Avoiding the Existential Attitude (aka The College Student Blues)

Nov 19, 2018 | 20-Somethings, Choosing a Major, College Students, College Students

It’s the end of fall, which means the holiday season is nearly upon us. As a college career coach, I’ve noticed that this is a particularly busy time for me and a particularly angsty time for my clients. There is some magical combination of approaching finals, family holidays, and being a college student (usually a junior) that sends everyone into an emotional tailspin. The most common question I get at this time of year is, “What’s the point of all this?”

This line of questioning stems from what’s known as an “existential attitude,” which author Robert Solomon defines as “a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.” This existential attitude, which I think of as “mental malaise,” leads students to suffer from anxiety, depression, and a general lack of excitement about college and their studies.

Mental malaise manifests in college students in a number of ways:

  • Sleeping late and skipping class
  • Declining grades and poor test scores
  • Feeling disconnected from one’s classes or overall field of study
  • Pulling away from opportunities, friends, and family

Why does this mental malaise show up around junior year of college?

It seems that by declaring a major they suddenly feel committed to a path. For the first time ever, they’ve had to put a stake in the ground about who they are and what they want to do. Suddenly, classes become more focused and vocational, and instead of working on those “gen ed” credits, students are diving into the meat of their chosen major. If they love what they’re doing, things tend to go well. Students who are unsure or dislike their classes, however, are much likelier to have an attack of Existential Dread.

Existential Dread is another form of anxiety, focused on the future and one’s place in the world. If a student find his or her way into my office exhibiting symptoms of this phenomenon, we get started right away, trying to figure it out and alleviate the negative feelings.  As someone who uses various meditation and lifestyle practices to manage stress, I am a big fan of sharing these kinds of ideas with my clients.

It’s also important to tackle the issue that brought them to me head-on, so we spend a lot of time deconstructing the feelings they’re having around their major or field of study. Many students struggle with a perceived gap between what they thought their field of study would be like and the reality of their current coursework. The bottom line is: if you’re not sure if your major is right for you, it’s probably because:

  1. You lack a personal connection to the field of study; or
  2. You don’t have enough information about the major and aren’t sure where you’re going with it.
  3. You have listened to too many people say, “You should be a …..”

Exercise: Getting Acquainted With Your Field of Study

If you find yourself disconnected from or disenchanted by your major, you need to do some digging to figure out why. Take yourself through the following questions, allowing plenty of time to reflect on and write out your answers:

 

  • Why did I choose this major?
  • What does it mean to me to be in this field of study?
  • What jobs do I see myself doing with this degree?
  • Which ones sound good to me?
  • What about my personality is a good fit for this course of study and subsequent career paths?
  • How does this field of study align with my values or interests?

 

Sometimes what students discover is that they are connected to their major but are struggling with specific coursework or a particular class. Careful consideration of the problem can help students differentiate between a difficult topic or a challenging teacher, and an existential career crisis.

This kind of reflection brings students a great deal of clarity. Often it helps students fall in love with their major, as they find that deeper level of connection to what they want to do. Other times, it illuminates clearly for students that they are on the wrong path and need to seek advice to change to a more appropriate major ASAP.

Either way, students who take the time to ask probing questions develop answers that are consistent and confident. And there is nothing better than sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table and having a confident answer to your Uncle Joe’s question, “ So young man, what are you going to do when you graduate?”