A few weeks ago, in the midst of a stressful string of midterms, a close friend invited me over for a “self-care night.” We gorged on snacks and watched a few episodes of “The Office.” At the end of the evening, I looked over at my friend, who still looked dejected, even after two GHeav sandwiches and three episodes of “The Office.” She takes five and a half credits, runs multiple clubs and juggles a social life on weekends. Remembering her pile of exams later that week, she asked me, “Why isn’t my self-care working?”
Yale students love to talk about “self-care.” During busy weeks, we go to study breaks with dogs, or indulge in hot chocolate and cookies. I’ve seen advertisements for “radical self-care meditation” at the cultural houses. Some events are hosted by student clubs, others by the University. To Yalies, self-care means carving out a few blocks of time to distract ourselves from our over-scheduled lives. The problem is that a few study breaks does not and cannot constitute a healthy lifestyle.
There is so much that we can do to actually prevent harmful stress and anxiety in our lives, rather than just treating the symptoms. All too often, Yalies feel that we need to polish our resumes — with more clubs, with more extracurriculars, with that fifth class. And so, we pack our calendars with networking events, conferences, competitions and yes, the occasional half-hour playdate with Handsome Dan.
Discussions of self-care are often couched in the language of politics, as if we need to justify our right to lead healthy lives. As Yalies, we are so committed to making ourselves unhappy, that even small breaks must be justified with a political argument. What does that say about the university’s culture?
There is nothing wrong with savoring relaxing evenings in with friends, or setting aside time to step out of the library on a beautiful fall day. I myself try to do these things often. However, the broader problem with Yale culture is revealed in our fixation on small acts of “self-care.” We quickly forget the direct correlation between our our eagerness to overcommit at the beginning of the semester, and the sleep deprivation that follows. Presenting cookie breaks as the solution to a problem that is deeply entrenched within Yale culture prevents us from addressing its roots.
We tell ourselves that we can wait to lead happy lives without self-imposed stress — after getting into that graduate school, after applying to that internship, after getting the perfect job. But the careers that Yale students commonly pursue after graduation — finance, consulting, medicine — are famous for their long hours and high burnout rates. College is the last opportunity most of us will have to take courses solely because we find them intellectually stimulating. As such, we should all take full advantage of the joys of being a college student. The prospects of a better life later on — narrowly defined by certain measures of success — isn’t reason enough to sacrifice our current well being.
What, then, is true self-care? True self-care is when we select a balanced course schedule that makes us excited to learn rather than dread going to lecture. It is when we consistently make time to see old friends and make new ones — we live among six thousand intelligent and interesting peers. True self-care is when choose extracurriculars because we enjoy making music together, or discussing politics, or serving our community, not because it looks good on a resume. It is impossible for us to be happy here if we do not take joy in the contents of our syllabuses and the details of our commitments.
Institutionally, Yale can also change to encourage true self-care. College deans should continue to caution students against taking unnecessarily burdensome course schedules. Clubs should recruit members who are truly interested in the group’s mission. Directors of undergraduate studies and academic advisors should encourage students to choose their majors because of their sheer interest in the field, not because of potential job opportunities.
One of the most liberating aspects of going to college is that we are free to choose how to spend these four years, in almost every way. We should choose to build meaningful and fulfilling lives.
Isaiah Schrader is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .