Flourishing and Student Engagement

By Kathy Graff Low, Professor of Psychology, Bates College

Concern over college students’ mental health has increased over the last decade, with reports indicating that substance abuse, self-reported stress, and mood-related disorders are on the rise on campuses. Typically, research on this population has focused on mental illness and its symptoms, rather than on positive emotional states or well-being. Recently, Corey Keyes, associate professor of sociology at Emory University, has argued that mental health and mental illness are “two distinct continua.” Keyes notes that only a small portion of those who are “mentally healthy” are what he calls truly “flourishing.” In this model, “flourishing” includes social and psychological dimensions, or “eudaemonic dimensions,” that may be especially relevant for college. For example, Keyes examines as part of mental well-being such things as community involvement, personal development, and meaning in life. A study at Bates College funded by Bringing Theory to Practice has been exploring flourishing and its relation to mental health and other variables in undergraduates.

With the support of a BTtoP Program Start-up Grant in 2008, all entering first year students at Bates completed surveys and tests related to depression, flourishing, substance use, and student engagement. At entry, 69.1 percent of students were flourishing, 29.0 percent were moderately mentally healthy (neither flourishing nor languishing), and 1.9 percent were languishing. In addition, 18.9 percent of students had depression scores in the clinical range, and those scores were highly correlated with languishing. Consistent with Keyes’ assertions about a dual continua model, a proportion of students who were flourishing also had depression scores in the clinical range (12.2 percent), suggesting that assessment of symptoms alone is not sufficient for determining mental health. The results suggest both more flourishing and more depression in this college sample than in other studies of high school students or adults. Further, alcohol consumption and binge drinking were not associated with poorer mental health in the sample, despite the fact that previous studies have reported a link in adult samples. Studies at institutions of various sizes and types will inform our thinking on the degree to which flourishing is common in undergraduates, and on those factors that are associated with true mental health in the college years.

How does civic or community engagement relate to flourishing at entry to college? At Bates, some aspects of student engagement, including ratings of the importance of civic and community involvement and hours of service in high school, were associated with flourishing in both the total sample and in a subset of eighty students who responded to additional questions about their high school experience. It therefore appears that, at Bates, engagement in civic or community activity is an important ingredient in flourishing as students enter college. The degree to which this is specific to the liberal arts setting or to our highly community-engaged campus is unclear. Exploration of flourishing in other institutions across years will be critical in understanding these associations.

What happens to students after the first year? In the summer of 2009, 95 students (approximately one-fourth from the original cohort) were reassessed, and were also asked about engaged learning and activities during the course of the year. In this sample, flourishing rates were about the same, but significantly more students were languishing than during first-year orientation (10.8 percent entering sophomore year versus 1.9 percent at orientation). Again, a proportion of students were flourishing despite having symptoms of depression (8.6 percent). Students who were flourishing at this assessment tended to have contributed more hours to community-engaged work during the year. Once again, alcohol use was not correlated with measures of mental health in these students beginning their second year.

The sophomore year has long been seen as a challenging time for undergraduates, and these data suggest that about one in ten students in a sample of sophomores may be languishing. Civic and community engagement are associated with more flourishing, although these data represent only a sub-sample of students. It may be that community-based learning offers a particular kind of engagement in which students explore personal strengths and weaknesses, create meaningful experiences, and connect to others in the community. Based on Keyes’ model, these experiences are likely to contribute to flourishing. Alternatively, students who are flourishing may elect to do more community-engaged work. Information collected from narratives about engaged learning indicates that students experience engagement in a variety of settings, ranging from the classroom to the dormitory to the athletic field. Almost a third of students describe a community-based experience as their most engaging activity during the first year.

Finally, preliminary analyses indicate that specific groups of students may benefit from certain activities. For example, our data suggest that community and civic engagement may have a particularly strong association with positive outcomes in students of color during the first year. In addition, being a collegiate athlete appears to be associated with more flourishing. The impact of activities like community-based learning and athletics on true mental health warrants further research on more diverse samples across educational institutions.

Overall, students at Bates appear to be flourishing. A portion of them appear to be flourishing despite symptoms of depression, suggesting that periods of negative mood may not always interfere with success in college. Finally, engagement in civic and community-based activities appears to be associated with flourishing early in the college career. Future research should explore the types of experiences that might foster flourishing in undergraduates.