It’s the beginning of a new University year and everywhere students are gearing up for another semester of fun, friendship and deadlines. But there are times when University can feel overwhelming. Here are three ways that the science of positive psychology can help with the student experience.
Moving away from home, navigating new relationships whilst keeping old ones alive and trying to stay on top of the ever-increasing workload university provides can sometimes mean that our minds become a busy place. Growing louder and louder, it can sometimes be difficult to quiet the endless chatter of worries, tasks and inner dialogues, never mind find the space to learn something new. Mindfulness can be an effective antidote to this internal noise, a way to quite the mind and find some peace.
Mindfulness involves being present only in the moment, not worried about the past or the future but only focused on what is happening in the now. It involves being aware of thoughts, feelings or bodily sensations without trying to do anything to ‘fix’ them. It means being aware of your surroundings, of your actions, and focusing only on the moment.
Whilst mindfulness has traditionally involved meditation, you don’t have to be comfortable with sitting in silence to live a more mindful life. Focusing on a simple task and using deliberate actions can have many of the same benefits, so long as you bring your mind back into focus should it go wandering. Simple arts and crafts can be a good way of bringing mindfulness into your day and something as simple as colouring a mandala can prove very therapeutic. Exercise, whilst also having many other obvious physical health benefits, can also be an effective way of practicing mindfulness, particularly an exercise such as yoga, which involves matching movements in the body to the breath and requires a focus on the practice at hand. Going for a walk and focusing on the sounds or sights you hear and see, the colours, movements and variations, has also been proven to improve wellbeing and is a great way to be more mindful. Some people even find doing the dishes or folding laundry to be mindful tasks if performed in the correct way.
Finding a way to live more mindfully that works for you is a great way to improve your student experience and can help you to cope with the stresses university life may bring.
Developing a Growth Mindset
If you are attending University the chances are that you were one of the top students in your school, rarely receiving poor grades for most of your life. University however is different and it is not uncommon to find that your grades are not as good as they once were.
Many people believe that a person is either clever or not clever and most believe that this cannot be changed. Carol Dweck, however, would argue otherwise. She spent years studying how school children cope with failure and discovered that those who developed what she calls a Growth Mindset not only performed better academically overall but were also much more resilient. Having a growth mindset means believing that through dedication and hard work one can develop and improve their abilities. Unlike those with a fixed mindset, which means believing that talent and achievement only come from a pre-existing ability, effort having no part, those with a growth mindset know that by working hard and not giving up in the face of failure, achievement can be improved.
Developing a Growth mindset means looking at failure as an opportunity to learn and recognising that the process is just as important as the end result. It means instead of shying away from a poor grade, seeking guidance in how to improve the next one. This is a valuable tool for any University student when faced with an unexpected grade.
Perhaps one of the most important tools a University student, or indeed anyone, can have is self-compassion. Self compassion is defined by Kristin Neff as “being kind to oneself in instances of pain or failure” (Neff, Hsieh & Dejitterat, 2005). Whilst pain and failure both present with varying degrees of severity, most people will at some point struggle to cope with these feelings on some level. Self-compassion has been known to help with feelings of stress and anxiety and has also been known to improve social connections. Self-compassion is also an effective antidote to feelings of shame, which many university students feel due to the increased focus on social approval in a university environment. Self-compassion advocates for an understanding of common humanity, the recognition that no-one is perfect and that we all struggle sometimes. It is about accepting rather than trying to change ones flaws and is associated with a lower level of self-criticism.
Self-compassion has also been associated with an increase in motivation. As Breines and Chen state, students who are self-compassionate are less likely to procrastinate, less likely to fear failure and are more likely to aim to improve themselves in a healthy non-critical manner (Breines & Chen, 2012). The focus of self-kindness involved with self-compassion can also help students have greater self-belief and improve their opinions of themselves which can have a huge impact on their academic performance and engagement (Louis, 2016). There are strong links between self-belief and motivation and these two elements combined can help students to see an improvement in their grades.
Being more self-compassionate can be as simple as mindfully recognising that everyone suffers failure and pain in their life and that you are not alone. For more ways to be more self-compassionate a great place to start is self-compassion.org
Don’t forget to talk to your institutions support services if you are struggling with University life.
Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133-1143
Gilbert, P., & Irons, C. (2009). Shame, self-criticism, and self-compassion in adolescence. Adolescent emotional development and the emergence of depressive disorders, 195-214.
Louis, M. (2015), Enhancing intellectual development and academic success in college; Wade, J. C., Marks, L. I., & Hetzel, R. D. (Eds.) (2015). Positive psychology on the college campus. Oxford University Press.
Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and identity, 4(3), 263-287.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..
About the author: Katherine Halliday lives in Dundee in Scotland and works in student support at the University of St Andrews. Katherine is currently undertaking the MAPP course at Bucks New University and is loving every minute of it.