Perfectionism is on the rise, and it’s a major cause of mental health issues, study finds

BATH, England — They might say that nobody’s perfect, but don’t tell millennials that. A new study finds that perfectionism is far more prevalent among young adults than previous generations, and the trend is adversely affecting their mental health.

Researchers in the United Kingdom examined data on nearly 42,000 college students from English-speaking countries who had completed the aptly-named Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, a test that measures for the personality trait, from the late 1980s through 2016.

Man fixing tie in mirror
Perfectionism is far more prevalent among millennials than previous generations, and the trend is adversely affecting their mental health, research shows.

The diagnostic, which contains 35 questions, measures three distinct forms of perfectionism: “self-oriented” perfectionism, defined as possessing excessive personal expectations to be perfect; “socially-prescribed” perfectionism, which describes individuals who perceive excessive expectations from others; and “other-oriented” perfectionism, which consists of placing unrealistic expectations on others.

From the beginning to end of the period measured, self-oriented perfectionism scores had risen by 10 percent, socially-prescribed perfectionism scores had risen by 33 percent, and and other-oriented perfectionism scores had risen by 16 percent, the researchers found.

One possible culprit for this increase in idealistic standards is social media, explains lead author Dr. Thomas Curran, as it can lend itself to body dysphoria through enabling social comparisons, while also heightening feelings of social isolation.

Today’s youth also seem to be exhibiting the need to be perfect in vocational, educational, and financial pursuits, Curran notes. For instance, today’s students tend to obsessively weigh their GPA against that of their peers, which can be seen as an indicator of how society increasingly favors meritocracy.

“Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” Curran argues in a release by the American Psychological Association. “Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.”

These expectations are borne out in how over 80 percent of today’s high school graduates expect to eventually earn a college degree, up from about half in the mid-70s.

The flipside to these rising expectations is that they are not always met, best shown by the number of graduating seniors who hope to, but never get another diploma, more than doubling over the past four decades.

“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations,” Curran concludes. “Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.”

Ultimately, unattainable and burdensome expectations may be spurring depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in the next generation, making them feel more miserable than starry-eyed.

Curran et al. published their findings in the journal Psychological Bulletin.