Part two: a competitive society’s relationship with happiness
I find myself picking up on the atmosphere we create more and more these days as I struggle to pull myself out of a strange whirlpool of stress. It’s a stress which churns incessantly in these Wahoo waters as a product of our culture of competition.
Students here begin with a natural drive to swim and swim and swim until they’ve crossed the English Channel, so to speak. We create a current so strong it becomes almost impossible to get out. And even when we get tired or weary, we are still carried along by this drive to never stop achieving. But then we begin to second-guess our decisions about our classes, our majors, our futures — and so we try to swim the other way. Swimming upstream — now that’s tricky.
We then find ourselves in this whirlpool current where we’re willing to sacrifice even our health and happiness for success. Perhaps this sounds rather drastic, but I doubt many students have been able to avoid that twinge inside which compels them to be better than their neighbor.
As children, we are explorative creatures who are unafraid to be wrong. In school we are taught failure is bad and reserved for the lazy, the weak, the dumb kids. And then we come to college ready to sink and slump for weeks when that first paper comes back with a C for a grade. This constant need to surpass our peers has set an unreasonable standard and works us exhaustively.
Whenever I feel particularly down and out about the foot-long to-do list sitting on my desk, I hear the voice of my mom behind me singing Dory’s claim to fame, “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming! Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming!” Unfortunately for Dory, her sweet little tune of encouragement has gone from a simple pat on the back to a swift kick in the rear for me. Sometimes I take the advice and also add on, “Swim faster! Faster! C’mon!” Now that’s stressful — and completely self-inflicted.
Though I know not for certain, I can make guesses, based on stories from friends, that at other schools the drive to succeed stems from their professors and programs. Those influences certainly exist here, but pale in comparison to the pressure we inflict on ourselves. All the professors have to do is create a 3.8 GPA floor for program admission and we’re hooked. Is running oneself ragged, or feeling guilty or worried when one is not running ragged, a good and grand idea?
Lately I have been taking the time at the end of each day to write down something that occurred in my waking hours that made me happy. I write down silly and insignificant things such as the flowers blooming or the sunshine feeling particularly warm one afternoon. The dichotomy present in this exercise is that it is both beautiful and rewarding, but also intended to fill a gap which shouldn’t have to be there. I shouldn’t have to regiment my time to stop and smell the roses. My school and peers ask me to run a marathon and I say yes, even when all I really want to do is take a walk and look around.
So what is there to do about this mess we’ve made for ourselves? Forced relaxation and reflection, as I’ve employed, seem to work marginally well, though the idea of having to force my relaxation can be discouraging.
The good news is that in reflecting upon my stressful situations and their eventual resolutions, there is always one common theme. In any situation where opportunity is embraced, we feel either excitement or its nasty counterpart — that gut feeling of dread we suppress when agreeing to take on another leadership position or a second major. The simple solution is to listen to this gut instinct.
If it feels right, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t. Résumés and job prospects and GPAs aside, I’ve found I need to listen to that gut rumbling in the pit of my conscience. There comes a point when one must admit defeat — even if that defeat is not actually failing to achieve, but just being able to say “no.”
And the reward for admitting this defeat, you ask? Sadness? Incompetence? Lowliness? No. Those are only temporary compared to the real reward: happiness.
Part one of Kate’s series on competition can be read here.
Kate’s column runs biweekly Thursdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.