Uni is a training ground to learn how to exist in a psychologically demanding world


There was once a time in human history, where the main challenges of life were physical ones: securing shelter, accessing and preparing food and water, working to build stuff, raising kids and livestock (not quite the same things).

Life was physically demanding. It took great effort and energy to obtain the basics needed for life. Few of the luxuries we take for granted now were available to shorten or remove the effort required to work and raise a family.

In a modern economy like Australia, that is not the case for most of us anymore. Sure there are those who work in physically demanding jobs (e.g. building, farming) but most of us have it physically quite easy.

So much so, that the main health issues we experience now are ones born of sedentary behaviour.

We made things so physically easy that we now pay money to attend ‘gyms’ where we can go into a room and exert ourselves physically. Shout out to Flinders Sport and Fitness!

But whilst life has generally got far less physically demanding, I’d argue that it is has got increasingly psychologically demanding.

From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep your mind is in full swing.

On any given day you need to:

  • create and follow a schedule
  • direct your attention and concentration to solving difficult problems as part of your work or study
  • maintain attention and concentration for extended periods of time
  • navigate the complexities of interpersonal relationships
  • find a way to sift through and attend to the huge amount of information coming in via media, social media, advertisers
  • tttend to your health and mental health through good habits and choices
  • complete the normal activities of daily living like manage your finances
  • resist impulses to eat crappy food, drink too much alcohol, take drugs and randomly punch annoying people in the face
  • abide by the laws of where you live
  • conform (at least somewhat) to the cultural expectations of where you live and work
  • cope with the inevitable setbacks and challenges that life will give you
  • carry difficult memories or past experiences with you
  • manage existential anxieties relating to death and climate change and war and Armageddon (that really bad movie)
  • deal with rapid societal, technological and cultural change

Now you’d think that with all these psychological challenges facing us each day that we’d be thinking GODS!

But not all of these psychological demands make us stronger.

For example, the incessant media and social media barrage can overwhelm us, and take our attention away from activities that are more psychologically nurturing (e.g. time with loved ones). Rapid technological and cultural changes make it difficult to achieve a sense of stillness and certainty. And high overall psychological demands make it hard to ever find time to mentally rest.

And we aren’t necessarily taught how to approach all of these competing demands. I consider myself lucky that I studied a degree like psychology which indirectly gave me some tools to understand and manage some of the psychological demands of life. But many don’t get this kind of education.


Well that all sounds horrible Gareth, do you have any good news?

Yes, I do.

The good news is that the university experience, done right, is an excellent training ground to prepare oneself for the challenges of a psychologically demanding and changing future.

At the simplest level, the degree you study will give you the knowledge and skills required to work in a specific field and earn a living. That might sound relatively banal, but it isn’t. Having skills that are valued in the broader marketplace can be the difference between a shitty low-paid job you hate versus a rewarding, well-paid job that you like.

At the next level, the discipline required to complete a degree is discipline that you’ll be able to apply to other areas of your life. Every time you schedule time to study, complete an assignment on time, prepare for an exam, do a group assignment, attend a placement, you are playing out the skills necessary to function as a contributing member of society. You might think ‘that was just an assignment’ but actually it was you practising time management, information gathering, information synthesis, report preparation, concise communication, critical thinking and applied learning (and possibly a lot more skills).

And at another level above that, university study can change how you think. You’ll leave university better able to:

  • take multiple perspectives
  • consider different sides of an argument
  • distinguish good from bad information
  • think critically about important issues
  • keep an open mind
  • approach problems with a clear process for solving them

And it doesn’t stop at the level of your degree.

Universities are a fertile social training ground. Universities have a complex mix of people, so you get to practice interacting with many different people during your time here. Some of them will be awesome. Some of them will be assholes. I can tell you that life outside of university contains a similarly challenging mix.

Finally, modern universities, like Flinders offer a lot more than just degrees. There are events and clubs and organisations and programs that seek to give you new experiences, social and intellectual, that allow you to build skills beyond just those of your degree. For example, Horizon Awards teach work-ready skills. We teach wellbeing and productivity skills. You can supplement your degree with other life skills and knowledge.


What skills I want you to learn…

If I were to try and articulate (very succinctly) what skills I’d like you to learn about wellbeing and productivity during your time here, it is probably the following:

  1. Habit formation – learn how to embed practices that enhance your health and wellbeing into your daily routine
  2. Being able to tell the difference between psychologically demanding (that fatigue you) and psychologically nurturing (that energise you) activities and ensure you have a balance of both in your life
  3. Willingness and ability to self-reflect and learn lessons about yourself along the way and use what you learn to make improvements to yourself over time
  4. That you can build mental fitness in the same way as you build physical fitness

I’m sure that on another day of the week, I might include other lessons, but these are a good start.


So how do you do this?

Start by just trying to engage a little more with your degree. Dig a little further into topics. Spend a little more time on each assignment. Keep a learning journal documenting what you are learning about your discipline but also yourself as you go along.

Experiment with different ways of organising your ‘typical day’. See whether you can build exercise, good food, good sleep, self-care alongside your studies. Don’t fret when it doesn’t work out quite right. Just keep experimenting and see what works and what doesn’t. The goal is not ‘the perfect day’. The goal is an understanding of the mechanics of building balance into your life.

If you have the time and mental energy, reach out on a semi-regular basis and engage in some additional learning – Oasis OnlineHealth, Counselling and Disability Newsletter – Horizon – FUSA. Don’t go overboard though. Some students create an unmanageable schedule for themselves and burnout. Add new experiences gently and thoughtfully.


Final words

I’ve wanted to write a piece on the psychological demands of daily life for a while now.

Part of my own personal wellbeing journey has involved identifying which of the things I have in my life are psychologically demanding versus psychologically rejuvenating and rejigging the balance of these two.

I don’t see life getting any less psychologically demanding, but I do see people learning how to better manage those demands. For some it is pulling back from media and social media. For others it is increasing the time spend in rejuvenating activities (e.g. arts, crafts, reading etc). There are many ways that a person might seek to reduce the psychological demands in their life.

My invitation to you is to start this process now, whilst you are in one of the best places and stages of life to do so.

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Psychological Tools Random Gareth Pontifications

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