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Our Obsession With Achievement Is Fueling Anxiety

Why we should think differently about success—and how to start.

Key points

  • Pressure to achieve and perfectionism may help explain increased levels of anxiety and depression among youth.
  • Helping young people relate to achievement differently can begin with self-reflection by adults.
  • Ways to rethink achievement include challenging idealized notions of success and aiming to make a positive contribution to the lives of others.
Razvan Chisu/Unsplash
Source: Razvan Chisu/Unsplash

In our fiercely competitive society, achievement has become the top priority for many.

According to a national survey of 10,000 students, almost 80 percent of youth identified individual achievement or happiness as most important to them, while only 20 percent selected caring for others.

Our youth often strive to be successful even if it comes at a cost to their mental health. A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation included the pressure to excel—along with poverty, trauma, discrimination, and issues related to social media and the internet—in a list of environmental forces disrupting adolescent wellness. Data from 40,000 college students in the U.K., U.S., and Canada from 1989 to 2016 indicates that perfectionism is on the rise, which may help explain increasing rates of anxiety and depression among the youth.

Youth Attitudes About Achievement Start With Adults

These figures are not surprising. Young people follow in the footsteps of adults. They can see how we treat success and productivity as badges of honor. We reward the youth for being straight-A students and the star on their soccer team. We encourage them to boost their resumes with endless extracurricular activities. We may tell our children that we value kindness and empathy but do not always promote these values with the same vigor.

Helping our youth starts with helping ourselves. We need to reflect on how we are living our lives. We have raised the bar of our expectations to unattainable and unsustainable levels. We expect to earn a healthy income, excel professionally, raise perfect children, have a beautiful house, keep a full social schedule, and be pillars of our communities.

Anxiety can arise from the pressure to meet self-imposed expectations. In a 2018 poll from the American Psychiatric Association, almost 40 percent of adult American respondents said they were more anxious than they had been the previous year. The COVID pandemic has further increased rates of anxiety.

We are spread too thin and overwhelmed. We are pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion. Yet we refuse to take a break.

Studies also suggest that empathy has been on a decline in recent years, while self-reported narcissism has been on the rise. As we become self-absorbed in our pursuit of individual goals, we may forget to appreciate the humanity in others. We may view them as competition that must be trounced as we march towards individual aspirations.

How to Think Differently About Achievement

Our current obsession with achievement is likely fueling anxiety while damaging the fabric of our society. If we want to heal individually and collectively then we need to examine this relationship.

This process starts by recognizing that success is not synonymous with sustained happiness. As parents, we encourage our youth to be successful, believing this path sets them up for happiness. As the son of immigrant parents who came from humble beginnings, I can appreciate the intent behind this message.

However, many are idealizing success and forgetting that it comes with a host of challenges. For example, people who achieve professional success may be under greater scrutiny as they carry greater responsibility.

When I was younger, I had also idealized the path to professional success by assuming that becoming a physician would equate to happiness. It did not take long to discover the error in my thinking. Physicians suffer from high rates of burnout as they deal with endless administrative tasks, documentation requirements, a loss of autonomy, and the fear of litigation, which affects how they practice medicine. All this while trying to pay off a heavy student loan burden that often exceeds $200,000.

Achieve with the aim of making a positive contribution to the life of others. If you gauge success by individual measures such as money, power, or fame, you will probably be disappointed. Happiness becomes elusive as you constantly compare yourself to people you identify as more wealthy, powerful, or famous. In a study of millionaires, the majority of participants predicted that an increase in wealth was needed to make them happier.

When I find myself frustrated with the practice of medicine, I shift the focus from myself to my patients. I remind myself of the privilege of earning a human being’s trust as they share their life story with me. They are someone’s spouse, parent, child, or friend. By alleviating their mental suffering, my work has a ripple effect on others in their social circle.

Finally, let’s bust the myth that kindness is a barrier to achievement. There is a false narrative that kindness is weakness. However, the opposite is true. Evidence suggests that children who care for others achieve more than those who do not. Kindness and achievement are not mutually exclusive. One can strive to achieve their individual goals and be kind to others.

Our drive to achieve is not necessarily a bad thing. It can have a positive impact on the lives of others. The problem occurs when we pursue success solely for individual purposes. This may ultimately come at a cost to our mental health, our loved ones, and society.

LinkedIn image: ShotPrime Studio/Shutterstock

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