While the excitement of returning to (or beginning) college can hold the promise of many transformational and wonderful opportunities — it can also be a time filled with new stressors. Recent studies show that increased academic demands, changes in sleep and eating patterns, reduced family contact, and financial concerns can challenge even the most capable students. In fact, nearly 80 percent of students in college report having daily stress, and about 25 percent have said this has had an impact on academic performance. Daily stressors can increase depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns that can hold learners back. The accumulation of these pressures is also one of the main reasons students drop out.
Research has shown that the best interventions for coping with these issues may be prevention. Dealing with upcoming demands before they become overwhelming may be the best way to counteract the effects of transitional changes. Additionally, using brief techniques for stress management along with proven methods for increasing positivity, has been shown to be of direct benefit to college students.
In one study, researchers compared 18-22 year old students on two intervention programs: a coping skills group, which educated students on adaptive ways to manage stress, and a cognitive training program, which used various games to improve working memory, attention, control/inhibition, or shifting/cognitive flexibility. After six weeks of training a post-intervention measure found significant decreases with both conditions on social stress, anxiety and executive function issues. The participants in the cognitive training did significantly better on measures of better behavior regulation and managing ADHD symptoms — important skills in managing the academic demands of college.
Studies like these show that prevention programs can work particularly well in reducing symptoms. Yet, there is another side to the coin. Reducing symptoms can keep students from going into a tailspin, but are there also other, deliberate interventions, which can be used to help students increase joy and sustainable well-being. These interventions are largely being drawn from a new field: positive psychology.
The science of positive psychology, evolving from the work of Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, has focused on five factors that help people thrive and collectively identify the elements of well-being: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement (PERMA). Seligman’s work, along with many researchers around the world, has forged a new sub-discipline within the field of psychology, which involves the use of specific interventions, new tools, as it were, to increase positivity. At its core these principles aim to increase positive emotions, while shaking off the aftereffects of a setback.
The new book U Thrive: How to Succeed in College (and Life) by Daniel Lerner and Alan Schlechter, two New York University professors who teach a course on the science of happiness, has taken the research centered around Seligman’s work, as well as others, and applied it specifically for college students. These experts know first-hand what students need and how to tailor their work accordingly.
I consider this book a breakthrough and wish it were available when I went to college (or my daughter). It is highly accessible and offers students the most comprehensive collection of applied interventions, along with the research to help them not only survive but thrive. In a lively, well-written and down-to-earth format the authors give students the tools to help them not only deal with the struggles, but help them find sustainable ways to succeed in college and beyond. Chief among these interventions are the essential elements of cultivating optimism, developing resilience, and refining goal-setting. If you are looking for a practical gift for your college-bound person, this is it.
Keep in mind that there is a wide-range of what is normal during college transition. Nearly 70% of incoming freshman change their major, and the sheer volume of new people, expectations, and physical changes requires some normal periods of adjustment. What prevention and proactive strategies offer is a way to soften these natural transitions, and offer authentic hope for not only getting through, but doing well in college.
Bettis, A. H., Coiro, M. J., England, J., Murphy, L. K., Zelkowitz, R. L., Dejardins, L., … & Compas, B. E. (2017). Comparison of two approaches to prevention of mental health problems in college students: enhancing coping and executive function skills. Journal of American college health, 1-10.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Free Press.