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Wellbeing

Wellbeing
 

This offering features some musings about wellbeing, and specifically the commitment in our Strategic Plan to make Mason a “wellbeing university”, possibly the first ever (though discussions of wellbeing in colleges are gaining ground elsewhere). The musings go in several directions, all reflecting my relative unfamiliarity with this goal (in contrast to our other strategic commitments), and my need to gain greater comfort with it. A briefing on the subject a few days ago helped, but also prompted some of the questions that follow.

First off, of course: who can be against wellbeing? Not me, certainly (“Mason Provost declares opposition to wellbeing of students, faculty, staff, alumni.” Not likely).

There is apparently some really interesting, powerful research on the importance of wellbeing not only in itself, but as a component of other goals. The Gallup organization, with which we may partner for part of this effort, argues that wellbeing explains at least a third of any good grades students receive. There is also much comment on the relationship between wellbeing and successful careers, leadership and advancement.

Finally, it’s worth noting that aspects of wellbeing have long been part of an educational vision, though not in exactly the current terms and language. (It is an annoying feature of current progressive discussions of higher education that everything has to seem brand new and unprecedented; but that’s another column.)  Mens sana in corpore sano, for example, was touted still when I was in college–though not for strivers like me; it had a bit of the old connotation in which C’s were acceptable grades for “gentlemen”. So it’s not brand new to think of education in terms additional to book learning.

With all that said, some discomforts as well. Some of the wellbeing research claims need further scrutiny (though again, I’m new to this and genuinely impressed with the expertise at Mason and elsewhere). There are some huge assumptions, for example, about global universality that I really wonder about. So let’s make sure there continues to be a critical, scholarly appraisal of all this as we move forward.

And what can and should we do about wellbeing? So far, what I understand is that the University can partner to conduct regular surveys of wellbeing among faculty, students, young alums. We can also train more people on campus on this kind of survey work and also strengths assessments. Fine. But there is an assumption that we will hope each annual survey will register a bit more wellbeing than the last one. What will we have to commit to do to encourage this

How much, for example, can and should we change teaching to try to maximize wellbeing? How useful is it to students in the long run to be as careful as we can to let them express their strengths, and not spend as much time trying to help them correct weaknesses? (I personally viewed college more as a preparation for the possibility of wellbeing, than as a place where I would find it directly – but maybe I was missing the boat, or maybe conditions have simply changed too much for my recalled experience to be relevant at all). Certainly we need to ask where wellbeing promotion stands, as a priority, among the other priorities we identify.

I am persuaded that in advising, if not so much in teaching, some of the wellbeing guidance will be truly useful. Here, more clearly than in actual classrooms, is where we can help students discuss strengths and interests, in connection with careers in college and beyond.

Finally, and obviously: we need to be very sensitive to students, faculty, and others who may not want to play the wellbeing game, who will find the effort presumptuous and intrusive. I hasten to add that no proponent is talking about requirements, even for participation in surveys. We need some caution, for the goal will strike different people in different ways. And we must make sure as well that the wellbeing quest not preempt more conventional (though compatible) goals, such as salary improvement.

In sum: wellbeing goals are now part of what we must be thinking about. They have some intriguing aspects. They also raise a lot of questions and challenges. It will be interesting to see where all of this leads us.