From Surviving to Thriving: How Colleges Can Use the Science of Positive Psychology to Enhance Student Well-Being

When students think of college, they should be imagining the best four years of their lives ahead of them. Unfortunately, for many students, mental health has instead turned those four years into the most challenging ones. And while mental health issues are finally getting the widespread attention they deserve, astonishingly, only 40% of students feel that their school is adequately supporting them.

Imagine a sliding scale with “wellness” at one end and “illness” at the other. Rather than looking at the entire spectrum, people often only pay attention to mental illness. But what if schools put more emphasis on mental wellness?

Through the science of positive psychology, colleges can redefine mental health and place well-being at the forefront of their efforts to ensure students achieve optimal health and wellness for all four years (and beyond!).

What is Positive Psychology?

Before we dive into the strategies, let’s start with the basics. What is positive psychology exactly and why is it so important? 

Positive psychology, the science of well-being, focuses on characteristics and behaviors that allow people to achieve their full potential. While traditional psychology tends to focus on what is “wrong” with somebody, positive psychology focuses on the positive habits that help people flourish.

So how can colleges take a proactive approach to help students flourish rather than waiting for signs of languishing (or mental distress)? Let’s take a look at some of the ways institutions can enhance student well-being through the science of positive psychology.

How Can Colleges Enhance Optimal Health and Wellness?

Thanks to extensive research and analysis, most colleges understand the importance of mental health for students, but they might not be able to articulate how to help students achieve the optimal functioning needed to maintain healthy levels of emotional and mental well-being. Here are some of the different tools positive psychology offers that schools can put into action:

Focusing On Individual Strengths

Students often focus on their failures, or what they’re doing incorrectly, while overlooking the accomplishments they’re already achieving. Schools and universities should create an environment that promotes playing off students’ strengths. These are the valuable characteristics that guide how students approach different circumstances and choose paths they’ll excel at. One way of doing this is by encouraging students to take the free VIA Character Strengths survey. By helping students understand their individual strengths and how to apply them during their college experience, schools can improve student well-being, foster a more welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, and help students find their purpose.

Practicing Gratitude

Practicing gratitude is an excellent way to help increase happiness, improve social interactions, and foster a sense of optimism. Schools can encourage professors and students to practice gratitude by devoting two or three minutes for self-reflection at the end of class. Also, asking teachers to emphasize positive experiences with their students can help students become more confident in themselves, leading to optimal functioning and well-being.

Implementing the PERMA Model

The PERMA Model offers students a framework for thinking about and improving their holistic well-being. The five components of PERMA are Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments. Each of these components has been linked to improvements in well-being, including physical health and life satisfaction, as well as to decreases in psychological distress. When students are struggling, it’s helpful to look at these components and assess which of them may need to be increased. By teaching students this model, schools provide students with a tool that they can use immediately to improve their ability to thrive.

Fostering Relationships

As fundamentally social beings, positive relationships are key to our success, happiness, and health. A lack of positive emotional connections can inhibit a student’s ability to achieve these things, ultimately blocking their ability to flourish. One way to combat this is by creating opportunities for students to interact with their peers in a healthy and productive manner. Creating pathways for students to interact with one another on a deeper level can improve student well-being.

Cultivating Optimism

Negative thoughts and self-doubt can decrease confidence and cause students to withdraw from those around them. One way to combat this is by helping students cultivate an optimistic outlook. Optimism can be fostered by teaching students the three components of an optimistic explanatory style, which describes how a person explains good and bad events they experience. Students with an optimistic outlook will have a greater tendency to believe that the cause and consequences of an adverse experience are local rather than global, and short-lived rather than long-lasting. They will also be more likely to attribute the cause of a bad event to external factors rather than personal ones. By shifting to a more optimistic explanatory style, students will cultivate the confidence to persevere through adversity and gain a healthier outlook on their own potential.

It’s critical for colleges to be able to reclaim the title as the best four years of a student’s life. When implemented correctly, these positive psychology tools can help students find their purpose and improve overall well-being.

Improve Student Well-Being With U-Thrive Educational Services

By leveraging positive psychology, colleges can be proactive in their approach to supporting students for a fulfilling and successful college experience.

Positive psychology is a core pillar of U-Thrive Educational Services curriculum. Derived from rigorous academic research, our curriculum is designed to help college students manage stress, become more resilient, and thrive throughout their undergraduate experience and beyond. Contact U-Thrive Educational Services today to learn more about how your school can help support optimal health and well-being among students.

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