These days, everywhere you turn people are talking about the value of happiness. Some say it improves relationships, aids in longevity, and makes communities more attractive places in which to live.
But what might come as a surprise is that this constant pursuit of being happy actually makes us less happy. Rather than always worrying about whether we should be happy, a more effective and sustainable approach is to focus on building lives of greater well-being. And the sooner we start, the better off we’ll be.
Our vision at George Mason University is to become a model well-being university, a place where students learn what it means to have a well-lived life. At Mason, we define well-being as building a life of vitality, purpose, resilience, and engagement. And we are committed to preparing students to live in an integrated world with a deeper sense of compassion and connection to others.
The purpose of a college degree is not to prepare students to have a happy life. It’s about preparing them to be engaged and responsible citizens, equipping them with knowledge and skills to live their lives authentically with greater meaning and purpose. Yet too often, students begin their college careers selecting an academic major because they want to follow someone else’s path, or they want to please everyone but themselves. It’s not unusual to hear stories of graduates who land a high-paying job on Wall Street only to discover a few years later that their lives are void of passion and purpose.
Focusing on well-being can guide students on the right path for them early. Well-being is about experiencing meaning, pursuing higher goals, giving to others, and thriving. Increasing students’ well-being can lead to greater chances of degree completion and a positive impact on their emotional health.
At Mason, we’re implementing evidence-based practices based on the science of well-being. These practices provide opportunities for students to learn how to become more resilient, more imaginative, and more creative as they solve complex problems. They help students experience the full range of emotions—both positive and negative. And they are critical to understanding what it takes to create and sustain high-quality relationships.
These practices are being implemented through a range of programs and experiences at Mason. For example, the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being hosts a thematic undergraduate residential Living Learning Community called Mindful Living. In this program, students learn and practice how to cope with life’s challenges and manage their stress in productive ways. They keep gratitude journals and even experience improv theatre as a strategy for unleashing their creativity and learning how to invest in the success of others.
Students outside this residential program can explore similar content in the following academic courses: The Foundations of Well-Being and Resilience; Consciousness, Meaning, and Life Purpose; Positive Organizations and Leadership; and Conflict Transformation from Mindfulness Perspectives. Assessment data from the Mindful Living LLC and courses like these show significant student gains in problem solving, stress management, life satisfaction, and purpose.
University Life has created a special peer well-being educator program, which prepares upper-class students to facilitate workshops on topics like resilience, meditation, and strengths deployment. Like a ripple effect, these experiences equip our graduates to enhance the well-being of others.
How will we know we’re making a positive impact on students’ well-being? The university entered a partnership with the Gallup Organization through the center to measure student and alumni well-being, positioning Mason as a national case study on measuring educational and life outcomes using less conventional metrics. Since the 1930s, Gallup has conducted research to help measure and quantify a “life well-lived.”
Another feature of that partnership is Gallup’s StrengthsFinder assessment, which is available to all students and employees. The assessment identifies an individual’s innate talents and strengths with a focus on what’s right about people rather than what’s lacking. Gallup’s research reveals that individuals who invest in their strengths are three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life. And they are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs.
The university’s investment in building the strengths of each student is already showing positive gains. For example, students who completed the strengths assessment last year compared with those who did not showed significant increases in hope, engagement, commitment to pursuing goals, and a belief that Mason is positively contributing to their well-being.
Mason’s Career Services staff coaches students on their StrengthsFinder profile, preparing them to use this information in interviews with prospective employers. Academic advisors are using this tool to help students make more informed decisions about their academic majors and career paths.
While it will take some time to fully realize this vision, we have already witnessed thousands of students and employees engaged in well-being efforts and programs during the first year of this 10-year goal.
Simply put, Mason’s commitment to students’ well-being is a game changer for all of higher education.
Nance Lucas is executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being and an associate professor in New Century College. For more information about the center and the well-being university initiative, visit wellbeing.gmu.edu and wbu.gmu.edu.