Imagining the Future with the Student Flourishing Initiative

When great minds think alike, anything can happen, which is why the Student Flourishing Initiative might just succeed in starting a wellness revolution in higher education. Begun by David Germano, Robert Roeser, Mark Greenberg, and Richard Davidson, the Initiative uses scholarship on human flourishing from the sciences and humanities with training in contemplative practice to improve students’ wellbeing and prepare them for a good life.

The four colleagues from three separate universities are promoting these practices as a way of addressing the widespread mental health crisis among college students, made worse by the disruption and isolation of the pandemic. But if this aim weren’t high enough, they are also urging colleges and universities to recognize that flourishing is not just an antidote to this distress, but also is a core aim of a liberal arts education around which colleges and universities can organize.

“There are really two main goals here,” said Greenberg, the former Director of the Prevention Research Center at Penn State and a founding father of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), an approach to education that focuses on human development. “One is that we are very concerned about what’s called the ‘epidemic of anxiety and depression’ among young people. And the other is we are examining the role of the university in student wellbeing which, in my opinion, has lost its ability to teach in a broad way about what it means to be human.”

Germano, a religious historian at the University of Virginia and Director of the school’s Contemplative Sciences Center, says the effort involves both personal and institutional processes of change. He sees the examination of flourishing in education as both an opportunity and a moral imperative. “The most compelling challenge we face in higher education right now is what we can do to begin to address this crisis of wellbeing among the youth in our institutions in ways that can be scalable and sustainable,” he said. “If we as institutions and individuals who are key stakeholders in that institution are not engaged in fundamental reflection, innovation and transformation, we are morally culpable and morally compromised.”

Germano and Greenberg, together with Roeser of Penn State, and Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, came together to form the Initiative based on several common interests and inquiries. While the scholars come from different disciplines (e.g., religious studies, psychology, human development), all were involved in research on how contemplative practices, mindfulness, and compassion training could be deployed and shared with students, faculty, and staff in a broader way.

A major connection was their work with the Charlottesville-based Mind and Life Institute, whose mission is to bring science and contemplative wisdom together to create positive change in the world, as reflected in the teachings of the Dalai Lama. The colleagues were curious about how this work could be applied to education, specifically to college students, as rates of anxiety and depression increased each year they were reported.
At an Indian restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, the Student Flourishing Initiative was launched with the idea for a course that would eventually be called “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing.”

The interdisciplinary course, which each university now teaches, helps students to develop skills and perspectives that support individual and collective flourishing. It is designed to knit together academic and experiential learning to help students understand and practice flourishing – a term that means living a full and fulfilling life of meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging, the exact conditions a large percentage of college students say they lack.

Just as sociologist Corey Keyes purports that good mental health is not simply the absence of poor mental health, flourishing is a state where joy and suffering are equally experienced but in ways that lead to resilience and growth. Two of its main tenets are self-reflection and agency, and the capacity to make meaning out of suffering on the road to flourishing. That is, flourishing is not the absence of suffering in this view, but something that constitutes and motivates the path of flourishing.

With an adaptable curriculum, the course can be taught at a wide variety of institutions. Greenberg says it is perhaps even more important in less resourced schools like community colleges where questions about who you are as a person are often overlooked in the pursuit of a vocation or trade.

The course makes clear that individual and collective flourishing are intertwined.

“You can’t have a good life without caring about others in one’s community, because our lives are fundamentally interconnected. Doing work for others to ensure justice, equity, and our mutual welfare is critical to flourishing,” said Roeser, the Bennett Pierce Professor of Care and Compassion who teaches the course at Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development.

“When one reads the world’s great traditions on flourishing, they all seem to agree that one’s self-interest, though critically important, is simply too small of a sphere out of which to create a life of deep meaning and fulfillment. The key to flourishing, it seems, lies beyond the self.”

To explore these conjectures, Roeser’s course meets three days a week and involves learning the skills of flourishing – awareness, connection, insight, and embodiment – and then practicing them through exercises like focused attention meditation.

“Doing something is different than knowing something,” he said. “These different kinds of learnings complement one another and that is what the data is showing the students are taking away – both skills and knowledge.”

Grounded in the science of neuroplasticity, the Student Flourishing Initiative reinforces the notion that self-transformation is possible but requires practice, self-effort, and community.

“All of this work, in one way or another, is rooted in the comprehensive framework for understanding the plasticity of wellbeing – the notion that wellbeing can actually be learned,” said Davidson, a neuroscientist, who directs the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin.

The mission of the center, and its non-profit affiliate, Healthy Minds Innovations, is to cultivate wellbeing and relieve suffering through scientific understanding of the mind. While not specifically focused on college students, the center’s work on wellbeing and neuroscience has direct application to the college mental health crisis and the role of higher education in the wellbeing of its students.

“The college student period is particularly important as the brain is still undergoing massive reorganization,” Davidson said. “We believe the interventions during the college years, and potentially just before, have important consequences for life.”

When asked if this is an opportunity for colleges and universities to build better people, Davidson called it “a critical need.”

“This is an age group in which there are very significant reports of anxiety, depression, and loneliness, all of which have pernicious effects that have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” he said. “In talking with college counselors, it is clear they don’t have the capacity to handle the consequences of these problems. They need something else and they need it fast.”

Davidson distinguishes flourishing work from traditional college counseling where practitioners are trained to treat problems.

“When we look at students, we don’t see what’s wrong with them,” he said. “We see what’s right about them; we ask them to identify their strengths and we nourish those strengths because we really believe that’s the key to fostering wellbeing.”

Davidson’s group has developed an app—the Healthy Minds Program (see: tryhealthyminds.org) with flourishing content as well as the ability to aggregate data. It is deeply incorporated into the course taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and can be used by anyone in the world. He hopes classes like The Art and Science of Human Flourishing will be required for every first-year college student.

“I really think it could make the world a better place,” he said.

Over the last four years, the three universities have worked together to share data and study outcomes of the course. A recent evaluation of course graduates found them to be less anxious and depressed with a better mental health in the COVID-era than control group members. After the pandemic hit, the three universities made the course available to their students online, which also allows it to be more broadly distributed.

The Initiative already involves another 10 or so additional schools, most of which have centers in contemplative studies and are interested in the philosophy behind the course. The schools include Brown, Stanford, Washington University, and Emory which, among others, are referred to under the broader term, the ‘Flourishing Academic Network.’

As the Student Flourishing Initiative evolves, Germano asserts it is just the beginning of “something much more all-encompassing. He and other colleagues are working on a blueprint for a full transformation in higher education they are calling the “Flourishing University” – aided by a digital repository of best practices and recommendations that put student wellbeing at the center of the university’s mission.

In developing the university concept, Germano is thinking deeply about what is causing wellness erosion in today’s young people with theories about digital exploitation and relentless change. He is asking challenging questions: What facets of university life – from the application process to the lecture hall – are infringing upon students’ wellbeing? And he seeks changes to the flourishing context typically used in North America, believing it to be overly normative and lacking diverse voices. Germano hopes the examination will bring a new vision for what flourishing looks like in today’s world, and what a university of flourishing might be.

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