Striving for the Perfect Balance

Monday, July 2, 2018
Catherine Morin

A growing number of sociologists, anthropologists and mental health specialists claim that society has become obsessed with performance and has established overly high achievements standards. More and more people struggle to find balance between extremes as they try to meet these expectations. Has life turned into a quest for perfection? Is a successful yet balanced lifestyle still worth considering?

A dedication towards perfection undoubtedly helps us achieve great results. Setting high standards for ourselves is essential to earn the respect and trust of others and to create a quality life. However, in recent years, we may have become too obsessed with making every single aspect of our lives perfect.

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The first study to examine differences in perfectionism over the years found that young people's desire to be flawless has significantly increased over the past three decades.

The report, called Perfectionism is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016, shows that today's college-age students are much more likely to have perfectionist tendencies than previous generations.

Lead author Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and co-author Andrew Hill of York St. John University analyzed data from over 41 000 college students in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, dating from 2016 back to 1989.

The researchers investigated three kinds of perfectionism and observed how they had evolved over time.

The results showed a 10% increase in self-judgement, a 16% increase in placing unrealistic standards on others and a 33% increase in feeling judged by society for not being perfect.

Curran and Hill speculate that this may be because Western culture has become more individualistic and materialistic over these decades, and that young people now face more competitive environments and more unrealistic expectations than generations before.

Today's increasingly competitive job market may contribute to these tendencies.

As Curran and Hill mention in their report, only about 50% of high school seniors in America were expected to earn a college degree in 1976. In 2008, that number had risen to 80%. Last year, the United States Census Bureau reported that American adults had reached the highest education levels since 1940, with more than one third of the population having a bachelor's degree or higher.

This has created a fierce competition among degree holders that seems to exacerbate people's desire to strive for perfection.

With the abundance of skilled labor force, recruiters choose those with the highest degrees and best qualifications. This possibly results in people setting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves.

For many people, this kind of system implies that those who work the hardest and have the most prestigious academic backgrounds can get the best careers, lifestyles and social statuses.

Striving for excellence is actively encouraged and rewarded in Western culture. People are taught from a very young age to base their lives on this principle. As a result, many can feel compelled to demonstrate their merit, and may come to define themselves in the strict terms of personal achievement.

This culture confers a burden for parents. On top of their own duty to succeed, they are also responsible for the achievements of their children. In a 2015 study, researchers from Ghent University and University of Montreal found that today's parents tend to invest their self-worth in their child's performance. This propensity may be related to their perception of society's expectations, according to the report.

“Should a young person be unable to navigate an increasingly competitive social milieu, then it is not just their failure, it is also the parents’ failure,” study authors mention. 

In a culture that emphases social standing and monetary wealth, some parents may feel extreme pressure to raise successful kids. This can possibly explain why more and more parents spend considerable sums to give their children an elite private education.

Celebration of hard work and exceptional achievements may also explain why extreme working hours have been getting more widespread in recent decades. In the United States, 87% of men and 67% of women currently work more than 40 hours per week.

With no laws setting the maximum length of the work week, these long hours have somehow become normal and expected for employees in certain industries including banking, high-technologies, law and medicine. Those who put in the long work hours show that they are eager to learn and climb the corporate ladder.

Employees are often encouraged by more senior staff to push out 12 to 15 hours a day, rarely taking a lunch break away from their desk. More and more workers stay extremely late and compete with their colleagues night after night.

Image Credit: The Future Leadership Institute

Such habits inevitably result in reduced sleep time, which has also become a badge of honor. A growing number of organizations seem to promote a sleep deprivation culture, and professionals who deal with increased workloads tend to consider sleep as a waste of time and an obstacle to productivity.

Many famous leaders and executives even tout their lack of sleep as the key to their success.

Curran and Hill believe that the rise in perfectionist tendencies among college students account for the age group's record levels of mental-health issues reported by the World Health Organization, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

The researchers found that a great part of the perfectionism results from the participants' need to measure up to their peers. Many of them tend to obsess over winning the validation of others and demonstrate their worth through flawless performances.

As perfection is an impossible goal, those who constantly strive to reach it inevitably set themselves up for failure, and end up experiencing anxiety, guilt and shame about their perceived inadequacies.

In a world where status, image and performance define an individual's value and usefulness, irrational ideals of the perfect self have become highly desirable.

Online marketing campaigns offer multiple material and cosmetic solutions to the flawed consumer, while social media allow everyone to present an idealistic version of themselves and their lifestyle.

While it may seem a little too easy to blame the quest for perfection on technology and social media, some revealing facts cannot be ignored.

Technology as a Performance Indicator

It is possible to think that constant social media usage has somehow conditioned us to think of our public life as a performance. That would explain why we know exactly how it feels to come across publications and start to envy other people's social gatherings, holidays and achievements.

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It can also be the reason why we constantly seek recognition and validation on social platforms, even though we know it ultimately leads to feelings of isolation.

Justin Rosenstein, the engineer who created the Facebook “like” button, described “likes” as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure.” Now, he radically restricts his use of social media and other applications over addiction fears.

Rosenstein has blocked Reddit on his computer, deleted the Facebook app from his phone and banned himself from Snapchat, which he compares to heroin. Last year, he even asked his assistant to set up parental controls on his phone to keep him from downloading new applications. 

The “like” feature was instantly successful when Rosenstein and his colleagues introduced it in 2007 to allow users to “send little bits of positivity” across Facebook.

The former Facebook engineer explains that people enjoy the short-term boost they get from giving and receiving social affirmation. At the same time, Facebook collects valuable data about the preferences of users that can be sold to advertisers. The concept has since then been copied by Instagram, Twitter and multiple other social platforms.

Image Credit: TechCrunch

Rosenstein aimed to forge a system that guides people into certain behaviors. He thought that responding to people's need for quick and constant feedback with a new feature would lead them to exhibit different kinds of behaviors unconsciously.

He now admits that this system has brought about behaviors that he had not planned for. He acknowledges feeling uneasy when he sees people constantly staring at their phone to look at Facebook notifications.

Rosenstein is part of a growing number of Silicon Valley employees who have grown critical of the products that they helped make omnipresent. “It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences,” he told The Guardian in 2017.

The 34-year-old even states that it is particularly important for him and his fellow Silicon Valley heretics to talk about this issue now because they may be the last generation that can remember life before these apps.

Image Credit: The Financial Express

Constantly driven by online standards and feedback, people become addicted to their phones, and end up using them as performance measuring devices.

A 2016 study by qualitative research platform DScout revealed that people touch, tap or swipe their phone 2 716 times a day on average. Heaviest users can interact with their phones up to 5427 times each day.

Curran and Hill's report indicates that young people are struggling to cope with a visual culture that emphases unrealistic body ideals. The most recent cohort data from the United States and the United Kingdom show that incidence of body dysmorphia and eating disorders has risen by approximately 30% among teenage girls since the advent of social media. In the same countries, increasing numbers of young people are having plastic surgery.

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Technology also measures and establishes standards for physical performance.

Today, taking care of our bodies means monitoring them. From Fitbit watches to sleep tracking applications, a huge array of new technologies can be used to measure every aspect of our health. Fitness apps are probably the most popular.

Thousands of people use them to track their efforts over time, set goals they want to achieve and compare their progress with their friends'.

Self-tracking can be extremely appealing because it gives an illusion of self-control, combined with the tempting prospect of self-improvement. This may reinforce the current belief that good health is a matter of individual effort and choice.

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By setting standards based on precise data, health monitoring applications promote the idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to live life, making more and more people feel like they need to make radical changes to meet defined benchmarks.

The obsessive focus on numbers entailed in fitness tracking can possibly foster an unhealthy relationship to exercise. It is also possible to think that relying exclusively on numerical statistics, such as miles run, steps taken or calories burnt, can ultimately alienate users from their own bodily signals.

The competition inherent in sharing exercise statistics with friends could promote an attitude towards working out that discounts users' own bodily limits and fatigue. As each human being has unique needs and capacities, these standardized applications may set goals that are not appropriate for some individuals.

In a 2017 study, psychologists at the Virginia Commonwealth University highlighted associations between use of fitness trackers and eating disorder symptoms. The researchers recruited 493 undergraduate students who reported their height and weight and filled out a questionnaire measuring eating disorder symptoms. They were then asked whether or not they used any kind of fitness or calorie tracking technology.

The psychologists found that the use of fitness tracking devices predicted an increase in eating disorder symptoms, namely exercise addiction.

Such results, authors of the study point out, “suggest that fitness tracking technology might be a mechanism for promoting exercise for appearance rather than health reasons.” While working out for health does not need to be excessive, most fitness monitoring applications encourage physical activity without rest days or time limits.

“This is potentially concerning,” the researchers explain, “as exercising for appearance reasons is associated with negative health outcomes, and excessive exercise can lead to injury and exhaustion. ”

Even if fitness apps are used in a healthy way, the standards they set can create an “all or nothing” mentality that can make it difficult to set realistic, achievable targets.

A study published by the American Medical association in 2016 found that young adults who used fitness monitors actually lost less weight than those who did not use them during the same period of time. The main theory was that people who wore the trackers may have given up and become less active when it was clear, according to the device, that they would not reach their goal.

Setting our Own Expectations

In a world where exceptional achievements are constantly praised, any form of moderation can easily be perceived as laziness or weakness of will. People can therefore have a hard time making decisions in their best interests. 

In an article published in Harvard Business Review earlier this month, CEO of 20-first and author Avivah Wittenberg-Cox explains that it is possible to find a balance between doing nothing and doing too much by setting personal standards of living.

Image Credit: The Chief Executive

She thinks that one of the best ways to create a high quality life is to determine on which beliefs and principles we should base our goals, and which actions we must take to achieve these objectives.

Instead of letting society's preferences dictate the decisions we make, we should focus on finding ways to respond to our own expectations. “Today, I am neither super rich nor super fit nor super successful,” she writes. “But I have just enough of each to qualify in my own personal marathon, the race for a balanced life.

The Perfect Balance

While there is nothing wrong with reaching for success and wanting the best for our families and ourselves, trying to conform to unrealistic standards set by an increasingly technology-driven society can significantly affect our quality of life.

Finding a healthy middle ground is possibly the best way to leverage the upsides of having high expectations while mitigating the negative effects it can have on our well-being. Putting our strives to positive use requires establishing our own guiding principles and defining which achievements can help us learn and grow in all aspects of our lives.