October 17, 2021

YAO | Small Joys

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My roommate will tell you that true happiness is watching the parallel-parkers on Dryden Road. At six p.m., a stream of red, gray and blue vehicles come bumping down the street, each vying for a coveted spot on the side of the road. After three near-crashes, a series of deafening car horns and one unlucky driver trying to bypass the chaos, the excitement draws to a close. The street again holds its breath in anticipation for the show to start anew in 24 hours. I’m not going to lie, my roommate was onto something — it is kind of engaging. Small joys, right?

Back in our first-year dining-hall days, my friends and I liked to joke that college life was just about filling the time between trips to Appel. Now, I marvel at the potential truth in that statement. I’ve spent a lot of time in my feelings this past year, pondering pseudo-deep stuff like what the meaning of my existence is and whether water is wet. At the end of each mini-crisis, I reaffirm that water isn’t actually wet, and I have no idea what it is that I live for. For the most part, I would consider myself a driven person, always reaching for that next goal on my checklist, and it’s terrifying, in the midst of my existential phase, to now be asking myself, “Why, though?”

But, perhaps life really is all about finding those brief moments of happiness within the mundane, whether that be car-watching, eating donuts at Appel or something else. As Kurt Vonnegut ‘44 once wrote, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’”. It’s all too easy to defer happiness in favor of going through the motions that make up the daily trudge. I hate to admit it, but it’s become second nature for me to point out all the ways prelims and job search stress and pandemic fears make life miserable. 

However, it’s the times where I’ve allowed myself to actively seek out something small to brighten my day that I cherish the most out of my college experience. Last weekend, I dragged myself up 161 steps to the top of McGraw Tower and felt time stand still as I gaped at the view. 

Yesterday, I went to the Dairy Bar for the first time ever and savored my scoop of Clocktower Pumpkin ice cream. I spent an afternoon meandering through the Johnson Museum with my phone camera at the ready, and I watched some cars honk at each other on Dryden Road. 

On the nights where I can feel stress rolling over me in waves, where the feeling of uncertainty is all but stifling, these are the moments I turn to for solace. These are the moments I reflect on as a reminder that I can create joy for myself. That it is, in fact, okay to live for the little things in life. Always chasing some grander purpose is great and all, but is there a point if we don’t take a second to savor the in-between moments? 

Through my Co-op, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with several Cornell alums. The question I’ve asked most of them is, “What brings you fulfillment outside of work?”.  I heard answers ranging from making music to walking dogs to rock-climbing. Most admitted to still figuring it out but learning to lean on new experiences or fun hobbies to derive meaning. One person I spoke with told me she was realizing that happiness doesn’t need to be reserved for large milestones or achievements. She said her fondest memories in Ithaca were those moments of spontaneity born from hiking the gorges or attending student performances. 

When I graduate and my memories of Cornell start to soften at the edges, I’m sure that it will be those seemingly inconsequential moments of contentment that will make me sigh over “the good old college years”. I hope my next three and a half semesters allow me to soak up those small pockets of joy on campus before I have to find them elsewhere. So, for now, catch me and my roommate spending our weekday evenings looking out the window and waiting for our six p.m. entertainment to begin.  

Katherine Yao is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Monday this semester.