Being at Princeton can feel like a race to the bottom. If you slept three hours last night, the person next to you hasn’t slept in two days. If you have two finals, someone else has four and a paper.
Peer institutions like Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania have problems with the duck syndrome or Penn Face, respectively — similar phenomena that encourage students to appear to be unstressed while actually grappling with a lot of work. The duck appears calm from the surface, but underwater, it is struggling to stay afloat. It makes small mistakes feel like big failures and discourages students from seeking out mental health resources when needed.
But Princeton students suffer the opposite. Rather than putting on a mask of nonchalance, it can be a constant competition to see who is the most stressed, the most strung-out, or the most sleep-deprived. Even though the duck syndrome places strains on students, the opposite, Princeton’s problem, is not the solution either.
Of course, Princeton is difficult: academically, socially, and mentally. However, the claims of being overworked come more from the glorification of the culture rather than reality. The constant need to aggrandize our stress can be just as detrimental for mental health.
This negative mentality encourages students to demonize any activities that fall outside the category of work. We exalt our peers who can manage a five-course schedule all while being the president of four different clubs on campus.
On the other hand, it seems unfathomable for us to take a night off to relax or spend time with friends. Instead, “hanging out” turns into study session at Firestone and genuine human interaction becomes condensed into grabbing meals between classes. Not being busy equates to something being wrong, and the concept of taking time away from work can seem sinful.
Students are pressured by their peers to constantly be doing schoolwork, participating in extracurriculars, or applying for internships and jobs, just for the sake of seeming busy. This comes at the cost of time that could be taken for self-care.
Claiming to be overworked has become a cultural staple at Princeton. It is indicative of a larger societal trend in which busyness has become a status symbol because work is equated with success and importance. To combat this problem, Princeton students need to take steps to shift the University’s culture.
While it would be impossible to convince students to stop doing their coursework and drop out of their extracurriculars, we need to start by prioritizing our own mental health just as much as we prioritize work.
Focusing more on mental health, specifically championing self-care, helps shift our attitudes around work because it is a positive selfish activity. Instead of being externally motivated to be busy for the show of others, self-care is solely for yourself. Encouraging students to practice self-care creates a counter-narrative to the unhealthy association we have between being overworked and achieving.
To do this, there needs to be an emphasis on carving out chunks of time, whether it is twenty minutes or two hours, for self-care. The definition of self-care varies between people depending on what relaxes them. Regardless of its form, it gives people the opportunity to step back from the pressures of Princeton.
Furthermore, this has to be done in a deliberate manner. The discourse around “self-care” tends to be nebulous. However, for it to be effective, it requires conscious choice on students’ end. This can mean physically blocking out time on the calendar or setting a strict bedtime each night.
This transition from constantly being busy to doing nothing is uncomfortable. But rather than viewing this as wasted time to do work, it should be framed as a valuable chance to recharge. The culture of busyness at Princeton can lead to students growing jaded and eventually burning out. Subjects they once found intellectually stimulating and enjoyable are now only a source of stress. Breaks from work actually end up helping students become more productive.
Even though Princeton’s work culture seems ingrained into the school, it is possible to change it for the sake of the students’ mental health. Small adjustments that start on the individual level can affect positive change school-wide. So, as the new semester begins and course loads begin to quickly overwhelm us, the most important thing is to take time to do nothing.
Dora Zhao is an Editorial Assistant and a sophomore from Newtown, Pa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.