A culture of dysfunctional exhaustion does not contribute to happiness or success

Looking out onto the quad, we are met with a sea of running shorts, leggings, hoodies, dark under-eye circles, and disheveled hairstyles. With coffee in hand, our bookbags hang off one shoulder, we trudge to class, mentally rehearsing the excuse for why our paper was not turned in on time. The average student’s life at university is portrayed as exhausting, miserable, and, frankly, unbearable.

Seeking to better understand this phenomenon, I had several conversations with professors and students concerning the growing lack of care for proper presentation and well-being.

Professor Patrick Deneen, political science professor who wears a suit and tie to class each day, commented: “I have noticed growing evidence of poor dress and comportment both in and outside of the classroom. Many more students are wearing sweatpants, baseball hats, and even what appear to be pajamas in public areas.”

This casual attire communicates—perhaps unintentionally—a lack of care that seems at tension with the beautiful university campus around us, especially one with such high academic standards.

Dr. Craig Iffland, Notre Dame Business Honors Program Director and Postdoctoral Teaching Scholar told me: “We dress well when we want to impress, or at least, to communicate the seriousness with which we take the interaction with others … If one’s current ‘job’ is to be a student, it should be treated with the same seriousness with which one would treat a summer internship. Your dress should match that reality.”

Dressing up and taking care of yourself have psychological and practical benefits. While we may discount the phrase “dress for success” as reductionist, many studies actually show a strong positive correlation between how well someone dresses and their daily overall cognitive functioning. Dressing professionally increases confidence and, as a result, success. Furthermore, considerable research has shown that sleep, eating habits, and dress have a tremendous effect on social perception and academic performance.

Iffland added: “We register and react—perhaps unconsciously—to the dress of others. If a student dresses with some level of style and elegance, it will be noticed by his or her professors and peers alike.”

As students pursue an education at this university, they should want to portray themselves as confident in their beauty, abilities, and talents on a daily basis. Professor Deneen agreed: “Good dress, comportment, and manners are not simply a sign of respect for professors or authority figures—they are expressions of respect for one’s peers and for oneself.” He added, “I try to dress well in my classes, to show my students that I have respect for them and for our shared effort to explore the ideas and material that we are studying. I treat my classroom as a place of high seriousness, and hope my example inspires the same among students—an example that I hope will continue in their professional and social lives. I appreciate when students show respect for me, for their peers, and for themselves, by doing the same.”

Beyond just attire, the stereotypical college student uses schoolwork to justify an unkempt appearance as well as an unhealthy caffeine addiction, utter deficiency of sleep, poor eating habits, irresponsible communication, and lack of time management. There seems to be a misconception that those who don’t have the time to take care of themselves are those who work the hardest. In a world so focused on academic and economic success, time spent maintaining appearance or well-being is considered wasted time.

Senior Maggie Laurence observed: “This unhealthy expectation often comes from a perversion of the beautiful Catholic mission at the heart of the University … There’s a call to give ourselves to others which is easily warped by an atmosphere of unhealthy competition and fear of failure, fear of our worth being entangled with how many majors we have, how many credits we can take in a semester, how few hours of sleep we got last night.”

Unfortunately, the competitive nature of Notre Dame’s academics can translate into an unhealthy desire to overcommit ourselves. We often portray, and expect, the university lifestyle to be one where every day has to be a struggle, and we vie for the attention and pity we receive in proclaiming how miserable our lives are.

So what is the solution to a culture that praises work over well-being and perception over reality? Instead of using difficult circumstances to glorify ourselves as pseudo-martyrs, we need to find the root of the chaos and work to resolve it. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians, instructs Christians to “do everything without grumbling,” for it is our suffering that leads to our sanctification. If we only ever see and point out the negative, we are blind to the goodness in our lives—the peace, stability, and beauty that we are created for.

Education is important and worth being taken seriously. In a small way, the clothes we wear can reflect the importance of our studies. Dressing professionally for a university class puts one into the right mindset for what they are here to do. The privilege we have of attending a prestigious institution with highly esteemed professors should not be taken for granted, and we can indicate our gratitude—and our dignity—through our dress.

Iffland emphasized the importance of caring for oneself: “Every person is an unrepeatable gift, beloved by God, and a person’s public dress should provide some external manifestation of that reality, reminding others of his or her intrinsic value and dignity.”

I’m not saying we must always look perfect and perform flawlessly, but we should always strive to live an ordered life, both internally and externally. Laurence offered this advice: “Giving yourself to the point of exhaustion and defeat is not God’s will. God desires us to give all of ourselves, yes, but He also desires our health and a balance in Him.” Perpetuating a culture that  glorifies those who accept their dysfunctional and exhausted state as merely their permanent condition of life is not the key to success, much less the key to peace and happiness.

Merlot Fogarty is a sophomore studying political science, theology, and constitutional studies. While she definitely confesses to an atrocious sleep schedule and far too much caffeine, she’d love to chat about balancing sleep, work, and appearance while succeeding at Notre Dame. Contact her via mshorey@nd.edu