“Dude. I was there on day one and around 300 people showed up. The next week? Twelve hundred,” said one of my friends about Yale’s most popular class ever: “Psychology and the Good Life.”
By now, the stories of PSYC 157’s fame are everywhere. Closely accompanying most mentions of the course are conversations about how life is anything but good at Yale. People have speculated that the massive enrollment is indicative of a larger “cry for help” from the student body — another piece of evidence suggesting that students at Yale are burdened with stress and anxiety and are using professor Laurie Santos’ class as their chief recourse.
“Psychology and the Good Life” may be a sort of cry for help — or it may not be. One thing is for sure: We generally misdiagnose stress at Yale.
The age-old piece of advice for explaining your greatest weakness in a job interview is to say that you are a perfectionist. While many applicants likely want to seem driven while not letting on any actual weaknesses to potential employers, ironically, for many Yale students, perfectionism feels obligatory, and that it feels difficult to accept fallacy short of that obligation.
For example, a friend of mine was telling me how his Chinese class has short daily quizzes for which he typically needs to put in around an hour and a half of work to do well. He let on a kind of wincing half-smile when I talked with him the other day about this. “At least I’m getting the points,” he mumbled. Indeed, perfectionism at Yale often breeds a hyper-ambitious overcompensation that leads more toward burnout than toward satisfaction.
But this perfectionism mentality, in and of itself, doesn’t seem to be the main cause of most of the stress people feel at Yale. An interesting phenomenon about stress does show up, however, when the obligations to our perfectionism collide with our obligations to fit in socially. In small talk and in passing, many conversations will turn to the topic of work, and how people are handling their course loads. Oddly enough, friends will often have mini competitions over who is the most tired or furthest behind in their work, the assumption being that it’s endearing and cool to have done the least amount of work, or to be the furthest behind. However, the exaggeration of how behind we are can lead us to get caught up in a stress feedback loop. We end up believing that we actually are as behind as we say we are, even if we are much better off than we outwardly represent.
In such a sense, navigating the social ropes of stress can be dizzying at best. But I am not asserting that we ought to lower the academic workloads we are given. It’s certainly difficult to admit to ourselves, but high stress environments can often spur us to be incredibly productive. Getting into Yale, for instance, is something that I’m sure we are all proud of. While having Yale as the end to which we directed our efforts surely gave rise to loads of stress, I doubt many of us, in reflection, would willingly forsake our acceptance to Yale for a less stressful high school experience.
But when it comes to more conflicting goals, like how we should best use our college experience, the tradeoffs are more ambiguous. Oftentimes the anxieties of securing a financially promising future will lead students to pursue courses of study that are wholly unrelated from their deeper interests.
A friend of mine struggled throughout most of first semester with this exact type of uncertainty. The science courses he thought he needed in order to become a doctor ended up being totally unfulfilling. I asked him why he did not pursue more courses in the humanities, or even major in a humanities field. “I grew up poor,” he said. “I need to be a doctor.”
This mechanization of our academic choices into neat check marks that virtually guarantee financial stability is understandable — especially for people coming from lower income backgrounds. But this calculated ends-justify-the-means approach to our academic pursuits is perhaps the deeper reason why so many of us are so stressed.
Psychologist Erich Fromm tapped into just this when he hypothesized that one of humans’ innate needs is to have a sense of identity. “Man,” said Fromm, “may be defined as the animal that can say ‘I’.”
In such a sense, the giant piles of work many Yalies have are not our primary stressor. If we do things we aren’t truly interested in, an existential part of ourselves will remain unserved, and we will remain stressed and unhappy.
Any solution to this stress should be found in inner reflection and the pursuit of our interests irrespective of ulterior motives.
Sammy Landino is a first year in Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .