Home All How To Be Happy At College — And Beyond! Notes from One Mom to a College Freshman

How To Be Happy At College — And Beyond! Notes from One Mom to a College Freshman

written by Caroline Adams Miller 9 September 2007

Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP, ACC is a performance coach, author, and motivational speaker who specializes in helping people design and achieve their life goals. Full bio.

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Not too long ago I deposited my oldest child at college, which was probably more traumatic for me than it was for him.  Although there are very normal and healthy separations parents go through, such as the first day of kindergarten, sending a child to college, watching them fall in love and get married, and even having them move away for good, this new phase feels like it deserves a manifesto of some type from this particular mom, similar to the speech he and other high school seniors heard when they graduated from high school a few months ago.

Freshman orientation

A treatise on “How to Be Happy at College” may also be applicable to others, too, seeing as the mental health systems at colleges are reporting record numbers of depressed and suicidal students, many of whom have trouble focusing, clarifying their values, and feeling good about themselves.  A recent cover story in “U.S. News and World Report” focused on just this topic.

In addition to these current trends, I’ve also heard observations from my peers about how they wish they had spent their college years differently to maximize long-term well-being.  At my husband’s 25th college reunion last spring, for example, a friend of ours spoke passionately about how he’d deprived himself of meeting some fascinating people, simply because he’d stayed within his comfort zone all four years and dined exclusively with the same people, day after day.  He was planning to tell his own kids to make a dinner date with a new friend once a week in college so that they never experienced similar regrets. 

Here are my best thoughts on how my son and his peers might benefit from the research in Positive Psychology and elsewhere to take advantage of the very special years of college, and blossom into the unique individuals they are destined to become, while cultivating and expanding their own joy. 


    act like an extravert (and laugh)

  • Be extraverted, or at least act like one.  Studies have found that one of the predictors of well-being is being social and extraverted, partly because being around others can distract you from your woes.  And diaries of college students who forced themselves to be prosocial found that they enjoyed all of the benefits of higher well-being that naturally accrue to extraverts.  So fake it ‘til you make it!
  • Don’t play online Solitaire.  Studies of procrastination have found that the current generation of college students is so technologically-savvy that it’s easy to get trapped in a virtual reality of games, instant messages, and other distractions that prevent you from getting your work done.  Find ways to get focused without distractions so that you don’t fall behind in your work.  Experts estimate that much of the depression and anxiety people struggle with is exactly because of this equation of technology distractions leading to putting off deadines, followed by low self-esteem and anxiety.
  • Sign a contract with yourself around your responsibilities.  At least one study found that college students who signed a contract with a professor around completing the work and readings in a course were more likely to adhere to the contract, EVEN when it was never referred to again!  Taking the time to put these types of goals and intentions in writing can make a huge difference in being successful and feeling self-efficacious, which is one of the traits of happy people.
  • Don’t overindulge in mood-altering substances.  Roy Baumeister, one of the world’s experts in self-regulation, says that alcohol, in particular, is a deterrent in accomplishing all goals.  Why?  When you alter your mood through alcohol or drugs, you lose your ability to self-regulate, and you can’t manage your behavior around eating, drinking, anger, or any other urge.  Know your limits and stick with them.  Again, the connection between accomplishing goals and building self-efficacy is key to well-being and authentic self-esteem.  (See my podcast recording with Baumeister about this topic.)
  • Find people who make you laugh, and do the same for others.  The social contagion effect recently discovered in the link between people with obesity holds true with many types of behavior.  Being around someone who can make you smile will not only help distract you from worries, it has an impressive chemical impact on your body.  And it’s been found that students who hear a joke at the beginning of class actually learn better!  So find some funny professors, too!
  • Get and stay organized.  The National Association of Professional Organizers estimates that a huge percentage of work days are lost to people looking for things they have misplaced.  Disorganization is the enemy of productivity, and it may even fuel procrastination.  A few minutes spent every night organizing papers, assignments, long-term deadlines and goals can pay off handsomely in higher well-being and accomplishments.
  • Remain connected to your siblings.  At least one new study has found that adult male depression is correlated with childhood sibling relationships.  When your parents are gone, you’ll hopefully still have your siblings in your life, so don’t forget to check in on their birthdays, the dates of their big events, and just because you want to cheer them on and offer encouragement.  It’s never been easier to send online cards expressing love, thanks and other emotions, so use your pervasive technology to remember your family in little and big ways.
  • Be grateful for something every day, and express it.  I know it’s hard to remember at times, but the world doesn’t revolve around you and your immediate needs.  So thank the janitors who are cleaning the buildings where you are fortunate enough to take classes.  Thank the professors for being there.  Thank the people who serve you chicken wings when you go off campus.  Thank you parents for occasionally doing your laundry and sending you money.  The research on gratitude is staggering: grateful people are happier people, so find ways to thank everyone for everything.
  • Live in a “no regret zone.”  You are at the age at which people begin to amass regrets because of roads not taken, such as a particular class or college major.  As Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore has demonstrated, with every passed-up opportunity, you pass up things that have positive features.  Don’t let this stop you from being bold and challenging yourself to make choices.  Too much choice can lead to anxiety and paralysis, so limit your choices when possible and resolve to live with as few regrets as possible.
  • Ask more of yourself than you think possible.  Hundreds and hundreds of studies on goal-setting theory have found that the best kinds of goals are “challenging and specific.”  Mediocre goals or no goals lead to poor results and poor well-being.  You will go farther and have higher self-esteem if you always shoot for something slightly beyond your grasp.  As Dr. Jessica Tracy recently told me in a podcast interview, authentic self-esteem comes from the hard work we do towards the completion of challenging goals. 
  • Surround yourself with pictures of happy moments and the people you love.  New research on “happy families” shows that they have a profusion of plants, pictures and pets.  Since pets and plants might be hard to maintain, have pictures of your dog, your family, your friends, highlights in your life, and other meaningful times in an accessible place.  They can be a slideshow on your computer, your screensaver, pictures in your “Facebook” account, or something on your desk.  Happy people think happy thoughts twice as often as unhappy people, and pictures are the ideal stimulus to get you thinking that way.
  • Create a “life list”.  The happiest people work towards short-term and long-term goals that reflect intrinsic values.  One of the most fun ways to track your goals and share them with others is at a website I discussed on National Public Radio last week, called “Your100Things.”

I hope this article will spark more ideas from readers about what they wish they’d been told to think about in college, and how they might have created a happier experience for themselves.  Together, perhaps we can all create something powerful that will help those we love on college campuses to make those years more joyful, meaningful and fulfilling.

Freshman orientation courtesy of Illinois Springfield

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Sherri Fisher 10 September 2007 - 7:21 am

Hi, Caroline–

This is a great list! If you had to pick just three of your suggestions, which would those top picks be? It seems as if self-regualtion (which I know is one of your faves) is an important key to the other things on the list. What do you think?



Caroline Adams Miller 10 September 2007 - 9:45 am

Hi Sherri!
I think that avoiding distraction through technology would be number one. This generation is constantly distracted with text messages, IMs, and cell phone ringing, and those distractions are leading to endless procrastination, which fuels anxiety and depression, according to some new research out of Canada.

Next, I think that forcing oneself to be social and extraverted with the right people and situations is key.

Third, I like the photos tip. My son has already asked me to send a picture of the dog, which I’ll put in a magnetized frame to go on the front of the refrigerator in his room! How can you not smile when you look at a picture of your dog????

Great question — thanks!

Senia 11 September 2007 - 3:16 am

Hi Caroline,

What a thorough, great article!
I wish I had had these tips in college years ago.

I really like the first one – “be extroverted, or at least act like one.” And I really, really like “ask more of yourself than you think possible.”

I agree with you – that IM, chats, texts pull is addictive. It’s almost druglike – it’s like a tie to the surrounding social world. I use it like that too with email. It’s nice to get away from that sometime.

Thanks much,

Doug Turner 11 September 2007 - 9:45 am

Thanks for your article. We are preparing my oldest daughter, Sara, for college next year. She’s in the “ACT-Test-Taking / Application-Essay-Writing” phase right now. I gave her your article. Your article reminded me that we should help our kids prepare for happiness by including your list among all the other things we are doing to get ready for college.

Thanks! Doug

Caroline Adams Miller 11 September 2007 - 6:26 pm

Hi Doug and Senia,
Your words are so nice — thanks. And now that I have some Positive Psych under my belt, I wish I’d had some of these tips in place when I was in college. I think the pictures make a huge difference, and I also strongly believe that getting kids away from technology distractions can help them feel more self-efficacy around homework and organization. I’ve thought of a few more tips since I wrote this, so maybe there’s a book in this!

Hope to see you guys at the PP Summit soon,

Erwin 5 December 2007 - 12:41 am

Hi Caroline,

I am currently a college student going through all of the stresses of college life. Unlike everyone else I do not have parents to guide and provide me with this advise. I am pretty much going at it alone. I am so glad that websites like yours exist. Through your articles I have been surviving because of the positive comfort that I am getting from all of your write ups. You are simply too awesome! and for this I am truly grateful


College kid 3 September 2010 - 6:18 pm

I am a junior in college. I just turned 20 and reading that made the world of difference for me right now. I’m juggling insecurities, school responsibilities, love, happiness, —-life. And your words were just te encouragement I needed. Thank you!

Duke Freshman 19 September 2010 - 9:53 pm

Hi Caroline,

I’m nearing the end of my first month of college and am still having trouble adjusting. Your advice seems helpful, though, and I’ll definitely try staying connected with my siblings, showing gratitude, and personal challenges. The biggest point for me is “pretending to be extroverted” as I am a relatively quiet person. I’ll do my best to fake it though and hopefully that will help.

The hardest part of the transition for me has been leaving my girlfriend, who now goes to school in London so visits aren’t much of an option. We broke up for college but I miss her all the time and this makes me feel antisocial and introverted. I don’t want peoples first impression of me to be a quiet kid, but I know at least a couple of people have gotten this impression. Any advice on how I can deal with the separation?

Caroline Miller 28 September 2010 - 11:17 am

Looking around you for the blessings you do have, instead of focusing on what you don’t have, could be part of the answer. I’d also strongly encourage you to build as many relationships as you can, because it makes college feel like a smaller and more intimate environment than when it’s just a big lonely place. I hope this helps, and thank you for writing!

Allyson Frick 29 November 2010 - 11:02 pm


I really enjoyed reading your article on “How to be Happy at College and Beyond!”, though I wish I would have read it a little sooner in my college career. I am a fifth year senior and I can already look back with regret at my own poor academic planning and lack of social expansion past my comfort zone.

One question I have involves the social aspect of college, as in meeting new people or establishing relationships with professors and faculty. I have discovered that as I, personally, expand my social network that I find it harder to keep focused on schoolwork. In order for me to keep my mind on track, I have found that socializing (even in small amounts) with friends can actually hinder my ability to complete schoolwork and stay focused. For example, if I have dinner with a friend, afterwards if I have homework or something to do I am less likely to feel motivated to complete the task. I joined a sorority my junior year but decided to drop out because it was more of a distraction than anything else. It did not demand much of my time, but I found that my schoolwork was suffering because of that priority in my life.

Time management has never been one of my strong points and no one has ever taught me how to balance my schoolwork with my social life. Unfortunately I have come to a point where I have minimized my social relationships to a very small comfort zone (my boyfriend, best friend from high school, and neighbors) just so I am able to continue staying focused in school and graduate by spring. I feel that I have missed out on relationships that I could have established, if I would have only known how to balance the two worlds.

What are your thoughts on this?

Thanks again! I look forward to hearing from you.

Allyson F.

Sonny 15 January 2011 - 5:31 pm

I also believe that straying away from technology is a huge point on how to be happy not only for college, but everywhere. If your children ever ask you about your life, won’t you wish you had done more things in your life rather than staying on the computer?

College Introvert/Extrovert 29 April 2012 - 5:08 am

Hey Caroline,

I’m a current college student and I have found this article to be helpful-especially the self-regulation bit.

I’d like to point out that extroversion and introversion should not be dealt with as black&white topics – though the methods of happiness hold true regardless of any introversion/extroversion tendencies.

I consider myself to be somewhere in the middle of being introverted and extroverted and have found happiness in the comfort of both realms. People can have both introverted and extroverted tendencies but such labeling shouldn’t be taken too seriously since the lines of definition, assessment, and reliability can be so blurry to begin with. Most of all, it’s important to realize that extroversion and introversion characteristics are not necessarily deeply intrinsic to one’s being- they are ever-changing and multi-dynamic. For instance, introversion isn’t the same as anti-socialness. There are different types of happiness and varying levels of importance within those types that depend from person to person.


thuoc fucoidan nhat 10 May 2016 - 10:19 am

Fantastic site you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of any community forums that cover the same topics talked
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Appreciate it!


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