There may very well be a secret to happiness. A profound insight that fills you with purpose and settles you into a state of perpetual content. But if you have found what that secret is for yourself, you’re further along than I am.
For the most part, though, that secret isn’t immediately helpful, at least not here and now. It won’t dispel your impostor syndrome or solve your relationships or get you through a particularly rough dead week.
What UC Berkeley has taught me about managing my mental health is that these smaller, short-term problems call for smaller, short-term solutions.
This was a tough pill to swallow for me. Long term self-improvement is both essential and somewhat idealized, and I understand that asking you to put that aside for a while and just focus on the present feels, in essence, counterproductive. After all, why look for short-term solutions when permanent ones should, in theory, fix the same problems?
Strange as it may seem, there really is something to it. Just bear with me for a bit.
I struggle with motivation. Waking up twice weekly for my 10 a.m. discussion is an eternal struggle, and the alarm in my head that compels me to finish my homework only goes off after hours of unproductivity.
So when my discrete mathematics course burrowed an unfamiliar sense of despair into my brain, I was sure the solution was to whip myself into academic shape and start organizing my life seriously again. I opened a calendar, checked my upcoming exams and started planning the week out, which is something I almost never do.
I finished organizing my work. I found blocks of time to study. I promised myself I would sleep earlier every night that week. Then I closed my laptop and collapsed into bed — but I still felt that pressing dread. Of course I did. I hadn’t actually done anything to alleviate it.
The problem I was trying to solve — the one I thought I had to solve — is fundamentally a long-term issue. It’s important to solve, sure, perhaps more important than temporary respite. I’m not here to downplay the importance of committing to these greater changes of better sleep, organization and commitment. In fact, that commitment might be the best turn your life takes.
At the same time, that day-to-day is what you feel, what affects your state of mind most. It’s what will weigh you down or lift you up on your walks to campus. And reaching a better state of mind can be a good first step in reaching those larger goals.
It really is the small things that matter.
Despite not really understanding this at the time, I managed to pull it off. I reopened my computer and loaded into a few matches of my favorite game, and within minutes I was upset with my teammates online, instead of myself. Progress!
In all seriousness however, distractions get a bit of a bad rep — I think unfairly. Sure, you’re not making much progress toward your self-actualization or anything, but taking your mind off the bad is the first step in the process to start working towards the good.
The in-between really does matter. Even if, hypothetically, you find the path of least resistance toward eliminating your biggest problems in life, why suffer until you reach that point? It’s much more bearable, and far more feasible, to take small steps towards a big goal while improving your quality of life in the process.
I can promise you with almost absolute certainty that you’re not at the beginning of an infinite downward slope. You’re at the lower end of a cycle of ups and downs. That means it’s alright to remove yourself for a moment: your life won’t plummet around you.
Maybe you already have a well-established self-care routine. Maybe you’re like me, and this kind of stress is pretty new to you. Either way, take a step back. Forget, just for a moment, about the glaring character flaws you see in yourself or the hodgepodge of headaches you’re facing.
Take fifteen minutes right now to do something that’ll make you laugh. It’s what I do now. That fifteen minutes might turn into an hour or two — and today, that’s more than okay.