It is all too common a sentiment at Penn, as pre-professional and high-achieving as it is, to feel like we are not doing enough. But I don’t believe that is the whole story: If I could checklist my way to happiness, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’d take courses in the philosophy of music and underwater basket-weaving and wine tasting; I’d do twenty handstands a day, walk 30 miles, whatever.
And to an extent, there does exist an imaginary checklist. Obtain a job in consulting, finance, Big Tech, medicine, or law, and you’ve got it made. Join a tight-knit student activity, be it greek life or Penn Electric Racing or The Daily Pennsylvanian or whatever is your cup of tea. Eat Instagrammable meals with Instagrammable friends. Penn’s student body is not some monolith with the exact same checklist, but I would venture to say that most students have felt bad for not checking a box on this checklist. I similarly suspect that there are people that have checked many of these boxes that feel listless and unsatisfied.
I tend to avoid writing columns about broader ideals like mental health and meaning in life, because when I read them myself they never really sink in. I’ve read nearly all of Arthur Brooks’ columns — "How to Build a Life," for the curious — and while they are kind and heartwarming, they are utterly forgettable. Who is going to recall “10 Practical Ways to Improve Happiness” or “4 Rules for Identifying Your Life’s Work” when they are hunched over a laptop, which is whirring like a jet engine from overuse, scrambling and praying to finish an ESE assignment at 4 a.m.? Not me. I’m definitely not speaking from experience.
I agree with many of Brooks’ takes. “Don’t Surround Yourself with Admirers,” “Go for a Walk,” and “The Best Friends Can Do Nothing for You” are just a few of the one-liner titles that make me nod vigorously in agreement. I forward Brooks’ latest column to my stepdad in excitement. But as he types a response, I’m already forgetting the advice that Brooks gave me. These columns all too easily get lost in a sea of self-help literature and are unlikely to spur any meaningful change. They’re just preaching to the choir. They are the psychological equivalent of that drowning high five meme: When a person is depressed, anxious, or languishing (as Adam Grant — another ‘happiness columnist’ and Penn professor — would say), odds are that uplifting words and advice won’t do much. Odds are greater that what you really need is another brain to work through your problems with you.
This is where friends, family, and other loved ones are supposed to come in, alongside therapy and other medical resources as necessary. But much of Penn’s community, and social interaction more broadly, hinges on conformity. It’s easy to feel like showing your true colors, your mental struggles, would isolate you entirely. Are you checking the checkboxes?
Happiness columnists are inherently optimistic, envisioning people performing good deeds of their own volition, aiming for actions larger than themselves. I stood in line at Raising Cane’s in the middle of the night with two of my closest friends, debating the nature of people. I told them that I have to believe in the goodness of people, because to believe otherwise is too saddening. Kevin more or less agreed. Henry called bullshit — to do so is naive, he argued — and then his order was called and we went on with our day … er … night.
It’s true: People will be callous jerks, whether I believe in them or not. One weekend in Dartmouth, I encountered the vanity of the campus’ “second-best” (What does that even mean?) sorority. Every other sentence was an insult targeted at someone for the strangest reasons. The receptionist at the restaurant where we dined was “too awkward.” The high schoolers on campus were “too small,” “did not know how to dress,” and “not grown enough.” As someone who struggles with eye contact, and whose fashion sense has been repeatedly compared to Elizabeth Holmes and librarians, I couldn’t help but take these jabs personally.
But was I really that different? Kevin, Henry, and I, and all of our friends, poke fun at the Wharton students decked out in Canada Goose jackets, at the slackers in group projects apathetic to the world around them. We just spent a weekend in New York walking around NYU’s campus, laughing at how the Stern School of Business looks like a cheap knock-off of Huntsman Hall, like the elitist schmucks we are.
So I have to revise what I told Henry. As we were making backstories for Kevin’s Penn Tabletop campaign, I told him that I want my character to die a rat king.
“What’s a rat king?”
A rat king is an amalgamation of rats, so tangled and in argument with each other that their tails become intertwined, forming a grotesque, helpless, mass of animal. A more descriptive term would be a rat ring, but I don’t think it has the same appeal.
Let’s face it: We’re all animals. We’re all rats. We can be snide and selfish, and we can be cruel. Each and every one of us. And though, at times, we may choose not to be, and though we are capable of doing good deeds and aspiring to higher ideals, at the end of the day, we still need food and water and sleep and companionship.
We make friends with people to point and laugh at other people. It feels taboo to write out loud to everyone, but it’s true.
My happy-go-lucky, Grant-and-Brooks-esque advice? There is no checklist to a fulfilling, happy, life that does not involve other people — other rats. Learn to live with the rattiness, in yourself and others, and become one with the rat king. Indulge in the silliest, most juvenile moments with your fellow rats, where we crack dumb jokes and act klutzy. And also indulge in the bits of human that peek through: the middle-of-the-night Raising Cane’s philosophical conversations and the fantasy worlds we elaborately construct, be they through a game of Dungeons and Dragons, or a funny romantic comedy, or whatever else you can think up.
But what do I know? I’m just a rat, just like the rest of you.
CAROLINE MAGDOLEN is a College and Engineering junior studying environmental science and systems engineering from New York City. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.