Between the classes, extracurriculars, and social obligations I juggled as a 20-year-old—plus the pressure I put on myself to succeed at all of them—it’s a wonder I ever made it to graduation. Perfectionism feels like it’s ingrained in my DNA, and apparently, I’m not the only one.
A recent study shows today’s millennials are feeling the pressure to be perfect more than any generation before them. Over the course of 27 years, researchers had over 40,000 college students reflect on three types of perfectionism: self-oriented (standards they placed on themselves), social (perceived pressure from others), and other-oriented (expectations they set for other people).
Since the study started in 1989, perfectionism in all three categories have increased: self-oriented by 10 percent, social by 33 percent, and other-oriented by 16 percent.
In other words, young people—particularly those at traditional four-year universities—are held to higher standards than ever before. And with increasingly difficult college entrance requirements, more competition on campus, and unrealistic standards presented on social media, the pressure is coming at them from all directions. While perfectionism can make some people more productive and produce better work, it’s also linked to clinical depression and suicide.
Thankfully, some schools are taking note. Take Yale, for example. It recently opened a class called “Psychology and the Good Life” that focuses on self-improvement and personal happiness. The class has quickly become the most popular in Yale’s 316-year history, and nearly a quarter of the undergraduate student body is enrolled. “Students want to change to be happier themselves,” professor Laurie Santos told The New York Times. “If we see good habits… we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.”
The message Santos endorses is a powerful one: It’s going to take time and a lot of intentional dialogue to combat this culture of competition. Hopefully, as more students talk openly about how easy it is to get caught up in comparison and self-doubt, they can take small steps toward protecting their own health and well-being.