve. But somehow, being a sophomore now, it feels harder to recognize my progress because so much of what I did doesn’t feel new, even if it is.
When I voiced all of these thoughts to my close friend, they asked me to name 5 things about me that are special and good that aren’t related at all to my grades or the things I do. This was an important and needed exercise. I left that conversation with a renewed goal to celebrate the small victories in my life. I’m not sure how much that carried through into finals week (unfortunately), but the sentiment was certainly there. I always try to appreciate the small things in life: like petting a dog, how the sun looks through branches and leaves, the sky, drinking some tea, the way a small bird hops up a tree, etc. Relishing small victories is doing this same thing but applying it to yourself. Examples: I got out of bed! I made that bed! I flossed my teeth today! I finished a reading on time! I ate lunch! I drank water! I made it to all my classes! I hugged a friend and told them I loved them!
And so on.
I think I mentioned this in an earlier blog post, but around Thanksgiving break, I realized the semester was almost over and I felt like I couldn’t remember any of it. I made a concerted effort to write down three things each day that made me happy or grateful, or some beautiful or special moments from the day I wanted to be able to look back on. I’m not sure if this made me more present in the moment but looking back on my short journal entries and all these little things that made me happy is so helpful in helping me remember and appreciate this past semester. According to my social psychology professor (I was literally obsessed with my social psychology class I seriously cannot recommend it enough!), there are actual studies that show that writing down three things each day that you are grateful for or that made you happy actually increases positive mood over time. I was happy to hear this, since I had already been doing that. I love to be validated by ~science~.
I want to end this post on a happy note, just like I try to do with all my journal entries. Towards the end of my social psych class, we learned about the emergent field of positive psychology, or the psychology of happiness and well-being. The pioneer of social psychology, Martin “Marty” Seligman, proposes 3 dimensions of happiness: The Pleasant Life, The Good Life, and the Meaningful Life.
The Pleasant Life is the “lowest” level of the happiness hierarchy, but by no means the least important. It includes things like mindfulness, savoring experiences, optimism and gratitude. The Good Life is the next level up and deals with how we feel about our hobbies and activities we engage in, and includes intrinsic motivation, absorption, and flow—a feeling of “being in the zone,” where we lose all sense of the outer world and are completely absorbed in the task we are performing. The last level is the Meaningful Life, the part of our life where we gain happiness and value from our close relationships and involvement in something bigger than ourselves (whether this is a religion, a community group, performing acts of service, etc).
So, what do I hope to gain by including this mini-psychology lesson? Well, like many other things I learned in my social psychology class, they are incredibly relevant in my life. At the risk of sounding incredibly cliché, after such a busy and often stressful semester, it was important for me to focus on the truly important things in life (this is also relevant during the holiday season when there is so much emphasis on consumerism and materialism). So, in the words of my social psych professor: “Focus on simple pleasures, relationships, activities that connect you to a larger source of meaning, and activities that give you a flow experience. Don’t worry about getting the best of something [worry about getting the ‘good enough’].”
With that, I hope everyone had a good end of the semester, and that you have a wonderful new year. Here’s to the little things.