Skip to main content

Grads Get Pomp and ... Depression

Photo taken by Aaron Murphy. (a51media) There are no usage restrictions for this photo

Over the next few weeks, millions of young people will graduate from college.

There will be pomp, there will be circumstance, and apparently there will also be lots of depression.

University of Alberta researchers have discovered that happiness isn’t exactly handed out with the diplomas. Instead, it takes years and years in the "real world" for ex-students to achieve the happy life a university education was supposed to guarantee. And so this major step in life, one designed to open all doors, can feel more like a door slamming you right in the kisser.

The only other presumed positive life event that sometimes bring on depression afterwards is giving birth. What makes having a baby and getting an education so similar? That's obvious — both events come with high expectations that are quickly dashed by worry, crying, endless demands by others, sleepless nights, and fear of responsibility.

That's what we get for being alive.

The human life cycle is marked by biological milestones. Every human is conceived, born, hits puberty, spends a lot of time as an adult, and then ages and dies. There is no denying, nor stopping, this biological progression.

People in every culture mark these universal biological developments with cultural ceremonies. We throw baby showers and birthday parties. We mark puberty and the ability to reproduce with cleansing ceremonies, special jewelry, and a change of clothing as children become adults. We marry each other amid big white dresses, champagne and the chicken dance, expecting the couple to go off and multiply. We burn our dead in elaborate pyres with the community looking on.

College graduation is simply another coming of age ceremony, albeit a delayed one, and so no wonder this stepping stone is more like falling off a cliff than stepping on a stable stone. One day young people are working hard for a dream, and the next minute they are thrown from the nest and told to fly.

And some of them can't. The University of Alberta study also showed that college grads who return home to live are more depressed than those who take on the challenge of making it on their own, and that women are more depressed than men.

Of course they are. Ending up at home, clueless, after all that expense and all those years of studying would make anyone feel like a fool. And after the rarified air of equal education, women grads suddenly face the real world where there is no such thing as equality.

Although it looks like an education, it's actually four (or more) years of unreality, time in the Ivory Tower that suspends the natural progression of the human life cycle. No wonder it takes years to climb down from that tower, off that cloud and get on with life. As the researchers also discovered, seven years after graduation, most people have gotten over college and are mentally healthy.

So graduating class of 2008, here's my personal congratulations: Pick up your diploma, hug your parents, turn in the cap and gown and come join the rest of us on the rollercoaster of life that sometimes goes up, up, up in happiness, and sometimes tumbles down into the depth of sadness. But it's the only ride we've got. Welcome back.

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).

Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves". She is a contributor to Live Science.