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.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.
- 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