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How to Put the Well in Wellness

By: Robert Chapman, PhD

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We are just shy of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love when 100,000 “hippies” converged on Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, many of whom were college students. However, an ideological rift separates contemporary collegians from their “Baby Boomer” predecessors. Although on the surface the “do your own thing” generation of the 1960s appears, at least superficially, similar to millennials with their predilection for “selfies,” social media, and stalwart independence, contemporary collegians approach life in general and wellness specifically with a more pronounced “external locus of control.”

An external locus of control implies that one views the realization of personal goals and objectives as the result of that which occurs or exists outside or beyond him or herself. Approaching this from the opposite, someone with an internal locus of control looks at an accomplishment as the result of hard work, personal effort, and persistence. Those with an external locus of control look at accomplishments and attribute them to luck, coming from a “good family,” or simply being in the right place at the right time. When considering wellness, we can view this continuum of external to internal as that which is done to the body or mind rather than something one does with the body or mind. Consequently, many contemporary collegians, although aware of and committed to wellness, tend to view its path as somehow existing beyond or “outside” themselves. As with Dorothy in Oz, once finding the Yellow Brick Road, one must follow it to Emerald City where the Wizard can then bestow wellness upon the sojourner…the Wizard affecting the change, not the individual. It is the guide, coach, or personal trainer and working out in a gym, dressed appropriately, and in the company of other sojourners that ensures the appearance of wellness.

This student propensity to adopt an external locus of control presents student affairs professionals with a challenging dilemma as institutions of higher education are increasingly moving towards the establishment of integrated Health Promotion programs. Such programs frequently include campus counseling services, alcohol & other drug prevention, wellness programs as well as traditional health services. This trend towards integrated health promotion suggests a concerted effort to link the emotional health and wellbeing of students with the more traditional objective of simply ensuring student physical health. By so doing, IHEs view students as not only their academic charge, but accept responsibility for ensuring student emotional and social success as well.

As altruistic as this may sound, these IHEs are not motivated by a propensity to double-down on a traditional academic model of governing higher education in order to guarantee the primacy of satisfying intellectual curiosity. Contemporary administrators take more business-oriented and approach governing higher education with fiscal prudence and a zero-sum consideration of the “bottom line.” Consequently, the bookends of wellness, improved retention and lowered attrition, prompt administrators to consider the majority of student time spent outside the classroom as an important area for consideration. Enter the challenge of engaging students with an external locus of control in these integrated programs championing health promotion.

Students with an external locus of control are left to wonder, “What is the way to happiness?” Although many students report that their primary objectives when attending college are to, (1) get an education that ensures a lucrative and rewarding professional career, and (2) to have a good time while doing so, an external locus of control relegates them looking to the institution to lead them to these objectives. Like Dorothy in Oz, they view the Yellow Brick Road as a path to the destination where they will collect their reward rather than to view it as something along which they journey to discover who they are as individuals. It is this journey that enables them to awaken to the realization that there is “no path to happiness,” but rather, learn that happiness itself is “the way.”

Although it may seem that the pursuit of integrated health promotion can reinforce student academic and social success, until and unless students understand the importance of asserting a more personal and internal responsibility for realizing that success, they will continue to view health promotion as something done “to or for them” rather than represent an opportunity to do something “with and for themselves.” Their preoccupation with an external locus of control in essence tethers the pursuit of wellness, if not their personal satisfaction with the entire collegiate experience and happiness itself, to a homogenized and therefore externally defined pursuit of these elusive constructs. As Morpheus in The Matrix struggles to mentor Neo so that he can recognize the true nature of his reality, stimulating students to understand their potential to question an institutionalized path to success via wellness is the challenge faced by contemporary student affairs professionals.

So what is higher education to do? Governed by a higher education system preoccupied with the bottom line yet responsible for the guidance of a student body heavily influenced by its external locus of control, it would seem that a classic “ships passing in the night” scenario exists for student affairs professionals…but maybe not.

It is true that an administration enamored of the business model when governing contemporary IHEs are not going to change and become more altruistic any time soon. Likewise, self-awareness is allusive for collegians raised to believe that just showing up entitles them to rewards or that success is not so much the result of hard work as it is learning how to “play the game.” A shift to a more internal locus of control will take more than the Wizard simply telling Dorothy that all she need do is close her eyes, think about what she truly wants, and then click her heels together three times in order to go home…she is going to have to work to get there.

That said, one possible solution to this dilemma may reside in considering the adoption of a truly integrated approach to health promotion as represented by the social ecological model. By not only acknowledging and embracing the dynamic interplay between students and the environments where they live, work, and play, higher education can more fully realize the mutual objectives of following a business-oriented model of administration concerned with retention and attrition while at the same time transforming externally focused students to accept personal responsibility for their own success, having “fun” while pursuing that success, and embracing a more internal locus of control.

The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) suggests the potential for a social ecological model to reduce the gap between an institution’s quest for health promotion as a means to a fiscal end and an externally focused student body’s understanding of what wellness truly means:

Campus ecology identifies environmental factors and influences, which interact and affect individual behavior. These factors may be the physical setting or place, the human aggregate or characteristics of the people, organizational and social climate, and/or characteristics of the surrounding community (2004, p. 7).

As Mark Twain mused in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, “Habit is habit and not to be flung out the window by any man but coaxed down the stairs one step at a time.”

To read more about the social ecological model and its potential to inform the creation of a truly integrated program of wellness, read "Social Ecological Model."

References: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (2004). Leadership of a healthy campus: an ecological approach to student success.