Why are Harvard students so sad?
“The Ivy Leagues are the darkest, most despair-filled campuses I’ve ever visited,” the guest speaker looked out at the auditorium on a Friday night my freshman year. Having not spent much time on other campuses, I didn’t understand then; I understand better now.
I think a lot of people underestimate the level of depression among successful people, or at least, in my experience, the level of depression among high-achieving college students. There are, of course, good moments: feelings of accomplishment and success, rapport with peers, and amazing opportunities. However, the campuses of Harvard and MIT, with which I’m most familiar, are also full of feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, overwhelming stress, and hopelessness.
On an anonymous MIT facebook account, one will find comments like “I just want to sleep and make all this go away…” “Weekends are dark, lonely, and the times when I question most whether I actually have friends in this place.” Or simply, “I feel so stupid.” These campuses produce Medal of Honor winners and Rhodes scholars, but our stories also involve mental breakdowns and suicides. The inside of an ivory tower can be very dark, precisely because there aren’t any windows to let in the fresh air and light of perspective.
Successful students often find themselves under a great deal of pressure – pressure from family, friends, society, and their own expectations to do well. Often, because there are so many opportunities available, we tend to overload, because we need to be productive. Many times, we spend so much time on work that we pass up companionship, sleeping, and even eating to reach our own high standards. The constant strain leaves us feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and inadequate.
More than this, though, professional success tends to put blinders on us. We climb into this ivory tower looking for enlightenment, but we forgot to put any windows in. That is, we get so wrapped up in GPAs and resumes and internships that we forget to ask why any of it matters. I remember watching the online message boards as people found out they got into Harvard – “this is the best day of my life;” “I’ve achieved my lifelong dream!” But if you’ve had the best day of your life by the time you’re 18, and you’ve fulfilled your lifelong dream by 22, what’s left? It can’t possibly live up to expectations, you can’t possibly live up to expectations, and it goes downhill from there.
Time and again, people have told me how they came to Harvard defining themselves solely in terms of their successes and talents, and when they found themselves surrounded by people equally or more successful and talented, their self-worth took a devastating hit. Even those who continue to succeed feel empty inside. We forget about everything but our very narrow definition of success; we lose touch with the outside world – towers can also be echo chambers, a discussion for another time – but we also lose touch with ourselves.
How do I know? I’ve felt it, too. I’ve spent years studying what really matters through philosophy, culture, and religion, and I have reached answers that satisfy me. And yet there are times when I panic over a failing grade, days when I can’t drag myself out of bed, nights when nothing seems worth it. Those are the moments I read Ecclesiastes. “Son of David, King of Jerusalem,” the author calls himself – by all accounts a successful, work-hard-play-hard person – and then immediately plunges into existential despair. What does it all matter?
How do I get out of bed? Because I believe in the beyond. I believe that I can make my life mean something if I devote it to something bigger, something objectively real that will outlast all human institutions and even the end of the world. We all want to be part of something that will last; as Ecclesiastes says, we have “eternity in our hearts.” But too many of us, with Ozymandius, put all our work into monuments that will only crumble. And so we reach our dreams only to find that they’re not enough, could never be enough.
The modern philosophers think we can create our own meaning, but we’ve tried, and ended only by destroying ourselves. We are working backwards; we must start with something beyond us that establishes our inviolate worth as people, and then achieve because we are accepted, not in order to be accepted. Everyone I’ve talked to has found this an incredibly freeing experience – but it can only come if we accept a Value-giver beyond ourselves.