Thrive on Campus//

Academia’s Problematic “Culture of Struggling”

Academic settings glorify unhealthy habits. Here's why working harder might be working against you.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

One of the biggest social phenomena I have noticed in most academic settings, particularly within the Ivy League, is the “culture of suffering” that seems to permeate throughout students’ everyday lives. At Brown, the glorification of “the grind” often turns competitive; when you ask someone how they are doing, the answer tends to turn into a game of who can outdo each other with who is having the worst time, whether it be because of homework, a big exam, a high-commitment extracurricular, or a mix of all three.

While I’m sure that in many cases people have legitimate reasons for their stress, most Brown students who I have encountered thus far are in love with the school and generally claim to be satisfied with their everyday lives, which brings forth the question: is there a fundamental divide between happiness and struggle, and must they always be mutually exclusive?

This culture of competitive struggling seeps in to every aspect of our everyday lives here at Brown, through comparing the difficulty or our classes and our level of work, to bragging about who got the least amount of sleep the previous night. Many of my friends stay up until three or four in the morning studying for tests, forgo proper meals and exercise for days on end in order to do problem sets, and abuse their mental health so they can make it to class, all in the name of a fantasy future in which success is achieved and struggle is no longer required.

I, as most students do, occasionally stay up late cramming for a test or writing a paper I procrastinated on — in the event that this does happen I always know that I have brought upon myself and therefore am not particularly mad about it. Despite this, I have had several moments at Brown thus far where I have had a manageable amount of work, ample time for extracurriculars, and a good sleep schedule. Regardless of how much I enjoy these moments, I often soon find myself consumed by guilt because I feel that in Brown’s social and academic culture, any sign of mental repose is an indication that you aren’t trying hard enough or making the most of your time. “People measure their success or productivity by how much they’re suffering,” says Isabel Inadomi ‘22. Students take pride in their pain to the point where it almost feels out of style to be happy, healthy, and relaxed.

This constant rhetoric of struggle not only leads to the normalization of constantly feeling anxious, but also results in an undermining and legitimization of mental illness. It is not uncommon to hear a Brown student casually claim they want to kill themselves or mention how depressed a certain homework assignment is making them. In cases such as these, how is one supposed to differentiate clinical depression and suicidal ideations that require professional intervention from the feelings of inadequacy and general stress that stem from living within a setting where struggle is normalized and even glorified?

Participating in a culture of struggle doesn’t set students up for a great future, but rather normalizes and reinforces unhealthy habits that will follow us in life and ultimately hurt us. To this I ask, why must we suffer to succeed? Time and time again, the scientific community has found that a salubrious lifestyle and sleep schedule go hand in hand with success; therefore, perhaps it is possible to achieve the same success — if not more — from a happier and healthier mindset.

If you feel yourself struggling to pull away from “the grind,” take a moment to step back and reevaluate how you can shift your behaviors without sacrificing either your schoolwork or your health and happiness. Schedule breaks in between your study sessions to stretch, take a walk, or watch a show. Keep healthy snacks near your study spot. Make a sleep schedule and try your best to stick to it. Don’t isolate yourself — if you know you’re going to be studying alone for a long stretch of time, even taking twenty minutes to catch up with friends can be beneficial to your mental health. Most of all, give yourself room to mess up every once in a while. Five extra points on an exam or an essay isn’t worth the cost of your mental and physical health.

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