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The Science of HappinessMJ O'Leary
More than just a growing trend in the world of mental health and psychology, the practice of mindfulness can positively influence one’s attitude, decision-making and behaviors.
In recent years, mindfulness techniques have become increasingly popular for managing feelings of stress and anxiety. A study published in the Journal of American College Health looked at PhD students, a group particularly susceptible to stress-induced depression and anxiety. The study found that practicing mindfulness helped reduce stress, improved levels of depression and anxiety, and enhanced feelings of hope, optimism, resilience and self-efficacy about completing a PhD.
Just as stress is interconnected with depression and anxiety, mindfulness is closely related to motivation and to thought processes rooted in improved productivity. Practicing mindfulness can not only help students perform better academically, but it can also help them establish healthy habits in other areas of their life, such as with exercise, nutrition and relationships.
While mindfulness meditation is one of the most common techniques to hone one’s headspace, there are many ways students can embrace the idea of mindfulness to improve motivation.
Checklists are a great way to stay organized and get things done. But they’re also an effective tool to help boost motivation. How, exactly?
Think of checklist items as small goals — or even better, SMART goals, which are defined as Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound.
Checklists should be made up of small, actionable (and truly doable) tasks. For students, breaking down projects or day-to-day schedules into smaller, bite-sized tasks can help them stay motivated and positive about their responsibilities in college.
Further, the simple act of successfully accomplishing a task sends reward signals to the brain in the form of dopamine. Even with very marginal amounts of success, our brains release dopamine, which is connected to emotions and feelings of pleasure, learning and motivation. When we experience the effects of dopamine, we’re eager to repeat the actions that resulted in that success initially. Neuroscientists call this “self-directed learning.”
Understanding the psychological motivators behind using checklists underscores just how effective they are to help us stay motivated, especially when faced with big projects. When we are positively motivated to accomplish something, we learn to take necessary action to receive the same rewarding feeling.
In a highly digital world, taking a hiatus from one’s laptop, mobile devices and television — even just one day — can have a profound reset effect. Students in particular are prone to long hours hovering over screens of many types. Introducing screenless Saturdays (or any day that fits best in a student’s schedule) is a great exercise to mitigate mindless browsing that can eventually turn into poor screen time habits.
The Minimalist put together a nice video and article discussing the value of going screenless for a day. Authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus put like this: “You might call it a techno sabbatical, a digital detox, or a social-media diet, or you might simply think of it as a break, a breather, a repose from the frenzied world around you.”
The Minimalist suggests three different approaches to Screenless Saturdays:
This experiment in intermittent stopping can provide students with a much needed motivational boost. Look at it as a way for the mind and body to disconnect in order to effectively rejuvenate and restore.
A significant difference between high school and college students is how performance and progress is measured. While grades and test scores can be clear quantitative measures of performance, they don’t fully reflect one’s educational experience.
College students often embrace secondary education as an investment, not just financially, but in the quality of their learning experience. Considerations like creating relationships with professors and their other students, having inspiring conversations, and building skills working on projects and assignments are all important experiences that cannot be measured quantitatively.
Instead of concentrating on questions like “How can I improve my score on this project?” students may derive greater meaning and motivation in their work by asking “What skills and experience can I take from this project?” This difference in perspective not only translates to academics but also in the professional world.
Sure, one could make the argument that getting good grades is motivational in itself. But this measurement alone has its limitations. Start thinking about how you can measure academic progress in ways that are not just quantitative, but also qualitative.
Practicing gratitude is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to stay motivated and enhance your attitude about a given situation, big or small. There are many techniques for cultivating gratitude; however, they’re all largely based on self-awareness and perspective.
Practicing gratitude doesn’t have to look like a formal meditation practice with incense, candles and soundscapes. It can be as simple as pausing and taking in the experience of the morning sun, a rainstorm, a pleasant exchange with a classmate, or even your own breath as you do something as simple as laundry or cleaning dishes. It’s about being present in the small tasks in life, and recognizing that these moments are what occupy a greater part of the day.
More importantly, gratitude can keep you centered when you’re feeling challenged. For instance, if you’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed over a project, step back from the situation you’re in and look at it from a 10,000-foot view. Realize that despite the stress and anxiety that you may be feeling, you can also feel grateful for the challenge at hand.
A simple practice is to reshape how you perceive your struggles, and perhaps consider them minuscule compared to how hard others may have it. Another simple perspective shift is to realize that your problems are never as severe as they seem, and this difficult moment you're facing shall soon pass.
Whether with academics or social life, it's common for college students to regularly encounter stressful situations. Using simple physical practice or meditation exercises can help alleviate these feelings.
Tara Huber, Co-Founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Take Five Meditation, offers a few student-specific meditation exercises for different parts of the day. These include:
Alternate nostril breathwork is an effective technique for calming clarity of mind. Sitting comfortably with a long spine, take your left hand and fold the pointer and middle fingers, leaving the thumb and ring fingers available for use. Seal your left nostril with your thumb, inhaling deeply through the right nostril, then seal the right nostril with the ring finger and exhale out of the left nostril. Inhale through the left nostril, seal, exhale through the right.
Continue with this alternate nostril breathing for several rounds, deepening your breath with each round. Focus on relaxing the shoulders and maintaining a long spine. When you are done, take a moment to observe, checking in with your body and mind.
Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit that will be free of interruption. Close your eyes and focus on your natural breath. Concentrate on slowing down and not getting consumed by task-related thoughts or the anxieties that can crop up during the day. If thoughts do arise, observe them without judgment and let them pass by.
Take a few moments to listen to the sound of breath, the sounds around you, quietly observing the moment. Practice this simple mindfulness meditation for 5 to 10 minutes.
Mindful relaxation practice is a powerful tool to help you alleviate stress and leave you feeling restored and energized. Before an exam is a perfect time for this type of practice. Allow yourself about 20 minutes for a complete session, ideally somewhere quiet. Depending on what's most comfortable, you can either sit upright or lie back on your back with limbs spread out, palms facing up.
Beginning at the crown of your head, feel areas in the body where you're holding onto tension, and focus on letting it go as you travel further down your body. In simple terms, focus on releasing tightness and anxiety by relaxing and breathing into these areas. After scanning your entire body from head to toe, remain still while focusing on taking deep breaths. Once you've completed this mindfulness practice, you should feel deeply relaxed and free of anxiety.
There are many techniques students can use to practice mindfulness. While some are very simple and spontaneous, others may be more structured and dedicated routines. The underlying emphasis is to dissipate stress and anxiety, and thereby cultivate greater motivation and drive to remain positive and stay focused.