Feature: Happiness: Restoring Purpose to Higher Education

By Corey L. M. Keyes, Winship Distinguished Research Professor, Emory University

If once we believe in life and in the life of the [student], then will all occupations and uses spoken of, then will all history and science become instruments of appeal and materials of culture to his imagination, and through that to the richness and orderliness of his life. —John Dewey, 2013 [1900]

A study of the well-being of midlife parents suggests that our job in higher education is as important to helping parents achieve their well-being as it is for their children. The study found that mothers and fathers rank education and happiness as their top hopes and aspirations for their children. Parents believe they have done a good job when their children receive a good college education and are happier for it. Also, the closer parents saw themselves to achieving those hopes and aspirations, the higher their own psychological well-being (Ryff, Schmutte, and Lee 1996). But what happens when one of those aspirations comes at the expense of the other—when getting a good education comes at the expense of happiness? Stress, sleep deprivation, loneliness, and mental illness are all too common on college campuses (American College Health Association 2013).

Education was one of the most productive public health interventions in the twentieth  century. Sociologists have documented that education is as potent of a predictor of positive physical health as smoking and carcinogens are of negative health (Williams et al. 2010). More people getting more education means longer and healthier lives around the world (Shkolnikov et al. 2006). At the same time, the twentieth century saw the incomes of Americans and their reported levels of happiness also increasing.

Yet, there was a turning point in the United States around the 1970s when rising national wealth no longer resulted in increasing levels of health and happiness. We now know that the problem that arose in the 1970s and has grown ever since is the mal-distribution of wealth—that is, income inequality. Today, eighty of the wealthiest people in the world hold as much wealth as the bottom half of the entire world (Chalabi 2015). Thirty-five of those eighty richest people are US citizens; we have five times more of the wealthiest people in the world than Germany or Russia, which are tied for second with each having seven people on the list.

There are other unobserved tradeoffs, too, that complicate the relationship between personal income and national wealth and health and happiness. For instance, more parents are working harder and longer to barely stay ahead. Personal income now comes at the expense of time for family, community, and friends—but more time for family, community, and friends is precisely what brings people more happiness. Despite increasing national wealth, rising income inequality comes at the expense of better relationships with more trust and sense of fairness—and yet better relationships, more trust, and more fairness bring more happiness to more people.

I am worried that something similar is happening in higher education. Colleges are raising more money and have become increasingly wealthy over the past several decades. But how is this increasing wealth being distributed? How is it being used, what are its effects, and what are the unobserved tradeoffs in higher education? This much seems clear to me: the rising wealth of many universities and colleges has done little to improve the mental health and happiness of college students, and it may be creating more damage to the health and happiness of students than is worth all that goes into the rising endowments, buildings, and amenities.

Like people, universities have bought into the “great deception.” The father of capitalism, Adam Smith, said that it is a deception to believe that through the accumulation of material goods, property, and wealth one can attain lasting happiness (1759 [1981]). The problem is that humans, and institutions, quickly adapt to new material changes, so the pleasure attained from material growth fades quickly.

We continue to want more because we react to change, and happiness is often a reflection of getting something better. We want more of something different, because the happiness we have is no longer enough and our expectations and standards have increased. So the cycle goes on with more growth, larger endowments, more buildings—and yet no lasting happiness or mental well-being for students, staff, or faculty. Welcome to the great deception.

As national wealth increases, the number of citizens achieving the “best possible life”—in a strictly economic sense—increases. However, as the wealth of nations increases, the number of citizens with an important meaning or direction in life decreases. Wealthy nations produce the most comfortable life without a lot of meaning (Oishi and Diener 2013).

Many of us believe universities have done the very same thing, leaving behind the heart and soul of a liberal arts education that focuses on the whole person, the whole student, the whole faculty and staff. Universities now have the resources to promote the best possible life without a lot of meaning in life for students. While becoming wealthier, our nation and colleges have become reactive and problem focused. With more wealth, institutions can provide more services to help those who become ill.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the problem of mental illness in our country and colleges. We park more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, thinking we can treat our way out of the problem. I am not against providing the best treatment to anybody in need; what I am against is not doing our best to prevent more of our students from breaking down in the first place. We are not fulfilling the mission of helping students to flourish.

Flourishing is feeling good about a life in which one is also able to function well. Flourishing combines two traditions of ancient thought about the nature of a good life. The first is the hedonic tradition, in which a good life consists of pleasure. The hedonic tradition is measured by asking people how often they have felt happy, satisfied, or interested in life. The second is the eudaemonic tradition, in which a good life is defined by developing one’s potential to function well as an individual and citizen. Here, you are functioning well if

• your life has direction and meaning;

• you are confident to think and express your ideas and opinions;

• you are part of a community where you feel you belong;

• you are able to contribute things of worth and value to the world;

• you can make sense of what is going on around you in your world;

• you are accepting of other people;

• you are accepting of most parts of yourself;

• you are being challenged to become a better person; or

• you have warm, trusting relationships with other people.

Creating students who can flourish in life is the overarching purpose of higher education. When students walk across that stage and take their diploma, they should feel

• more interested in life than when they started;

• that they have more direction and meaning in life than when they started (more purpose);

• like they are better people than when they started (more personal growth);

• more accepting of themselves than when they started (more self-acceptance);

• more accepting of other people than when they started (more social acceptance);

• more able to contribute to the world than when they arrived (more social contribution); and

• that they belong to community and society more than when they arrived (more social integration).

Students who fit these criteria can be said to be flourishing—individuals who experience at least one of the three criteria for hedonic well-being along with at least six of the eleven criteria for eudaemonic well-being almost every day or every day. A benefit to families and colleges is that promoting flourishing reduces intention to dropout, reduces suicide, and reduces risk of developing mental illness (Dyrbye et al. 2012; Grant, Guille, and Sen 2013; Keyes, Dhingra, and Simoes 2010).

Wasn’t this the point of a liberal arts education? What is stopping us from reclaiming it as the highest aspiration of “higher” education? I believe what is stopping us in higher education is that our institutions have lost sight of the point of life. I want to paraphrase John Lennon (yes, from the Beatles), whose mother told him as a child that the point of life is happiness. When he started school, Lennon was given an assignment to write an essay describing the point of life. He simply wrote, ‘to be happy.’ His teacher wrote back, ‘you did not understand the assignment.’ Lennon wrote back, ‘you don’t understand life.’

Higher education does not understand life anymore. Higher education is not helping parents to realize their hopes and aspirations for their children; parents want their children educated and happy, not educated at the expense of their children’s happiness.

Editors’ note: Corey Keyes’s scholarly voice has led the national conversations regarding flourishing as a key expression of well-being for over two decades. Always championing consideration of the centrality and consequences of truly attending to well-being as a core purpose of higher education, Professor Keyes provoked a large audience in January at the AAC&U Centennial meeting. That talk is printed here for you to attend to its implications—and to what would be needed to put into place what he champions. That many of you, perhaps all, are part of institutions that are far from wealthy means that the challenges we are provoked to face are how to redirect resources and to redefine priorities. How to do so are the more important challenges for all of us. Stay tuned: BTtoP’s publications this year and next will feature a set of volumes examining how well-being is becoming understood, valued and practiced as a core purpose of higher education.


American College Health Association. 2013. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Data Report, Undergraduate Students, Spring. Hanover MD: American College Health Association.

Chalabi, Mona. 2015. “Meet the 80 People Who Are As Rich as Half of the World.” FiveThirtyEight Data Lab Blog, January 18, http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/meet-the-80-people-who-are-as-rich-as....

Dewey, John. 2013 [1900]. The School and Society and the Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 68.

Dyrbye, Liselotte N., William Harper, Christine Moutier, Steven J. Durning, David V. Power, F. Stanford Massie, Anne Eacker, Matthew R. Thomas, Daniel Satele, Jeff A. Sloan, and Tait D. Shanafelt. 2012. “A Multi-Institutional Study Exploring the Impact of Positive Mental Health on Medical Students’ Professionalism in an Era of High Burnout.” Academic Medicine 87 (8): 1024–1031.

Faren Grant, Constance Guille, and Srijan Sen. 2013. “Well-Being and the Risk of Depression Under Stress,” PloS ONE 8 (7): e67395.

Keyes, Corey L.M., Satvinder S. Dhingra, and Eduardo J. Simoes. 2010. “Change in Level of Positive Mental Health as a Predictor of Future Risk of Mental Illness.” American Journal of Public Health 100 (12): 2366.

Oishi, Shigehiro, and Ed Diener. 2013. “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life than Residents of Wealthy Nations.Psychological Science: 0956797613507286.

Ryff, Carol D., Pamela S. Schmutte, and Young Hyun Lee. 1996. “How Children Turn Out: Implications for Parental Self-Evaluation,” The Parental Experience in Midlife, 383–422.