FAIRFAX, Va. The idea for the bunny hop playing out on the lawns of George Mason University on a recent sunny afternoon here wasn’t just to create buzz about an event called “Spring into Well-Being.”
The bunny hop also was meant to exemplify, well, well-being. Students and staff members wearing rabbit ears hopped around, trying to make that point by tucking inspirational messages inside the plastic eggs they gave away that day.
The well-being bandwagon is gaining traction across college campuses as administrators seek to demonstrate the value of college—and broaden the definition of success beyond employment rates and earnings. Well-being is so integral to George Mason University that it is included in the school’s 10-year strategic plan.
“If you think about what our goals are, we get people ready to have successful lives,” says president Angel Cabrera. “A part of that, but only a part, is to have skills and knowledge that can land students a good job. It is also our responsibility to make sure they have habits and behaviors and awareness about how to have a good life.”
The emphasis on well-being, sometimes called “positive psychology” or “the science of happiness,” is rooted in scholarship suggesting that happiness can be learned. The trend has captured the fancy not only of Oprah and the self-help industry but also corporate America and the U.S. Army. Former Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke speaks on “the economics of happiness.” Some countries make happiness a metric in quality-of-life measures.
College professors have been teaching the subject for years. But only recently have universities applied the research to their own institutions. Frostburg State University in Maryland plans to assess the “hope, engagement and well-being” of entering students this fall. St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York plans to include findings of a campus well-being study in a report to its regional accreditation association. Several universities, including George Mason, Purdue and Ohio State, have signed up with Gallup Education, a division of the polling firm, to see how they might foster a greater sense of well-being in their students.
“All of us are reacting to a generation of college students that is especially stressed and anxious,” says Penny Rue, vice president for campus life at Wake Forest University, which is launching a well-being initiative. The school aims to help students “live life with meaning and purpose,” she says.
Few would argue against the value of helping students thrive, flourish and develop resilience—three terms in the vocabulary of well-being literature. Even so, some skeptics challenge the science. “Statistical nonsense,” says Jim Coyne, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor emeritus, in a blog called Mind the Brain.
“Who is to say that being a member of the Rotary club or building a Habitat for Humanity house is somehow really important to higher well-being?” says Ohio University economist Richard Vedder. “Spending money on programming and surveys like this is maybe not the most productive use of resources,” he adds.
Anne Neal, president of the non-profit American Council of Trustees and Alumni, says the concept of well-being has merit, but only to a point. “While it’s very important to look at well-being and whether students are happy,” she says, “at the end of the day we have to find out if they’re being equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to be competitive in a workplace.”
The focus on higher education grew out of multiple studies linking workplace happiness and employee productivity. Gallup researchers in 2012 had expected their employee surveys to show that college graduates were the most satisfied in their jobs but instead found the opposite: American workers who had no college degree were more likely to be enthusiastic about their work than college graduates.
It was a “shocking finding for us,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.
In partnership with Purdue University, Gallup earlier this year surveyed nearly 30,000 college graduates ages 18 to 80 to try to see what kinds of college experiences are associated with alumni who have “great jobs” and lead “great lives.”
To determine well-being, the survey asked questions such as whether respondents “learn something interesting every day” and get “positive energy every day” from friends and family.
Among findings, released in May: Graduates were more likely to report high levels of well-being if they recalled having had a professor who cared about them, made them excited to learn and encouraged them to follow their dreams. Just 14% of alumni reported receiving that combination of emotional support.
The survey doesn’t say whether mentor-like relationships between students and faculty lead to greater life satisfaction—maybe happier students are more likely to reach out to professors, for example. But findings mesh with other studies showing that personal connections matter. And they point to areas where colleges might tweak their practices.
“The simple fact of using a student’s first name seems to matter,” says Dan Chambliss, co-author of How College Works, a just-released 10-year study of students and alumni at Hamilton College in New York, where he teaches sociology.
The survey findings “indicate that we’re probably not focusing on all the right things in college,” says Nance Lucas, executive director of George Mason’s recently rechristened Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. “This allows us to change the game.”