Columns

Savello ’18: Unmasking the Ivy League: eliminating competitive stress culture

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, February 26, 2016

I recently attended a conference called “Unmasking the Ivy League,” the first ever Ivy-wide mental health conference where representatives from each school could openly discuss and exchange ideas regarding mental health resources, activism efforts and potential policy reform within the Ivy League. One of the most intriguing points brought up during the discussion was the concept of “Penn face,” the idea that students — not just at Penn but at all the Ivies — tend to present themselves as content and thriving even though, in reality, they are struggling internally. This act of masking distress and discontent with a semblance of having it together is perpetuated by the competitive stress culture of the Ivy League.

Many students on Ivy League campuses are inclined to compete with each other not only academically but also in regards to how stressed they are, considering it a success if they get less sleep or have more exams than a peer. In the instances where “I slept four hours” is met with “I slept three” and “I had three exams this week” is countered with “I had three exams TODAY,” poor mental health is almost encouraged, leading to elevated stress levels and destructive behaviors.

Fortunately, not all students in the Ivy League partake in “Penn face” or stress competition. There are plenty of students — I would hope the majority — who express their emotions openly and don’t compete for the highest level of unhealthy stress. But enough students do participate in these behaviors to make it a valid contributing factor to mental health on campus.

Perhaps Brown, with its unique campus atmosphere and open curriculum, is its own special case. I would argue that we don’t have “Penn face” so much as we have “happy face,” a similar concept stemming from the idea that Brown is the “happiest Ivy.” Stereotypically, we are considered to be the “most chill” school because of our lack of distribution requirements and our ability to take an unlimited number of courses with the S/NC option. People assume that if everything is lax and laid back at Brown, everybody should be happy. But what happens if you aren’t?

Studies have shown that not being happy in a place where everyone else is happy is likely to put an individual at higher risk of depression. For example, countries whose citizens declare themselves to be very happy, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, Canada and the Netherlands have higher suicide rates than countries like Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, whose citizens generally describe themselves as not happy at all, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.” In other words, if you’re not so happy in a place where most of your peers are also unhappy, it probably wouldn’t seem quite so devastating. Conversely, if you live in a happy place and you’re not feeling those joyous vibes that everyone else is, you might start to assume that something is wrong with you. To counter that feeling of being the only one, students put on their “happy face,” giving in to the Brown stereotype by showing off their pearly whites and feigning enthusiasm — even when they are probably anything but happy.

Whether it be in response to “happy face” or “Penn face,” campuses must urgently act to encourage a more transparent and open environment. Many leaders at the conference vocalized possible solutions. For example, Cornell representatives talked about a campus-wide campaign in which leaders throughout the student body stepped up and made posters showcasing their mental illnesses and personal struggles. These images sent a powerful message to students, ensuring them that they’re not alone in their struggles and affirming that even the most seemingly put-together students have their own share of issues. Princeton presented a similar solution with its “Me Too” campaign, a Facebook viral event where people wrote words on their bodies representing their internal struggles, which opened up discussion and fought stigma.

Notions like these are not only brave and admirable but also extremely vital in letting the student body know that it’s okay to not be okay. Though many of us present this semblance that we have our shit together, we are all dealing with struggles, big or small, beneath the surface. No one is 100 percent happy — no matter how many classes they are taking S/NC or how high their GPA is. 

At Brown especially, it’s important to realize that having an abundance of reasons to be happy does not necessarily make a person happy. “You got into an Ivy League.” “You’re going to have a great job.” “But it’s Brown.” Comments like these, while perhaps meant to be encouraging, can actually bring a person even further down by shaming them for not being happy. “Happiest Ivy” or not, prosperity and privilege should not invalidate mental distress.

Samantha Savello ’18 can be reached at

samantha_savello@brown.edu.