Why studying in university make students unhappy?

When I was in NTU(Nanyang Technological University), I was excelling academically, hitting the dean’s list and living off my scholarship, much to the envy of my friends, but that didn’t make me a happy student by default. Apart from post-exam excitement which lasts only for a brief period of time, I noticed many people are sulking most of the time as well. There was a common thread to the widespread unhappiness. Yet, being happy have many benefits such as attracting great people to our lives, staying healthy and studying better.  Here, I list the top 7 reasons why studying in a Singapore university can cause one to be unhappy and how to in turn, be happy:

Comparing & Competing

Happiness researcher, Shawn Achor who counsels Harvard students found them to be among the most unhappy creatures on planet earth. (Who would have thought that these extremely smart people with a sparklingly bright future would be so discontented? )

Here’s what Shawn Achor said: No matter how happy they were with their original success of getting into the school, two weeks later their brains were focused, not on the privilege of being there, nor on their philosophy or their physics. Their brain was focused on the competition, the workload, the hassles, the stresses, the complaints.

I came from polytechnic and being able to enter a local university was a privilege for me, but as soon as I entered university, I began thinking that it is not enough. I need to obtain a first class honors, I need to secure branded internships and I need to be a leader in my CCA. When I fell short of my(maybe not my) expectations and lagged behind my peers, I forgotten about my initial success and turned grumpy. I struggled with this especially since I grew up in a family where I was frequently put side by side with my cousins. Comparison has been ingrained in me over time.

Do you still remember how excited you were when you first entered school or when you just receive your acceptance letter? You don’t. What is more vivid in your mind now is what you don’t have or fail to do. Achieving more will not solve the problem, it will only deepen it, and the vicious cycle never ends. It takes time to over-write what has been part of your consciousness for the longest time and there’s no quick fix unfortunately, especially in ‘kiasu’ Singapore. The only way to break out is to remind yourself of your own success and to pay no heed to your peers’ accomplishments.

No meaning in their course

The thought of going to lectures causes you to lose your appetite. You don’t find yourself having the natural urge to want to learn beyond the scope of the syllabus.  You don’t see the meaning behind acquiring all these knowledge. You weighed your options and found out that it is probably not wise to switch course. Don’t despair and beat yourself for choosing the wrong course, since 90% of people choose a course based on grades, not on passion.


Thankfully, you are in university and there’s plenty of resources for you to explore your interest. You don’t have to be unhappy. Take electives!! If you are in NTU or NUS, you can take any class from any faculty without fearing that it will pull down your GPA. I took creative writing, philosophy, social media and even surfing classes!  Check out our reviews on NTU electives and NUS modules. Best thing about university is that there is no costs involved in trying something new. Sign up for workshops, be part of campus newspaper or join a club to do what makes your heart sings.  Listen to Steve Jobs, Keep trying and don’t settle until you find what you like. A meaningful university life is a happy one.


alone and independent
© Thomas Leuthard

In university, you meet different people in different classes and there’s hardly any formation of a clique, unlike in JC or polytechnic.  After lesson, everyone disperses in all directions, some to have meals with their hall or CCA mates, others to project meetings. I was having lunch with myself a lot. Sure there were project meetings but it was all about serious stuff. So one day, I took the initiative to ask my project mates and classmates to have lunches together. Surprisingly, they obliged. I discovered that most of them were also having their lunches by themselves and looking for company.  Then we found ourselves ‘talking cock’ and laughing together, often by making fun of professors. It takes my mind off the intensive workload throughout the semester. All it took was one person to open his mouth.   As Aristotle said, Man is by nature a social animal, everyone needs to socialize to be happy !

System Problem  

University life functions as a zero-sum game. One example is the bell curve system. If you score A, then one lesser person could get it. Naturally, you pray that she scores B, or better yet, she flunks the exam. And when she scores an A, you become unhappy because you don’t get what you want.   Not only does the exam foster unhappiness, so does the internship landscape. If your friend gets the only internship position with Barclays, that leaves you with one from POSB. Your friend has snatched your toy away from you and there’s a lack of toys to go around.

This is the scarcity mindset plaguing the university scene, ignited by the system in place. It is the idea that there is not enough of everything. It creates a dog-eat-dog world and makes for a very depressing environment. How to game the system ? You have to be an anomaly and start to adopt an abundance mindset- the thinking that others’ fortune is not your demise. It is hard and takes practice. Help your friends in their homework. Kindness begets kindness. What comes around goes around. Who knows? They may help you get an internship. If they don’t, its fine. You become happier in the process.

Peer Pressure

While teaching presentations skills to JC students on one occasion, I posed a simple question to the class and a moment of silence ensued, which is not unexpected.  After a while, one of the students finally raised her hand and gave the correct answer which earned her a praise from me. What followed was inconceivable. The other kids in the class began roaring and echoing unanimously something to the effect of “teacher’s pet.” She kept silent throughout the whole class after that.


 While students do become more mature in university, peer pressure never dies. An experiment by Stowell in 2010 found hand-raised answers to controversial questions to be less diverse than anonymous electronic clicker responses in classrooms. University students “dummy down” to act more like his friends. They have at times answered questions incorrectly in class, on purpose, to be more like peer group. Peer pressure is debilitating as it prevents a person from pursuing a course that she likes, performing an act of kindness and putting a smile on her face(because everyone frowns).

 If you join a course, class, CCA or answered a question incorrectly because your friends did so, you can’t expect yourself to be happy. Happiness is impossible when you keep denying yourself.  Life is short, do something for yourself, not for others.

“At 20 we worry about what others think of us. At 40 we don’t care what others think of us. At 60 we discover they haven’t been thinking about us at all.”


Not going for exchange (or just came back from exchange)

When I was in university, I went for 2 exchange programs, one to SMU and the other to San Diego State University in US. Escaping from the bell curve was a breather for me, but ultimately that doesn’t bring up happiness drastically. The key was novelty. Having been in NTU for 2 years, I was getting bored with the food, the environment and the courses. When I went for exchange, I got to see the world from the eyes of a baby. It was a whole new place for me and I was happy everyday. YOLO !

If financial consideration is holding you back from going for a semester-long program, go for shorter ones such as summer studies, prelude or even work and study ! If you still want to maximize happiness without having loansharks knocking on your door, find out how a fellow student who is not well-heeled manage to fund his exchange program himself. It is possible.

back to reality

There’s another problem, which is that happiness last for only as long as the duration of the exchange program.  When I came back from exchange, I got unhappy. Who would be happy to leave paradise ? It was not until I saw this quote that things begin to brighten up.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” – Dr. Seuss

Again, its about being grateful for having the opportunity to embark on this once-in-a-lifetime trip and not dwelling on the negatives.

Numbers run their Lives  

In secondary school, the L1R5 is everything. When you go to JC, your UAS makes or breaks you. Upon entering university, GPA is the center of your universe. Sure, the numbers are important but sometimes, we take them too seriously. According to top HR executive in Singapore, Lee Jin Hwui, a first class honors does not have any more impact come mid career. It is your attitude that matters more than anything.

However, the society loves to label you with a number – “Mary is a 4.7 student, John is only a 3 “ , but joy comes when you transcend the digits tag and realize that you are more than just ‘something point something’.  I have been getting As on my results slip all my life and grew addicted to it. I remember going into a state of depression for one whole week when I got an A- for a paper, until I recognize how unhealthy it is mentally. I decided to stop it. My breakthrough came when I got a ‘B’ for my accountancy mid terms and was not unhappy. I was happy because I was no longer unhappy with a less-than-perfect grade.


If you allow it to, the addiction will follow you even after graduation- you obsess over the number of zeros in your bank account now. After that, you go through the cycle again. You become consumed with your kids’ numbers- what is their L1R5, UAS, GPA etc and until the day you die, numbers govern you.  It is liberating when you finally put a stop to the numbers game and say ‘I am having my life back’.

Stop delaying your Happiness 

At the end of the day, Happiness boils down to meaningful work and meaningful relationship. Find meaning behind what you are learning in school and make meaningful connection with your university mates and you will have a great time.  However, recognize that you are going to be unhappy sometimes. Human brain is geared for survival, not for happiness and it will always focus on the negativity such as competition, workload and stress. To counter that, you have to make a conscious deliberate effort to remind yourself of the things in life that you take for granted.  Keep a success journal and a gratitude journal. For every one reason you have to be sad, there are 101 other reasons you have to be happy. Write down the 101 other reasons. Through practice, not more As in my transcript, I learnt to be a happier student in spite of the gloom epidemic prevailing in campus. You can do it too !

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  1. This is a refreshing insight for someone half my age! My teenage son is in an IP school and he has to work really hard to keep his grades. He tells me his friends don’t do their assignments and never seem to study but they score as well as him. To that, I tell him I am proud of his diligence and to keep doing what works for him. That’s is all that matters. At the end of the day, it is still just a number. Financial intelligence is what will ultimately decide if one achieves financial independence, the ticket out of the rat race!

  2. days have gone by and my initial enthusiasm and positive outlook and altruistic actions have since waned… even turned to malice, jealousy and negativeness to my friends. pressures to keep my scholarship has gotten to me i guess. thanks for writing this article which made me remember what i have forgotten, and to perhaps start finding what i have lost. :)


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