I received many “words of wisdom” during my orientation week at Duke, and I can’t remember any of them.
It took two years, but I think I’ve finally heard a bit of wisdom that perfectly encompasses many of the lessons I’ve learned at Duke. I overheard a truism last week that originates from Dr. Gary Glass, assistant director for outreach and developmental programming for CAPS: “the only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.”
This can be misconstrued, so let’s be clear: Some people are flat-out weird. If you sleep in the nude, talk to yourself in a voice louder than 90 decibels or have an obsession with ferrets, I don’t need to know you to figure out that you’re abnormal.
But that’s not the kind of normal I’m talking about. In this case, I mean the “ideal” person—the individual you aspire to be.
For me, it’s the guy who looks like he is having a good time every weekend, who is involved in everything, who can ace his Public Policy test without studying and who attracts a lot of girls. For others, it’s someone who writes poetry and chills at the Duke Coffeehouse every week.
This is nothing revolutionary. Festinger’s theory of social comparison, which suggests that people evaluate themselves by comparing their abilities or actions to those of their perceived peers, dates back to 1954. Usually the examples given to illustrate this theory involve someone’s income, or maybe their martial status. In most of life, these kinds of things are difficult to hide: You either make a lot of money or you don’t, and it’s pretty easy to tell based on how nice your house or car is. If you get a divorce, it’s tough to keep that a secret.
But college life is a little more abstract. Happiness is derived from success in a complex set of social interactions and in academic endeavors, the results of which are usually kept private. The key three sorority girl next door to you might not have any actual close friends. The alleged straight-A wiseass in the library may actually be failing three classes. Also, that poet in the coffeehouse probably sucks at writing.
Since most people have a tendency not to advertise their failures or hardships, you rarely have enough information to assess who the “normal” people really are.
Take the Facebook syndrome. If you’re ever unfortunate enough to be in Perkins on a Saturday night, odds are your first move is to check your news feed before opening up your microbiology textbook. It’s some horrendous compilation of pictures from last night at Shooters II with status updates about Saturday night’s plans. And, stunningly, no one on Facebook seems to be doing the same thing you are. I’ve seen a lot of “SHOOOOTAHS” status updates—how often do you see “PERKINNNNS?”
That’s because your status updates—much like most people’s real “life” updates—are meant to convey the person you want to portray, not necessarily the person you consistently are. I’m guilty as sin here—I’ve never once posted a status update informing the world that I was sitting in my room on my bed napping away a Friday night, even though I’m confident that just about everyone at Duke has at one point or another been in the same rig probably.
This phenomenon wouldn’t be a problem if one didn’t think about it every time life was going a little less than perfectly. I start imagining what my half-real normal person would do in a given situation, or what he’s doing at that moment, and it’s almost always better than what I’m doing. Of course, no one’s informed me that he’s failing one of his classes, or that he’s an alcoholic, or that most girls actually think he’s a d-bag—you’d need to know him to know that he’s not so normal after all.
So the right way to evaluate your happiness is probably not to try and live up to this imaginary ideal, not just because it will make you unhappy, but also because you don’t have anywhere near enough information about most people to make a sound judgment.
But you do have a lot of information about one person: yourself. I know exactly how happy I was three years ago for one very good reason—I was there. So the best way to understand how I’m doing is to measure my current state against prior ones, rather than try to guess how other people are doing.
That means I’m going to stop guessing what other people are doing on Saturday nights, and try and remember what I was doing last weekend. I’m going to compare my friends to the ones I had a few years ago, not the ones other people have, and my grades to the ones I received last semester, not the ones other people allegedly get.
And since I know myself, I’m going to admit I’ll never be normal.
Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Monday.
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