“As an archer aims an arrow, as a carpenter carves wood, the wise shape their lives.” —The Dhammapada
It’s October 2014. Students on bikes are whizzing by on their way to classes, coffee shops are bustling, and the air is filled with clangs, bangs, and drilling noises from the construction zones that seem to be ever-present on campus. This noise stems from Oregon State University’s (OSU) attempt to accommodate its rapidly growing population. Close to the center of campus, nestled next to a Pagoda-shaped cultural center, a crane reaches fifty feet into the air over the site of a new classroom building. During the day, a distressed student begins to climb up the ladder of the crane with the intention of possibly jumping. Recognizing the situation, a security officer climbs up after him. After a conversation, the officer reaches out his hand and together they climb down to safety.
Growth on some university campuses has resulted in a challenge of limited resources to support the rising mental health issues that persist on campuses. As this trend is becoming the norm, shifting the campus mindset from problem to possibility becomes a necessity, and indeed some institutions are choosing to become proactive in addressing mental health issues. Thus, to support the promotion of mental health, in two courses, OSU students attend a first-year experience class entitled Creating Happiness. In two other courses, Gallup’s StrengthsQuestTM talent assessment is being administered and discussed with first-year engineering students. In two more first-year courses, journal prompts with strengths-based reflections are embedded into curricula unrelated to the course subjects, research and sexuality. This diverse set of courses and activities was the focus of the Bringing Theory to Practice grant awarded to OSU with the aim of creating structures and practices that support flourishing, specifically in our budding First Year Experience initiative.
In total, 155 first-year students participated in one of three curricular or cocurricular activities that support flourishing as outlined by Keyes (2007). The goal was to identify specific practices that could enhance flourishing, self-efficacy, optimism, life regard, and collective self-esteem in college students. The results obtained suggest that all courses that included specific strengths-based reflections resulted in students self-reporting significantly higher scores in optimism compared to control classes with no positive psychology practices. The class that utilized four journal prompts showed significant shifts in flourishing scores, and the happiness course results showed improved self-efficacy scores.
Another important finding focused on students who identify as financially struggling—OSU internal surveys suggest that these students are particularly vulnerable for mental illness. Specifically, the odds of screening positively for both anxiety and depression are 450 percent greater for students who reported their current financial situation as a struggle when compared to students who reported finances are not a problem. The results of the current study showed that students who reported that “finances are a struggle” experienced a more significant increase in flourishing scores, self-esteem and optimism post-intervention compared to students who reported that “finances were tight but doing okay” and “finances were not a problem.” Thus, we learned that these activities had a positive impact on students who start with less financial advantage.
Students in the Creating Happiness course engaged with a curriculum that proposed that happiness can be self-created instead of simply experienced and that these practices should become a part of every first-year student’s experience. Although a full course on happiness may not be reasonable for all students to take, the journal prompt activity proved to be another valuable practice since it is the most versatile in terms of embedding into curricula across disciplines and year in school. The journal prompts can be found at http://counseling.oregonstate.edu/flourshing-journal-prompts.
Given that services to graduate students are limited, we also piloted, with success, a similar Creating Happiness course for graduate students in spring 2015. One eighth-year PhD student stated that, “The course provided information I really needed in life.” A master’s student shared, “Taking your course was one of the best decisions I have made so far in grad school.”
In closing, institutions have vast capacity to affect psychosocial well-being, but doing so requires intentional partnerships across academic and student affairs, particularly when trying to embed well-being into campus culture. Thus, as part of OSU’s ongoing work toward creating structures that support flourishing, Creating Happiness courses will continue to be offered each fall for first-year students and each winter or spring for graduate students. Further, all first-year orientation instructors were encouraged to use the journal prompts within their existing curriculum, which could affect approximately 1,400 students. Finally, a short online flourishing course is being developed—it will be open and free for anyone interested in identifying ways to flourish beginning in winter 2016. Although OSU’s program developments are still in the emerging stage, our commitment and spirit is strong and the campus is ready.
Easwaran, E. 1985. The Dhammapada. Tomales, CA: The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation.
Froh, J. J., and A.C. Parks, eds. 2013. Activities for Teaching Positive Psychology: A Guide for Instructors. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Gallup, Inc. 2010. “StrengthsQuest.TM” Washington, DC: Gallup.
Keyes, Corey L.M. 2007. “Promoting and Protecting Mental Health and Flourishing.” American Psychologist 62 (2): 95–108.