Choosing Joy in a Selfish Place

05/11/2015 06:15 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

"Remember to stop and listen for the birdsong :)"

On a typically busy day, my phone lit up with this text message from my mom while I was running errands. "Ugh, I don't have time to listen for birdsongs! I have s**t to do!" I thought as I checked the time. My mother is a particularly optimistic person, and in the moment I didn't have the patience for her optimism. But then I stopped, frowned--is this the person I have become?

The Harvard environment can feel like it breeds negativity. After spending months in hibernation, we emerge from our caves, blinking at this bright orb in the sky. We complain about the dining hall food, the weather, the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms--all of which warrant improvement, to be certain, but when these criticisms linger in our brains for too long they start festering there, hatching other baby complaints. On a campus filled to the brim with people accustomed to analyzing their way to success, this isn't all that surprising.

But more than negativity, this environment can breed selfishness. Everyone here is overcommitted in some capacity, and it shows in both our G-Cals and our pace of life. The constant busyness is a way of constantly to one-upping one another, even if these obligations make us miserable. And because we are kept so wrapped up in extracurriculars and exams so as to not have a moment's silence, we have no time to reflect upon the relationships and ideas that matter. We have no time to let significance percolate, to meander through a farmer's market or visit a library "just because" (or if we do, we post it on social media, thereby externally validating our deviation from the burnout norm). We have no time for the birdsong.

I have noticed a build-up of negativity and selfishness in myself this past year. When I came back in the fall after a semester abroad, I was eager to prioritize catching up with old friends and new, and it seemed like others felt the same. But quickly that optimism and patience waned and I fell victim to the email blackhole, filling up every spare moment with white noise, rather than letting the silence sink in. I realized that there were few moments during the week when I wasn't 1) starting at a screen, 2) drinking, 3) working out, or 4) sleeping, and that scared me. I allocated my time drastically differently than I had in South America or even at home, where I felt like my eyes were wider and my ears perked in hopes of keener observation. I suppose it was possible to have taken things more slowly, but everyone else's velocity pressured me to speed up. My parents always told me I would experience peer pressure, but I never thought it would come in the form of "How much work do you have this weekend?"

This idea of dwelling less on the negative has cropped up in many a conversation lately, and is especially important as we transition into the "real" world. Embracing these last couple of weeks is difficult to do if we are constantly criticizing, quantifying the validity of our experiences by counting the number of "likes" on our Instragram photos, rather than internalizing our own happiness. I don't want my last memories of college to be "filtered," so to speak, by others' perceptions.

But in shedding negativity, I am not talking about not being sad, or ignoring mental illness. Quite the opposite. I feel that a good cry and confiding in others is in fact what many of us need, perhaps more often than we'd like to admit. There are too many of us who try to make our lives appear spotless from the outside, despite inner exhaustion or defeat. No, what I am talking about is seeking joy. I am talking about being more present in a place that shoves the future down our throats at every opportunity. I am talking about prioritizing happiness and wholesomeness as something we need to cultivate, something that requires time and prioritization. Hundreds of free s'mores won't change anything unless we let ourselves and others be still and do things that don't contribute to our résumé or our online personae. Sometimes we need the constant buzz to subside.

So go on, have a picnic with your friends and don't worry about having a profound discussion. Try hearing the city, noticing the patterns in the bricks or the clanging sound when somebody steps on a loose manhole cover. Take out your headphones and listen to the world. Maybe there'll even be a birdsong.