Admission professionals know that succeeding in college takes more than good grades or stellar test scores. No matter the school or the major, students who are happy and healthy are better positioned to make the most of higher education.
In December, Tim Bono, a psychologist and faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis (MO), joined #NACACreads to chat about strategies that support student mental health and well-being.
His book—When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness—covers more than 100 studies related to positive psychology that reveal empirically based, yet simple, lifestyle choices students can make to increase their productivity and well-being day to day. It also features stories of students who have found ways to translate that research into practice in their own lives.
“The students who seem to have the most successful transitions to college take all of the hype around what the college experience is ‘supposed to be’ with a grain of salt,” said Bono, whose book was re-released this month under a new title, Happiness 101: Simple Secrets to Smart Living & Well-Being. “To be sure, college will be a wonderful time in your life. But it’s not just about going to parties, living away from home, throwing a Frisbee in the quad, and exploring a new city. Inevitably you will also face setbacks, and part of what will make college wonderful will be in the way you develop resilience to overcome them, and prioritize other behaviors that can strengthen your psychological health.”
Bono took time out of his busy schedule to chat about strategies for building happiness, the dangers of social media, and why experiencing failure may be the best gift a student could receive.
Historically, the field of psychology has given a lot of attention to mental disorders and what can go wrong with a person. But the strategies necessary for correcting errors are different from the strategies for building happiness. Positive psychology gives attention to the behaviors and mindsets that can proactively build a sense of well-being in our lives.
Part of the reason social media can threaten our psychological health is because it has become a vehicle for social comparison. It’s hard to be happy if we constantly concern ourselves with how we measure up to those around us. This is something psychologists knew long before the days of smartphones, but the advent of social media has inundated us with opportunities for social comparison at every turn. Within moments of reaching for our phones, we have instant access to others’ accomplishments, vacations, job promotions, home upgrades, and culinary creations. Scrolling through the highlight reels our friends’ posts naturally fills us with envy because of the things we now want. It’s no wonder so much research has linked heavy social media use to stress, anxiety, depression, homesickness, and social isolation.
It’s important for college students to keep their expectations realistic. The year leading up to the start of college likely was filled with campus visits, tours, and glossy brochures depicting universities as idyllic centers of “the best four years of your life.” But if you believe that college is going to be amazing, perfect, and four years of uninterrupted bliss, you are likely setting yourself up for disappointment (and potentially even a mental breakdown)...Inevitably you will face challenging coursework, difficult roommate situations, anxiety, homesickness, and loneliness. Some students are caught off guard—and are even indignant—when challenging experiences come up, but the most successful students recognize those challenges as par for the course. Instead of running away from their troubles, they reach out to peers, advisers, and professors to get help developing the psychological strength to withstand such adversity. That kind of resilience will be an important skill for your success both during college and in your life beyond.
YOU HAVE TALKED ABOUT “FAILING BETTER”—WHICH ISN’T EXACTLY A TOPIC THAT AUTOMATICALLY SPRINGS TO MIND WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT HAPPINESS. WHAT DO YOU WISH MORE STUDENTS KNEW ABOUT FAILURE? HOW DOES IT RELATE TO LONG-TERM SUCCESS AND HAPPINESS?
As I alluded to earlier, part of psychological health involves having coping strategies for life’s hardships. Included in this mindset is a realistic understanding that failure and adversity are parts of any person’s path. What often distinguishes the most successful people is not whether they face adversity, but rather when they encountered hardship, how do they respond? Instead of interpreting a setback as a signal of defeat, the most successful people extract meaning from it and use it to fuel future success. They see stumbles along the path as an opportunity to identify where there is still work to be done and what skills they need to develop to be more successful in the future. As Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Remember that the happiest people aren’t happy all the time. Rather, the happiest people understand that life comes with hardship and difficulty, and they have developed strategies that help them cope productively with life’s challenges when things don’t turn out as they hoped or expected. They seek input from a friend, go for a run, write in a journal, listen to their favorite music, or do something else that helps them restore their mood. They also reflect on the experience, work toward developing a greater sense of mastery, and try it again with a new approach.
I do believe the pursuit of happiness is a human universal that transcends time, culture, age, race, education level, financial background, or any demographic characteristic you can measure about a person. The Founding Fathers prioritized the pursuit of happiness among our inalienable rights in the US Constitution more than 200 years ago, and ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle and his contemporaries wrote at length about the good life thousands of years prior. What I believe is unique to today’s young adults are the barriers to achieving well-being that were not as prevalent for previous generations. This is especially the case with technology and social media. In fact, the increase in the proportion of young adults suffering from mental health problems in recent years follows a strikingly similar pattern to the increase in the proportion of young adults who own smartphones and are on social media. As I mentioned earlier, social media poses a lot of problems for our mental health—especially in the way it enables social comparison—and it’s important for us to teach younger generations how to be wise consumers of this technology during their formative years.
Yes, since studying the science of happiness, I have begun a meditation practice, and I also keep a gratitude journal. I have also given much greater priority to sleep, physical activity, and relationships with friends and family. I have developed a much healthier approach toward reframing adversity. I have experienced significant gains in my happiness and overall well-being as a result!
Author Tim Bono participated in a Dec. 11 #NACACreads discussion focused on student mental health and well-bring. View a full transcript of the Twitter chat: http://ow.ly/v8P750xDp3b