Feature: The Time is Right to Prioritize Well-Being in Higher Education

By Paul Rogers, Senior Scholar, and Nance Lucas, Executive Director, both of the Center for the Advancement of Well Being at George Mason University

Those of us who have spent years in higher education know that new leaders are often looking for “the next big thing.” Indeed, regional accreditation requirements often demand that universities branch into new areas to enhance quality. We want to suggest that the growth of initiatives focused on advancing the potential and well-being of individual students in higher education is actually part of a larger paradigm shift across sectors.

In government, industry, citizen groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around the world, we increasingly see well-being-focused initiatives rising to the forefront. In 2008, Ecuador recognized “the right of the population to live in a healthy and ecologically balanced environment that guarantees sustainability and the good way of living ‘sumak kawsay’ (or Good Life),” (Ecua. Const. art. 14 § 1) and created the cabinet position of Minister of Good Living, redefining what progress and prosperity mean in that country. In 2010, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron declared his intention to focus not just on GDP but on “general well-being,” and in October of this year, the UK declared its intention to become “a mindful nation” (MAPPG 2015). Numerous indexes have been developed that measure well-being at the national level, including Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index and the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, among others. Harvard Business School’s strategy guru Michael Porter created a “social progress index” (Social Progress Imperative 2015) that ranks countries across three major dimensions: basic human needs, foundations of well-being, and opportunity. Numerous regional and local governments have launched their own initiatives, such as the city of Santa Monica, California’s Wellbeing Project, which aims to “harness the power of data to provide a shared understanding of our community’s strengths and needs, encouraging collaboration among city leaders, local organizations, and residents to improve our collective wellbeing” (City of Santa Monica 2015).

In business and industry, employers too are focusing on well-being, which has led to the discovery of correlations between well-being and employee engagement (Harter, Schmidt, and Keyes 2003), with subsequent impact on productivity and profitability. In many sectors, we see this influence manifested in the heightened awareness of environmental impact and corporate social responsibility.

Well-being has also moved closer to the center of the dialogue in the nonprofit sector as NGO’s have begun to investigate the relationship between practitioners’ well-being and their effectiveness in meeting basic human needs. For example, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public champions the concept of social entrepreneurship and has launched a well-being research project aimed at investigating the impact of “well-being practices” on leaders and organizations working in the areas of health, the environment, education, poverty alleviation, and human rights. These initiatives have special relevance to those working in very difficult areas of need where practitioner burnout is high, such as investigating human trafficking or child abuse, caring for refugees, and working in war zones.

Our view is that this emphasis on well-being across sectors shows an awareness of the need for an expanded sense of mission in these institutions. Thankfully, we also see a similar change taking place in higher education, where virtually every discipline has important contributions to make in research, teaching, and service. Of course, philosophy deserves a grand mention here given the more than two thousand years of conversation that have and continue to take place on the subject of happiness, meaning, and the well-lived life. Other disciplines in the humanities also have much to contribute to discussions of well-being, including literature, where consciousness has remained a consistent theme, religious studies, and history. The social sciences, too, have already contributed much to the cross-sector conversation, most notably in psychology, education, and economics. In sociology, the emerging subdiscipline of “public sociology” is tackling ideas related to human rights, sustainable communities, and measurement. Other contributions are coming from geography, political science, and law.

We are encouraged by the increasing amount of research being done in domains related to well-being and its translation to student populations, such as the research on mindfulness-based stress reduction (Bodenlos, Wells, Noonan, and Mayrsohn 2015) and how increasing understanding of strengths contributes to student success (Soria and Stubblefield 2014, 2015). At the institutional level, we are increasingly seeing universities around the world take on the challenge of moving beyond only measuring outcomes related to academic and career success and expanding the scope of their responsibility to include students’ well-being and their capacity to build lives of vitality, resilience, purpose, and engagement.

In the end, the purpose of a college degree is not to prepare students to have a happy life. It is about preparing them to be engaged and responsible citizens, equipping them with knowledge and skills to live their lives authentically with greater meaning and purpose. Yet, too often, students begin their college careers selecting an academic major because they want to follow someone else’s path, or they want to please everyone but themselves. It is not unusual to hear stories of graduates who land a high-paying job on Wall Street only to discover a few years later that their lives are void of passion and purpose. The time is right for all institutions of higher education to engage in this work, to encourage faculty research and teaching innovation in these areas across the disciplines, and to make it a part of our long-term strategic visions.


Bodenlos, J. S., S. Y. Wells, M. Noonan, and A. Mayrsohn. 2015. “Facets of Dispositional Mindfulness and Health Among College Students.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 21 (10): 645–652

City of Santa Monica. 2015. “The Wellbeing Project” (website). Accessed November 18. http://wellbeing.smgov.net/.

Ecuadorian Constitution. Article 14 § 1.

Harter, J. K., F.L Schmidt, and C. L. Keyes. 2003. “Well-Being in the Workplace and Its Relationship to Business Outcomes: A Review of the Gallup Studies.” In Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, edited by Corey L. M. Keyes and Jonathan Haidt. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

MAPPG (Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group). 2015. “Mindful Nation.” UK. London, UK: The Mindfulness Initiative. http://themindfulnessinitiative.org.uk/images/reports/Mindfulness-APPG-Report_Mindful-Nation-UK_Oct2015.pdf.


Social Progress Imperative. 2015. “The Social Progress Index” (website). Accessed November 18. http://www.socialprogressimperative.org/data/spi.

Soria, K. M., and R. Stubblefield. 2015. “Building a Strengths-Based Campus to Support Student Retention.” Journal of College Student Development 56 (6): 626–631.

———. 2014. “First-Year College Students’ Strengths Awareness: Building a Foundation for Student Engagement and Academic Excellence.” Journal of The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition 26 (2): 69-88.