Dan Lerner on how to run a course on well-being

Dan Lerner (left) and Alan Schlechter

Dan Lerner and Alan Schlecter run the Science of Happiness course at NYU, which is the second-most-popular course at the university, with around 500 students per semester from various different majors. I spoke to Dan to get a sense of what’s involved in such a big, popular course on well-being. You can check out the syllabus for the course here

Hi Dan, could you tell me about the course?

The course was launched the year before I joined, in 2011. I joined in 2012, and Alan and I taught it together. When I got there, Alan was teaching solo, and about 80% of the class was focused on traditional ideas of well-being – what are the challenges you face, what is stress and anxiety, how does traditional therapy help us deal with that. It was mainly from the student perspective – what stresses do students face. When I came in, I thought there was an imbalance between the challenges and the opportunities that students face. Now it’s more 75% about the opportunities students have for flourishing.

But it’s important to focus on the challenges as well, because, if you look at the research, students are really struggling. Look at the research Gallup and other organizations have done – 90% of college students have been very stressed in the past year. 30% have been stressed in the past two weeks. 33% have dealt with debilitating depression in the last year. So there are lots of barriers you need to get through, in addition to dealing with opportunities.

Alan mostly teaches the barriers – he does a class on stress, on procrastination, on CBT. And then most of the classes I focus on are traditional Positive Psychology topics – meaning, purpose, will-power, passion, those kinds of things. Those are the three primary sessions – the basics that you need to know, then we talk about change – what are the elements of change you need to know. And then finally we talk about excellence – what role does meaning play in raising your game, what is the science of passion, goal-setting. We do a little bit of neuroscience, we study a book called The Brain That Changes Itself by a neuroscientist here at NYU, Norman Doidge.

We’re very clear, in the very first class, if you’re one of those people who say ‘I just can’t change’, this might not be the course for you, because it’s about change. We expect people to come in with the understanding that change is possible. We totally welcome sceptics. We want to have conversations, want to hear what your questions are and your challenges. But if you’re sitting here thinking ‘I’m not buying this’, it will be a long semester for you.

Is it open just to psychology majors?

No, it’s open to everybody. It’s an elective course. Maybe 30% of our students are psychology majors, 40% are dancers or singers. They might realize they’re going to be facing a lot of rejections in their career and they need to become more resilient.

You have a background working with musicians don’t you?

Yes, exactly. The rest of the students come from all over the map – pre-med, pre-law, business. They’re saying that they keep reading that people aren’t happy in our industry, and they’re trying to address that before they get into Goldman Sachs.

How is it assessed?

About 80% is experiential. We will take the most empirically-sound interventions we have – the gratitude journal, character strengths, the good day journal, things like this. And we will have them do each one over the course of a week, and then write a 1-2 page report on what it was like. What was it like to meditate every day for a week, for example, We’re clear that not every one will work for everyone. Just be honest. Some will feel right for you and some won’t. About 80% of the assignments, and 50% of the grades, are these weekly experiential assignments.

We have two larger papers, 5+ pages, we give them a choice of topics. One is heavily based on the book The Brain That Changes Itself. The final paper, we give them a very broad choice, for example – what do you think is missing from the current construct of well-being? They also have a final. We’re very clear that the topics in the final won’t be tiny peripheral studies, they’re things we want them to walk away with for the rest of their life, like: what are three characteristics of healthy passion, for example. What are three elements of expert development from the 10,000 hours theory? What are three ways positive emotion changes our experience? List three of your character strengths and how you use them? Those kinds of things. Then finally they have a group project.

In addition to their lectures – 27 lectures of 75-minutes each, twice a week – they have a recitation which is once a week. Our course is so big – we have 500 students a semester – so we try to make it as intimate we can. There’s a lot of Q&A in the lectures but we also have this recitation, done in groups of 25 or less.  It’s a 55-minute class, they’ll have a teaching assistant there, more intimate Q&A, small group work, to go over the material and try some exercises. The TAs grade everything – the exercises, the exams, everything.

Does the university consider this a signature course, so it gets special funding?

Well, they budget it like they would everything else. NYU is a fairly expensive university, and having 500 students in there, we have a fair budget for working with TAs.

Are the recitation classes an essential part of it in terms of giving students more room to talk?

Certainly. There are students who are more likely to speak up in a lecture – maybe 40-50 of them – because we really do try and engage. And we try to have at least one huddle per lecture, like, speak to the person next to you. But the recitations give the introverts a much better shot at having a different kind of engagement. And to get to know each other, and talk about the exercises in a way that’s helpful.

It’s also about learning about your peer group. One of the first questions I ask in the course is ‘who here sometimes feels stressed at college?’ and 95% of the hands go up. And I say, great, keep them up, look around. The recitations help them to build solidarity with each other. You’re not the only one for whom meditation didn’t work, you’re not the only one dealing with a rough room-mate, you’re not the only one who actually found a really wonderful experience in the conscious acts of kindness exercise. To share that and talk about is essential to realizing the personal benefits. I can’t tell you how many messages I get after the course saying ‘it changed the way I experienced my time here at college’ – I get those messages a year later, four years later.

Can you tell me more about the group project?

The basic idea is to disseminate some of the principles of Positive Psychology on campus. They do it a number of ways. They will go out to Washington Square Park, at the heart of the campus, and might, for example, ask random folk who the most important person in their life is and why; and are they willing to reach out to them right now. They might share a bit of the science around relationships. And they might make a mini-documentary about that. Or they might give their entire dorm floor the character strength survey and then ask them to use one of their character strengths every day for a week.

Does the class involve ethics, and ethical debate? I guess a course on thriving or flourishing will involve different ways of defining it, different values, different cultural takes on it. Do those kinds of questions come up? I notice the syllabus includes a bit of Greek philosophy for example. 

It’s something we don’t address in conversations, so much as we set them up for a broad definition of flourishing. It’s the nature of a large class like this, and given the demographic that comes to it…it’s not something we really push. We do discuss it in great depth at the graduate programme in Positive Psychology at Penn. Those guys are ready for that conversation. That being said, we’re very open to the fact that there are different definitions of well-being. There’s no one set way, but we’re going to teach this way, and are open to the conversation about other ways. For example, the argument over A in PERMA – what is achievement? It’s different for different people.

And I was wondering, for example if some students’ ideas of flourishing involve God. Do students draw on religious perspectives in their responses?

One of the most memorable experiences I had was a student in a full burqa. She sat at the front every time. And we had a lot of conversations about her religion, and her marriage. I tried to teach a class on spirituality and well-being, one class when we first started. And to really look at it empirically. There’s some strong research out there. It was too prickly a topic for this class. For a large class of undergrads. What students really seem to value most is to get a richer understanding of wellbeing and the actions they can take. When questions about spirituality come up I say I am more than willing to have a conversation with you, drop me an email if anyone wants to get involved. It’s come up way more often one-to-one or very small groups.

Any other tips on how to do this kind of course well?

The one thing I want to share is…OK, one of the biggest challenges for any university instructor is making the work relatable. When I came in, we would sometimes refer to research on positive emotions and how it affect their memory and learning ability. When you share that with students, they are locked in. And the next slide would be positive emotions and how it relates to marriage and divorce. You could see every student in the room blank out. They didn’t care about divorce. So I’m always asking TAs, tell me how this is reaching students, tell me what’s not connecting. They’re 18, they’ve never seen the film Titanic. We’ve pared down the research so carefully to be able to talk to students who are 25 or under.

You can read more about Dan and Alan’s course in their recent book, U Thrive: How to Succeed at College, and Life

The Flourishing University seminar (2/9/17)

Last week QMUL’s Centre for the History of the Emotions hosted a half-day seminar on the Flourishing University, exploring well-being and wisdom in higher education, for students, PhDs, staff and the wider society, from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Below is the schedule of speakers along with the link to a Soundcloud audio of the sessions (two talks weren’t recorded). You can download the audio on iTunes here.

You can also download the slides below – apologies if some of the slides came out a bit wrong when I converted them to PDF.

Session One: Introduction

Jules Evans, research fellow at Centre for the History of the Emotions: Why we need an interdisciplinary approach to flourishing in higher education

Rachel Piper, Student Minds head of policy: Co-creating a whole university approach to well-being

Dr Daniel Eisenberg, Healthy Minds Network: What universities can measure in student mental health and well-being

Edward Pinkney, Hong Kong University: Technology as a help and hindrance to student flourishing (audio not available)

Jules Evans slides; Rachel Piper slides; Daniel Eisenberg slides; Edward Pinkney slides

Session 2: Interventions and curricula for undergrads

Dr Michael Pluess, QMUL head of psychology: Teaching well-being / character through Positive Psychology (audio not available).

Dr Oliver Robinson, University of Greenwich psychology lecturer: The transitions of higher education

Professor Nigel Tubbs, programme leader of Modern Liberal Arts at University of WInchester: Liberal arts and flourishing

Dr Karen Scott, senior lecturer in political science at University of Exeter, and Kieran Cutting, political science graduate: Teaching the good life

Dr Siobhan Lynch, researcher in mindfulness at Southampton University: Mindfulness for students

Session 3: The Flourishing University

Dr Amber Davis: The Happy PhD – PhD student mental health and well-being

Sally Rose, psychotherapist at Leeds University: Staff well-being in higher education

Danny Angel-Payne, public health undergraduate at QMUL: Open Minds and student volunteering in the local community

Gareth Hughes of Derby University on bridging student learning and well-being

Portrait of Gareth Hughes

Here’s an interview with Gareth Hughes, research lead in student well-being at the University of Derby. Gareth’s worked in this field for two decades and has a lot of wisdom, experience and insight. We discussed how Derby has introduced classes in psycho-education in almost every one of its undergraduate courses – different classes are tailored to the needs of students on different courses (for example, music students get a class in managing performance anxiety).

We discuss a lot more, everything from transition anxiety to the ‘dangerous rise of therapeutic education.’  Here’s the podcast which you can also download on iTunes here

Here’s what we cover and where it’s covered in the podcast:

3 – 10 mins – The psycho-education component in each undergraduate degree at Derby

Different classes in each degree depending on the needs of students. ‘It’s very tailored to their curriculum. And it’s not just about their well-being, it’s about their learning, their lifestyle.’

For example, music students get a class in coping with performance anxiety. Business students get a class on emotional intelligence in the workplace.

‘Classes are embedded in a module. If it’s voluntary, students don’t get why it’s helpful, if it’s part of a module they come along and then get why it’s useful.’

‘We always call it learning and well-being – the two are very much linked.’

‘We’ve made a commitment to [having psycho-education classes] in 100% of Derby degree courses by 2018. And we’re on target for that.’

11 mins – helping students in the first weeks and first year

‘think about the first year as a year’s worth of induction, not just the first weeks’

‘more students have clinical levels of distress than not in the first six weeks of university’ – why the first few weeks is a good time to focus on feeling / belonging rather than learning.

Transition anxiety isn’t just homesickness, because there’s similar levels of distress in students who live at home. It’s the entry into a new environment. We can help students using guided visualization – imagining walking around the campus and feeling you belong.

19 mins – Belonging / socialization: ‘we don’t know how students socialize, we just as hope it’s happening. It’s a magical thing we’re leaving up to the student union and fate. We have no idea why some students find their social group and others don’t.’

If you perceive yourself as lonely, your immune and cognitive levels drop

If students had been to a university open day before arriving, they generally had lower levels of distress

20.30 mins – what should university well-being teams measure?

‘measurement is important but it’s dangerous to look only at that…we need a more complex way of looking at what’s going on’

The priority given to RCTs is a problem. RCTs way you stop imposters getting in the door with dangerous things. CBT in RCTs and CBT in real world – the outcomes are very different.

Measurements don’t get used as scientific tools, get used as management tools

What can you realistically do with each intervention that you’re measuring. Does one class on psycho-education have a major effect? Of course not. But whenever we go and deliver programmes, students are more likely to access service afterwards

Our classes also alter what academics do – they bridge counselling and academic teaching

It’s about bridging learning and well-being . ‘While counselling is vitally important, and a lot of universities have cut back on counselling, it’s not the only thing, it’s not the only response.’

26 mins – Are universities more concerned with wellbeing now? ‘Yes, and they have more reason to be, something has gone wrong with young people’.

‘If we map the number of students who we see who need long-term ongoing support, it’s not a curb, it’s a straight line going up, year on year.’

Why? It’s not one thing. It’s a complex cultural phenomenon.

First, there’s been a change in parenting – the idea that the job of the parent is to stop your child ever being distressed has caused problems

eg two children fall out in school, and parents ring up to fix it. Children aren’t left to figure it out themselves

Second, there’s been a change in school culture – very exam driven. Teachers on performance-related pay. It’s no longer about learning or character development, it’s about passing exams. Huge rise in perfectionism among young women.

There’s a cultural narrative about going to university to get a good job immediately afterwards, which is a lie

That’s not what it does – equip you with skills to have a satisfying long-term career, but it’s not a job-training scheme.

The whole narrative that ‘its to get a job to get you on job ladder’ is by people who don’t understand the job ladder doesn’t exist any more

30 mins – do fees increase students’ anxiety?

31 mins – Is therapeutic education making young people more vulnerable?

Kathryn Ecclestone’s book, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, is a conspiracy theory rather than a scientific theory, it’s cherry-picking the evidence. Are you saying all the rise in student mental illness is entirely down to wellbeing classes? Look at how many schools run these classes – it’s not that many.

Exam culture in schools is much more pervasive than well-being culture. But where the well-being culture may have a big influence is over-anxious parenting – childhood is meant to be a preparation for adulthood, not some perfect stress-free time.

33.5 mins – Anxiety is the thing that’s most prevalent in students. Far more than anything else.

36 – counselling – what works? students need active, quick therapy. what we need to do is do all different modules.

need to know about students’ subjects and academic performance – it’s a huge part of their life.

needs to put them back in control – takes active shift, chunk of education, bit of movement

38.5 mins – peer to peer support groups work well when well funded, supervised and supported, but if not, can be disastrous

39.5 mins – courses and workshops work if in language of students. has to be relevant to their world not ours. and they have to perceive it as useful very early in the session. otherwise you’re talking over their heads.

40 mins – wellbeing is holistic – learning, meaning, physical health, psychological health – all part of same thing. learning spaces – do they have sunlight and windows. what student accomodation like. can they sleep properly? We have a sleeplessness epidemic among students.

well-being and learning – they’re connected

41 mins – How do you get people onboard with a university well-being programme?

The VC is the person who can think about it holistically

We’ve earned our mileage – we bootcamped ourselves to understand learning more, so we can speak in academics’ language, not ours.otherwise we’re perceived as the bit of university that wants to make degrees easy

no substitute for going from team to team having conversations

44.5 – Staff wellbeing – if a lecturer is mentally unwell, that will influence students

The role of the academic has changed very quickly, and many not sure what their role is

46.50 mins – What should universities be doing than they’re not? Thinking about it differently. We hear a lot about ad hoc initiatives, but little about the philosophy and strategy that underlines them.

There’s an empty theoretical space sitting here. Derby – we defined what our philosophy was and key principles by which we act and behave. We’re not a reactive closed-door service. active and collaborative.

wave 1 – workshops for all students.
wave 2 – work vulnerable students
wave 3 – work with students at risk

It’s a research – teaching – practice model

49 mins – the importance of classical Indian and Greek philosophy to psychology and wellbeing initiatives. Psychology is more based on philosophy than it likes to admit.

50 mins – US versus UK universities – American unis more in loco parentis

UK unis moving to US model – in US you’re a minor until 21 in most states. you get curfew times in halls of residence. you get male and female halls of residence. which our students wouldnt tolerate.

another thing is we’re not here to plug a gap in students for three years then turn them out at other end.

we want students able to manage their own needs.

you hear a lot of learner development and personal development theory. but i do think that in loco parentis thing makes them carry students more

52 mins – we have an opportunity to change the world here.

Sir Anthony Seldon: ‘Universities can help students become free adults’

This week I took the train out to Milton Keynes, then a taxi through the golden fields of Buckinghamshire to the University of Buckingham, where Sir Anthony Seldon recently became vice-chancellor. He was previously headmaster of Wellington School, where he became prominent for his advocacy of happiness classes. Now, he has brought that vision to higher education, outlining his plan to make Buckingham ‘Europe’s first positive university’.

What does that mean? Well, you can listen to our conversation through this podcast. In brief, it’s a holistic vision that includes various measures, from mentoring to mindfulness. The most eye-catching is the introduction of classes in Positive Psychology for all students and staff.

I met the head of psychology, Dr Alan Martin, who has been given this task by Anthony. Imagine – you’re the head of faculty in the UK’s smallest university, your speciality is children’s understanding of science, when a new vice-chancellor arrives and calls you in for a meeting. ‘I’d like to introduce classes in Positive Psychology. For everyone’. ‘All psychology students?’ ‘No, everyone.’

In that first meeting with Alan, Anthony called up Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, and booked him in as a consultant. Suddenly, Alan is thrust into the fabulously-funded world of Positive Psychology,  the cultish conferences at Penn, the sermons from Seligman, the endless well-being questionnaires. And he is the European apostle – go forth, and make Buckingham flourish. It’s the stuff of David Lodge novels.

His task is made slightly easier by the fact Buckingham only has 2500 undergraduates, and it already has the highest scores for student satisfaction in the UK, thanks to its low student-to-teacher ratio and tutorial system. But it’s still quite a shift in culture for the university – it was founded in the 1970s by two neoliberal wonks from the Thatcherite Institute of Economic Affairs, and opened by the Iron Lady herself, as a way to challenge state control of universities. The previous vice-chancellor was a grumpy libertarian who didn’t believe in staff training. 

Seldon, by contrast, has a much more paternalist vision of the university. The part of our conversation that most struck me  – have a listen yourself on the podcast – is where Anthony says: ‘Universities are helping people to be free. You can’t assume that people suddenly morph from dependent teenagers to autonomous adults over the summer holidays.’  He adds:

This is about liberating but not infantilizing people. Liberty is not license. If you let 18-year-olds without any guidance have lots of money and access to whatever they want to do, without guidance, then it would be a recipe for disaster in some people’s cases. We’re here to try and help people learn how to be free. Many adults aren’t free. I’ve never met an alcoholic who’s free, I’ve never met a sex addict who’s free. I’m sure they were all given huge license to indulge themselves, but life is not about indulgence, indulgence is enslavement.

Cardinal Newman

He quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, about the state helping people to be free (or forcing them, rather – Seldon says ‘ there’s a place for coercion in education’) but the educator he really reminds me of is Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century Catholic thinker and rector of the Catholic University in Dublin. He wrote The Idea of a University, which is the classic defence of the liberal arts model of education, ie the idea that universities shouldn’t just teach vocations but also the intellectual, social and spiritual virtues.

Newman, like Seldon, saw universities as pastors shepherding students to autonomous adulthood. Newman thought that ‘a Tutor was not a mere academical Policeman, or Constable, but a moral and religious guardian of the youths committed to him’. He also thought peer-to-peer education was key – students really mould each other through what Newman called the ‘genius loci’, or ‘spirit-of-the-place’ (through sports, clubs, arts groups, and so on). 

Paul Shrimpton, author of a recent book on Newman’s vision for higher education, writes: ‘Throughout his life Newman was preoccupied with the ‘problem’ of human freedom, and in particular how it played out in a person’s formative years. In all his educational ventures he grappled with how best to negotiate that delicate and gradual process of launching the young person into the world, how to pitch demands and expectations with just that right mixture of freedom and restraint.’

Seldon clearly thinks universities are more in loco parentis than most British universities currently are – his vision is closer to the American liberal arts model, where of course 18-year-olds are still legally minors. I wonder how this vision will go down in the UK. As we emerged from dinner, Anthony greeted three Buckingham students wandering down the village street, pints in hand. ‘Good evening, how are you!’ he beamed. The students seemed startled by running into their new vice-chancellor. ‘We were just discussing student drinking!’ he said. ‘We…er….just came second in the pub quiz’, one of the students responded, while the other two lurked in the background.

Maybe some will find his vision creepy. I’m sure many sullen British academics will say his project is really turning out cheerleaders for neo-liberalism, and that students should actually be taught to be angry at the injustices of global capitalism.  But it must be possible to have an education that both wakes us up to the sometimes harsh reality of life on this planet and also gives us the confidence, equanimity and inner strength to believe we can improve that reality.  Is this not what, say, Martha Nussbaum advocates in her defence of the liberal arts? 

Personally, I wish I’d had a tutor like Anthony at university. He’s an unusual chap, no mistake. On the one hand, a political operator, well-connected, not shy of publicity, who’s written biographies of four prime ministers. On the other hand, a deeply spiritual person who talks of transcending the ego, with whom one can discuss anything from yoga to Gurdjieff.

He greeted me at his cottage and then went off to meditate, and he went off to meditate again after my talk. In between, we sat in his living room with assorted students and staff, for what he called a ‘fireside chat’. ‘Who’s watching Love Island?’ he asked the startled cohorts, who seemed unsure whether to admit such a vice. He has a habit of firing questions at people. ‘What’s your greatest fear?’ he asked me at dinner. ‘When was the last time you took drugs?’ he asked at the fireside chat. ‘About a month ago”, I said. ‘A microdose of magic mushrooms.’ Well, Anthony, you did ask!

If you want to hear highlights of our conversation, click here

What UK universities can learn from the US about well-being

A diagram from Donald Harward on the purposes of higher education


As regular readers will know, I’ve begun a new research focus, looking at well-being in higher education. British universities have started to focus on this issue a lot more, spurred by worrying headlines about an ‘epidemic of mental illness on campus’. But, judging by the events I’ve attended so far, universities don’t yet get the complexity of this issue, and see it simply in terms of increasing funding for counselling.

This last week, I came across a collection of essays – Well-Being and Higher Education: A Strategy for Change and the Realization of Education’s Greater Purposes – by a group of American academics. It suggests to me that the US is way beyond the UK in its thinking on this topic.

First, the authors take well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education, rather than something one farms out to counselling services at the campus periphery. Secondly, they understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education as you try to re-frame its purpose. Third, they recognize the philosophical complexity of defining and measuring well-being. And fourth, they’re prepared to try out innovative interventions. British universities are way behind on all four of these issues.

  1. Taking well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education

The collection begins with an essay by the editor, Donald Harward, a philosopher who was president of Bates College and now heads up an institute called Bringing Theory to Practice. He called for American higher education to ‘recognize well-being as an inextricable, but not sole, dimension of higher education’s greater purpose’. 

Other American universities have embraced well-being as part of their mission. In 2013, Georgetown University President John DeGioia described the university’s responsibility to our students as the following: “Our explicit way of supporting young people engaged in the most important work in which they can be engaged: learning to know themselves and identifying the conditions that will provide for an authentic, flourishing life.”

The same year, George Mason University included well-being as one of twelve strategic goals in its 2015-2025 strategic plan. Nance Lucas and Paul Rogers from George Mason write: ‘Our vision at George Mason University is to become a model “well-being university”—a place at which students, faculty, and staff learn what it means to have lives well-lived and how to respond well to a full range of emotions and challenges.’ Note that George Mason seeks to promote not just student well-being, but the well-being of faculty, staff and the wider community. 

Several other senior American academics put forward well-being, flourishing or virtue as a core purpose of higher education in the collection. In British universities, by contrast, one rarely hears well-being, flourishing, purpose or virtue mentioned as a central purpose of higher education.

2. It’s important to know the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose

The authors in the collection understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, writes: ‘Lacking historical perspective, one cannot even be sure whether “new” proposals are truly new or merely nostrums that have been trotted out before with disappointing results.’

It’s important to understand that universities’ focus on well-being is not an entirely new thing. If you look back over universities’  2500-year history, they have always seen their mission as at least partly to ‘discipline the mind and build the character of students’ (Bok again). It’s only in the last five decades or so, with the rise of the ‘multiversity’, that this sense of mission declined.

The first proto-universities, such as Nalanda in fifth-century BC India and Plato’s Academy in fourth-century BC Greece, were schools of philosophy which students attended not just to acquire knowledge but to seek wisdom, eudaimonia, and the transformation of consciousness. They were places of learning and also of askesis, or training. Likewise the Christian monasteries of the Dark Ages were not just knowledge-factories, but also places of askesis and contemplation.

Medieval universities were ideally meant to be ‘wisdom’s workshops’ (to quote Pope Gregory), producing good servants of the church via the study of theology, rhetoric, philosophy and the other liberal arts, and via strict control of students’ behaviour. Many medieval monasteries embraced the Aristotelian and Thomist idea that the goal of education – indeed the goal of society as a whole – was flourishing.

American universities in the 17th and 18th centuries were Christian institutions trying to produce good Christian citizens. Bok writes

Until the Civil War, colleges in the United States were linked to religious bodies and resembled finishing schools more closely than institutions of advanced education. Student behavior was closely regulated both inside and outside the classroom, and teachers spent much of their time enforcing regulations and punishing transgressors. Rules of behavior were written in exquisite detail. Columbia’s officials took two full pages merely to describe the proper forms of behavior during compulsory chapel. Yale turned “Sabbath Profanation, active disbelief in the authenticity of the Bible, and extravagant [personal] expenditures” into campus crimes…

As a culminating experience, most colleges prior to the Civil War offered a mandatory course for seniors on issues of moral philosophy, often taught by the president himself. Ranging over ethical principles, history, politics, and such issues of the day as immigration, slavery, and freedom of the press, this capstone course served multiple objectives. It set forth precepts of ethical behavior, it prepared students for civic responsibility, and it brought together knowledge from several fields of learning. For many students, it was the high point of an otherwise dull and stultifying education.

The purposes of higher education gradually changed and secularized in the second half of the 19th century. American universities began to follow German counterparts in focusing more on research and PhDs, and launching institutions like Johns Hopkins that were secular and purely research-focused. By the early 20th century, most Protestant universities no longer had enforced chapel or Bible study.

But German and American universities still held the Romantic ideal of bildung, ie the faith that liberal education in culture, science and moral philosophy would help students develop well-rounded and virtuous characters.  Universities looked back – and sometimes still look back – to Cicero’s defence of the liberal arts, and his assertion that education helps make us free.

Universities who shared this faith in the liberal arts might try to mould the character of their students through compulsory courses in moral education or Great Books. That idea – of giving students a taste of the best of western culture, giving them an opportunity to form a life-philosophy – has never entirely gone away in American universities, and many still offer courses in Great Books.

It’s particularly strong in Catholic universities, which still embrace the Aristotelian or Thomist model of education. A classic defence of the Catholic vision of higher education is Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University (1852). Newman, who was rector of the Catholic University in Dublin, suggests the role of universities is not just to prepare people for jobs, but to develop their intellectual, social, civic and spiritual virtues, via small tutorials and through the ‘spirit’ of university life.

Now, the quality of education at universities over this 2500-year period may have very often ranged from patchy to dire. There was never a golden age of higher education. But universities’ sense of mission has clearly changed.

The popularity of this sort of liberal education has recently been eroded by three things. Firstly, since the 1960s, the percentage of the population going to college has risen from around 5% to around 40%. University populations have become much more diverse – attracting more women, ethnic minorities and international students. And it’s become more expensive.

Students have become more pragmatic in what they want from a college education – Derek Bok notes that ‘since 1970, the percentage of freshmen who rate “being very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” goal has risen from 36.2 to 73.6%, while the percentage who attach similar importance to “acquiring a meaningful philosophy of life” has fallen from 79 to 39.6%.’  With a much more diverse student body, a ‘wisdom curriculum’ mainly or entirely constituted of Dead White Men has come to be seen as problematic. Where were the female or non-western voices in the canon?

3) Defining and measuring well-being is philosophically complex

Because of growing concerns about the value of mass higher education, university bosses have increasingly looked for ways to define and measure success, to prove they’re succeeding. Bok notes:

The more objective and measurable the goals, the more attractive they will seem to those in charge. As a result, presidents and trustees frequently look to such tangible signs of progress as growth in the size of the endowment, or gains in the average SAT or ACT scores, or new buildings built and new programs begun. Such achievements do not necessarily reflect genuine improvement in teaching, learning and research. But in the absence of better measures, they seem to offer concrete evidence of forward movement and success.

For example, a commission set up by President Obama defined success based on graduation rates and the earnings of graduates. In the UK, notoriously, Gordon Brown’s government tried to measure universities’ success at achieving ‘impact’ on society, while the present government is attempting to measure teaching excellence. None of these measurements are entirely satisfactory, and the Research Excellence Framework introduced by Brown seems to be actively harmful. As Bok notes: ‘Some of the essential aspects of academic institutions – in particular, the quality of the education they provide – are largely intangible and their results are difficult to measure.The result is that much of what is most important to the work of colleges and universities may be neglected, undervalued or laid aside in the pursuit of more visible goals.’

If well-being is embraced as a core purpose by universities, how will it be defined, and can it be measured? This is not a simple question. In the UK, for example, the debate (one might say furore) over campus well-being is driven by frightening but somewhat meaningless statistics, like the NUS survey that showed 78% of students experienced mental health issues. That sounds terrifying, but those issues could be everything from a panic attack to a hangover to a full-blown psychotic episode.

The authors of Well-Being in Higher Education at least seem to understand this is not a simple issue. In fact, several different definitions of well-being are put forward – hedonic well-being (ie feeling good); eudaimonic well-being (defined by Carol Ryff as ‘purpose in life, environment mastery, positive relationships, autonomy, personal growth and self-acceptance); thriving (defined as ‘engaged learning, social connectedness, diverse citizenship and positive perspective’.

There is a recognition that well-being – if defined in an Aristotelian or eudaimonic sense – will probably involve teaching character virtues. Derek Bok suggests developing character is one of the central roles of a university. Barry Schwartz suggests universities should teach the ‘intellectual virtues’: love of truth, honesty, fair-mindedness, humility, perseverance, courage, good listening, perspective taking, empathy, and above all, wisdom, which Schwartz suggests is the ‘master-virtue’. (By the by, the Oxford philosopher Nigel Biggar has also suggested that a central purpose of universities is to teach intellectual and social virtues). Alexander Astin notes that university seems to improve students’ spirituality, and in particular their capacity for the virtue of equanimity – a key virtue in Buddhism and Stoicism. He notes: 

As part a recent national study of college students’ spiritual development, we devised measures of five spiritual qualities, one of which seems especially pertinent to well-being. We call it equanimity. Students with high equanimity scores say they are able to and meaning in times of hardship, feel at peace, see each day as a gift, and feel good about the direction of their lives. Equanimity actually shows positive growth during the college years. Equanimity is most likely to show positive growth when students participate in charitable activities (service learning, donating money to charity, helping friends with personal problems) or when they engage in contemplative practices (meditation, prayer, reflective writing, reading sacred texts). 

Clearly, there are multiple ways universities can define and measure well-being: happiness, freedom from anxiety, purpose in life, equanimity, belonging, connectedness, social conscience and so on. Not all of these are measurable, and those that are might not always be a good guide to success: a university might have a high sense of student belonging because it does not have a very diverse student body. It may be worth measuring multiple factors – as the Healthy Minds survey does – and then using them as helpful tools rather than rigid benchmarks.

4) Innovative interventions 

Finally, the authors in the collection suggest several innovative ways to enhance well-being in universities. In the UK, universities tend to see well-being just as a mental health issue, to be approached through counselling, peer-to-peer training or technology. That’s such a narrow and instrumental way to view it. American universities, perhaps because of their history of liberal arts education, have a much broader and more intellectually-interesting way of approaching it. Several universities offer courses in Positive Psychology, for example, or contemplative studies, or Great Books courses, or courses in moral philosophy or ‘the art of living’ – such general curriculum courses barely exist in UK universities.

Other interventions discussed in the book include:

Engelhard courses at Georgetown University: as part of its commitment to well-being, the university seeks to include modules related to well-being in several different curricula, from biology to history. Riley and Elmendorf write: ‘In foundations of biology, students are required to write a research paper in which students explore the genetic and environmental bases of a mental families and friends directly, so in our predominantly 18–19 year-old population, we often see papers on addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity literature and leverage their nascent knowledge of foundational molecular, genetic, and during face-to-face time in the course and in an online environment. Collectively, the Engelhard project has reached 15,126 students in 358 courses over the ten-year period of 2005 to 2015. More than one-third of our first year students take Engelhard courses

Well-being courses involving the sciences and humanities: James Pawelski, a professor in Positive Psychology at Penn University, notes that well-being can be explored and promoted using both the social sciences and the humanities. He notes, for example, that CBT techniques could be taught with reference to Stoic philosophy (something I’ve taught for the last few years), and that flourishing could be taught through literary studies (he co-authored a book on the ‘eudaimonic turn’ in literary studies). Courses in contemplation can also combine both the sciences (the science of mindfulness) with the humanities (the culture and ethics of Buddhism, for example)

Contemplative studies: Mark Edmundson suggests higher education should promote the virtues of ‘courage, contemplation and compassion’, through such contemplative practices as reflective writing, deep reading, quietness, meditation and poetry.

Volunteering and social work: the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) has a programme called LEAP, which aims to help students’ development through initiatives like ‘service and community-based learning’. I’ll write in the next few days about a similar project in some UK universities, called ‘Open Minds’, where medical and psychology students deliver mental health education in local schools.

Focus on mentoring and relationships: the key finding of a recent study, How College Works by Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs, is that relationships matter more to student thriving than curricula:

At a liberal arts college in New York, the authors followed a cluster of nearly one hundred students over a span of eight years. The curricular and technological innovations beloved by administrators mattered much less than the professors and peers whom students met, especially early on. At every turning point in students’ undergraduate lives, it was the people, not the programs, that proved critical. Great teachers were more important than the topics studied, and even a small number of good friendships—two or three—made a significant difference academically as well as socially.

Barry Schwartz also thinks the intellectual virtues are best passed on to students through relationships, particularly through emulation and modelling: ‘We are always modeling. And the students are always watching. We need to do it better. A good start would be to do it deliberately and not by accident.’

There is so much more one could consider if well-being is taken seriously by universities: the importance of sports, of the aesthetics of a campus, of having places of beauty and quiet to enhance reflection, of marking development with rites of passage. Not to mention the fierce debates over feelings of belonging and safety for women, ethnic minorities, trans students, or white working-class male students (a minority particularly badly-served by British universities).

But this collection shows, encouragingly, that American universities are taking well-being seriously, understanding the historical and philosophical complexity of the issue, and thinking about constructive ways to promote it. We in British universities can learn a lot from their experiences.