University Students & Their Pursuit of Happiness

Mental health issues among college students are on the rise across the United States. There are signs on every floor of the Ohio State University parking garages that read: “Feeling hopeless? Remember, you matter.” Is there anything we can do, as a community, to reduce this “hopeless feeling” that many of our students are suffering every day? What can we do to help them focus more on the positive and empower themselves through resilience?

Our exploration of the relationship among design, positive psychology and subjective well-being in the context of a large public university campus asks this question: How can we build the ideas and practices of positive thinking and mindfulness into design so that the emotion and well-being of college students who use it are best supported?

The literature on happiness and subjective well-being has provided various dimensions of strategies that empower people to reach their full potentials (Fredrickson, 2004; Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999; Ryan & Deci, 2001; Seligman, 2008). For example, meditation-based stress-management practices are helpful to reduce stress and enhance forgiveness among college students (Oman, Shapiro, Thoresen, Plante, & Flinders, 2008). Strategies from positive psychology, such as optimism, gratitude, goal setting, altruism and hope are helpful for promoting positive emotion, reducing stress, and improving quality of life (Seligman, 2004).

A general survey at Ohio State was conducted to understand undergraduate students’ daily life stresses and how they currently manage anxiety. The survey results show some common stress triggers among all students such as time management, academic performance, social relationships and more.

Only few people (eight out of sample of 100) visited the on-campus counselling service, and the ones who had been put on the waiting list were told their problems were not severe. The survey also reveals that students’ knowledge of on-campus service resources is limited, and most of them rely on self-coping strategies rather than seeking external help.

Two undergraduate classes were also set to explore the subject of happiness with their semester-long creative projects. In one class, second-year visual communication design major undergraduate students were asked to design digital app concepts that promote positive psychology strategies to support subjective well-being. The concepts students proposed were based on user research and their own experience (Figure 1).

Among the 16 projects, apps that focus on relationships and community support are the most desired subjects chosen by students (44 percent), followed by gratitude (31percent), mindfulness (25 percent) and self-expression and emotion release (25 percent). The other class, crafted for non-design majors, was focused on self-reflection and self-empowerment through data. Students were asked to acquire their own life data visually represent it. Student projects, as demonstrated in figure 2, concern their daily lives and their consumptions of time and things; their tracks of gratitude journals and summaries of the positive and negative life aspects; visual explanations of how and what enable their own subjective well-being.

These visualization projects display some trends among students lives on campus: the importance of friends and family, striving for healthy life styles and better time management.

Figure 1. Sample students work from DESIGN 3400 Design Media I for Visual Communication Design

Figure 2. Sample students work from DESIGN 5505 Information Design (for non-design majors)

Some significant insights and most recurring themes from our explorations helped us identify the feeling of having strong social support is a key notion and a crucial meaningful goal to college students’ subjective well-being.

In light of the prevailing public unawareness of our social support network, a personalized social support system for Ohio State students is being created with the explicit intention to enhance students’ empowerment experience in support for their subjective well-being. The design solution intends to not only serve as a bridge between an individual and her social surroundings, but it also makes one feel capable of reaching a particular goal, i.e. coping with daily stress and offers knowledge about resources and the power dynamics related to the goal.

If you are interested in participating in our user assessment sessions of this social support system, or our focus group study for a future vision of happy campus, please contact


Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367–1377.

Lyubomirsky, S., & Lepper, H. (1999). A measure of subjective happiness: Preliminary reliability and construct validation. Social Indicators Research, 46(2), 137–155.

Oman, D., Shapiro, S. L., Thoresen, C. E., Plante, T. G., & Flinders, T. (2008). Meditation lowers stress and supports forgiveness among college students: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of American College Health, 56(5), 569–578.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141–166.

Seligman, M. E. (2004). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Atria Books.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.



Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.