The road to happiness

Merriam-Webster defines happiness as a state of well-being, contentment, or good fortune. As simple as it sounds, however, a majority of middle school and high school students struggle to achieve and maintain the feeling.


A study conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2014 found that teenagers said their stress levels for the past school year were higher than levels reported by adults in the past month. The teenagers in the study also reported that their stress made them feel unhealthy, overwhelmed, and depressed, and also had a negative toll on their eating and sleeping habits.


“Some students enter the weeks before finals thinking they can’t spare a second to do anything for themselves, but there should always be a time in your day to get away from all of your stressors,””

— Holly Hunt

“Some students enter the weeks before finals thinking they can’t spare a second to do anything for themselves, but there should always be a time in your day to get away from all of your stressors,” school psychologist Holly Hunt said. “Even if it’s just 10 minutes in the shower and you decide to sing at the top of your lungs, do that. It seems silly, but at the same time, it is giving your body and brain a break to focus on self-care and treating yourself.”


The basic how-to’s of stress-management usually incorporate a healthy amount of sleep and exercise; for junior Hetal Shah, sleeping for seven hours every night and sticking to a rigorous training regimen for soccer have helped her balance five AP classes, Bollywood dance, and the duties of being club president of the Make-A-Wish Club.


“I like soccer because it helps me relieve stress, it helps me to be social, and I like being able to be outside and with a team that I’m really comfortable with a lot of my friends on it,” Shah said. “I also go running a lot, and dance is great for my culture. I love being club President, and working with my friends and doing things that I’m motivated in.”


Shah revealed that her time-management strategies were based on a handful of simple rules: starting off her work with more enjoyable classes, avoiding her phone until she is done, and staggering her time working by fitting in short breaks. She also noted that starting homework the night it’s assigned allows a little more room to breathe, which is why Shah’s average workload is only four hours a night.


“It’s nice to have an extra day so I’m not stressed about having to finish,” Shah said. “Also, a lot of my AP teachers give homework well in advance and it’s all due on the day of the test so that way I can plan it out for my schedule better.”


For students that have a harder time balancing their work, Hunt recommended multiple self-care strategies for keeping priorities straight during finals week, especially when considering the long-term impact that the tests may have.


“I want students to ask themselves if what they’re doing will affect them in a week, a month, a year, or maybe longer. Like, for finals, if I take one and I bomb it, it’ll impact me in a week in terms of self-esteem, my grades, et cetera. But in a month, it’s already a new semester with new grades, so I can remind myself before the test, ‘In a month, this isn’t going to be a huge deal, even if I do poorly’,” Hunt said.


In line with long-term consideration, Hunt also emphasized the importance of thinking realistically about failing, and keeping in mind that the worst-case situation isn’t a common outcome.


“People can easily get caught up in the idea of failing, and maybe you will, maybe you won’t, but there are three different scenarios to remember: the best case scenario, the worst case, and the most realistic scenario. Often times we have this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where we can’t stop thinking that we’re going to fail, but if that’s the only way we’re thinking, then that’s probably going to be the reality,” Hunt said.


Another significant part of a stressful schedule is what Hunt refers to as the “snowball effect”: one stressor can lead to panicking about other, lesser stressors that have been repressed. Issues with friends, family, sports, or extracurriculars all mix together, which can leave a student overwhelmed and clueless about where to start. However, the incorporation of family and work can also help relieve stress, according to Shah, who says a large part of her motivation is her family and friends.


“Sometimes I do have to sacrifice social time a little bit and that demotivates me, but having my family there helps me stay motivated. My parents know I’m taking a hard course load so they’re always there for me,” Shah said. “It’s also nice to have friends who are also taking hard classes because they understand and you can talk to them about things.”


To avoid this, Hunt suggests writing down lists, both of things that are happy, and things that need to be done.


“It’s helpful to rank the things that are stressing me out, so then once I can see them on paper and literally look at the big picture, I can easily point out what my own priorities are while also working out a good support network,” Hunt said. “And it’s important to make a list of things that make you happy because it’s going to remind me of some happy memories and allow me to get out of this snowball of stress and negative emotions.”


Perhaps the most important thing for students to understand, according to Hunt, is the fact that their teachers genuinely want them all to succeed.


“Many kids come to me and say they aren’t doing well in a certain class and doubt they can pass, and they’re afraid to seek out the support from a teacher. They can also fear a negative response from the teacher, but I don’t know any teachers who would respond that way because they are happy to work with students to ensure their success,” Hunt said. “A teacher’s job is to coach and brings up the students, and in doing that, students are bound to make mistakes, but that shouldn’t be something that impacts their trajectory through school.”