How Are You? “Fine” Doesn’t Cut It

I can distinctly remember stepping onto campus for the first time and thinking that I had walked onto the set of a musical. I kid you not, there was so much happy in the air that it seemed entirely plausible that the students and faculty would, at any moment, break into song and dance. I’ll follow that up by saying I am not alone in this. In fact, I’ve chatted with several friends who agree that campus can be nauseatingly happy. Don’t get me wrong, happy is great; I love happy. But I think happy can be dangerous too, just hear me out:

“I’m fine” is probably one of the biggest lies told in America. Asking “how are you?” has become part of a routine of reserved pleasantries that are mechanically exchanged. But how are we really? I think we are very concerned about projecting the image that we have it all together, that we are composed, and that we really are doing A-OK. The danger is that when everyone around us says they’re doing just fine, we can feel like the battles we fight are ours and ours alone. On the days that everything that could go wrong goes wrong, on the days that you’re heartbroken or hurt or angry with anyone who breathes, and on the days that are just plain lousy (and trust me, you will have these days), it becomes easy to forget that the people we pass on the sidewalk may be fighting similar demons.

One month ago, we, the Human Experience Club, stopped more than 50 students on campus and asked them all the same question: Are you happy? We wanted to cut the small talk and instead talk to students candidly about how they are doing, how they are really doing. What we found is that most students are happy most of the time. An overwhelming majority of students identified as being happy, but even those who reported being happy also admitted to having their fair share of crummy days, whether it be from stress or personal struggles. “Happy” students spoke of happiness as a shared experience: good friends, good family and good faith. Many described happiness as impermanent and mutable: “I’m not happy today; ask me tomorrow,” “I’m happier than I used to be,” “I’m working toward happy.”

My favorite response rejected the idea of happiness altogether. The student explained that wholeness, not happiness, is the goal. She said that being happy is part of being whole in the same way that being sad is part of being whole. Sometimes it’s OK not to be OK. So instead of trying to hold ourselves together all of the time, maybe we would do better to own up to the stress, to own up to the hurt and to accept those feelings as part of our whole. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have it all together and that sometimes I’m just not OK.  That being said, I’ve found CNU to be an incredibly accepting and warm place. When I’m open and vulnerable, I have been met with nothing but support and understanding. I have a roommate who will stop whatever she’s doing to go get cookie dough ice cream with me on a bad day, and I have a professor who checks in with me if I seem a bit off in class. I’m part of a community that has my back when things get tough, and that’s a pretty awesome thing.

I want you to ask yourself, “Am I whole?” To respond truthfully, you first have to answer two questions: What does being whole mean to me, and am I being honest with myself in assessing my state of wholeness? I want you to remember that it’s OK not to be OK. I want you to know that the guy sitting beside you in class isn’t always OK either. And finally, I want you start saying more than, “I’m fine,” when someone asks how you’re doing.

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