Rampant culture of achievement harms mental well-being

Diane Sun

Suicide Prevention Week, a somber acknowledgment of the frailties each individual is subject to, is an apt time to discuss the culture of achievement that runs deeply through the UT population. 

There is an uneasy relationship between hyperachievement and well-being. At the root of this association is a deeply ingrained belief that success and happinesses are synonymous concepts. But there are important cases that dissent from this narrative. Last year, the Atlantic’s “The Silicon Valley Suicides” and the New York Times’ “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection” addressed the significant mental health issues surrounding extremely high-achieving and affluent populations. Inevitably, when this topic arises, there are many factors subject to blame: peer pressure, improper parenting or fear of failure to name a few. 

These are all legitimate concerns, but they fail to challenge that indomitable, underlying narrative that success is the best guarantor of happiness. One concludes that any unhappiness along this path is simply an externality. Ignore the peer pressure and shed the perfectionism but otherwise muddle through as before, undeterred.

It’s an intoxicating, romantic belief but ultimately a baseless one. The demands of success and happiness are widely divergent, and for most, difficult to reconcile. In our culture of achievement, success is grounded in a maximizing principle, measured by who performs the best and acquires the most. 

At its heart, the concept of maximization is a prime source of anxiety. As Swarthmore College professors Barry Schwarz and Andrew Ward describe, a mindset that demands constantly making the optimal choice paves the way for feelings of worry, regret and loss. And in the culture of achievement, most tired platitudes involve finding the best-fitting career path, or a singular, highest passion and proceeding to ascend the highest ranks of the field. 

Moreover, the other harm of the maximizing principle manifests in the inability to reach a state of contentment. Even the smallest accolade has the potential to become significant, and thus must be pursued, as Suniya Luthar, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, describes in her research on high-achieving populations. 

Students feel “that one more point on their GPA and one more accomplishment will push them over the edge to ‘success,’” Luthar writes. “Although people in general want more than they currently have, an emphasis on striving for ‘the top’ is hardest to resist among those for whom it is actually within reach.” 

Students who are ceaselessly reminded of their infinite potential and endless opportunities struggle to place reasonable limits on their ambitions.  

“I can, therefore I must,” the title of Luthar’s study, perfectly sums up this insidious mentality.    

Finally, success is an intensely solipsistic pursuit by nature. To be successful is to be independent, to be the sole leader at the top, to have the capability to overcome anything — alone. 

Lauren Rivera of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that those working at elite firms default to “a particular plot line in which the interviewee describes him or herself as a protagonist single-handedly navigating a jungle.” Mutual dependence and interconnectedness, important protective factors against depression and suicide, are at odds with the highly individualized self-concept that is promoted among high-achieving students.   

The culture of achievement is by no means intrinsically bad. There is legitimate good in challenging oneself, endeavoring to surpass one’s previous limitations. But the current climate cherishes self-attainment in all its manifestations, paints it as an absolute, omnipotent goal, something to ceaselessly strive towards with the promise of infallible gratification. The truth is, success provides only fleeting happiness, and rarely lasting satisfaction. 

Sun is a business honors, accounting and government junior from Sugar Land. Follow her on Twitter @sun_diane.