Happier Students are More Engaged Students

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Dr. Susan Antaramian
Dr. Susan Antaramian

Traditionally, when it comes to mental health, there’s a tendency to focus on problems like anxiety and depression, and interventions are designed to eliminate the symptoms and fix the problems. The underlying assumption is that if people don’t have these problems, they are mentally healthy. An alternative viewpoint argues that it’s not enough to be free of distressing symptoms. We need to have positive well-being, too – including life satisfaction and positive emotions – in order to flourish and thrive. According to this perspective, complete mental health requires both the presence of positive well-being and the absence of symptoms.

Recently I have been conducting research that looks at both aspects of mental health – psychological symptoms and positive well-being – in college-aged students. Nearly 600 students, from freshmen to seniors, completed surveys about their well-being and school experiences. From their responses, different mental health profiles were identified. Some students were well-adjusted, having high life satisfaction, positive emotions and no psychological symptoms.

Other students, however, had no psychological symptoms, but they also lacked positive well-being in that their life satisfaction and positive emotions were low. These individuals would typically be considered mentally healthy because of their absence of symptoms, but their low positive well-being means their mental health is less than ideal.

My research also examined how these components of mental health relate to students’ academic success. Specifically, I assessed student engagement: students’ feelings of connection to and involvement with their educational experiences. Student engagement is an important academic characteristic because students who are highly engaged earn better grades and are more likely to graduate.

Results from the student survey showed that those with positive well-being had higher levels of all types of engagement included in the survey in comparison to the students with low positive well-being. So even though none of these individuals had psychological symptoms, those who had high well-being had better study habits, were more engaged with faculty and peers, had higher intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of learning, and felt a greater sense of belonging in the university community than the individuals with low well-being. This result suggests that positive well-being is an important component of an

optimal college experience.

What does this mean for students in their everyday lives? These results suggest that doing things to increase positive emotions and life satisfaction should be an important goal, not only for psychological health but also for academic performance.

For example, one strategy could be actively practicing gratitude. A regular habit of feeling thankfulness, whether toward others or about one’s own life circumstances, can have a dramatic impact on happiness. Something as simple as listing things to be grateful for at the end of each day has been demonstrated to increase both positive emotions and life satisfaction.

Another method for increasing well-being involves thinking positively about the future. One way to do this is to imagine a future in which everything has gone as well as it possibly could in all areas of life, including education and career, family life, personal interests, social and romantic life, and physical health. Spending a few minutes a week writing about or envisioning this ideal future can have a significant positive impact on well-being. A variation on this practice that’s also associated with increased happiness is spending a few minutes each day imagining a handful of positive events that could happen tomorrow. Whether contemplating years into the future or just the next day, thinking positively about that future can have some real benefits.

One final strategy for boosting well-being is completing acts of kindness toward others. Of course, acts of kindness benefit the recipient, but research shows that the person offering that kindness gets a boost as well. People have higher life satisfaction and more positive moods after completing acts of kindness, and even small favors that only take a moment or so to do offer this benefit.

Devoting just a little time to these types of simple activities can have a major payoff in terms of not only feeling happier but also being more engaged and productive students! d

Dr. Susan Antaramian is an assistant professor of psychology. She is an expert in positive well-being and life satisfaction in adolescents and young adults.

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