By Mitchell Clute
Lots of young people head off to college to find themselves, transform their lives and explore the nature of consciousness—though usually these explorations happen in candlelit dorm rooms, not as part of the standard curriculum.
But at George Mason University, its Center for the Advancement of Well-Being takes these big questions about the meaning of life out of the shadows and into the classroom. The center’s vision is to broaden how people learn, deepen meaningful connections between individuals and within organizations, and ultimately help increase well-being, performance and success in all areas of life.
Starting with Students
Founded in 2009, the interdisciplinary teaching and research center aims to transform the lives of students and faculty and serve as a model of how a university can impact people in ways that reach far beyond academics.
“We define well-being as building a life of vitality, purpose, meaning and engagement,” says Penny Gilchrist, director of communications for the center. To that end, the center offers a wide-ranging array of programs and classes at GMU’s campus. At the core of this mission is the university’s minor in consciousness and transformation, which includes both academic research on the nature of consciousness and personal practices to deepen self-awareness and regulate stress.
“When you talk to students in this program, they just glow,” Gilchrist tells Calmful Living. “They really find that through the classes and related activities their lives have taken on a deeper purpose and meaning.”
The university also offers a Mindful Living “LLC”—a Living and Learning Community of students who share a residence-hall floor and work together to explore topics such as compassion, life purpose and self-awareness. “Not everyone in the LLC goes on to take our minor, but this mindfulness foundation helps many students go on to become leaders in every aspect of this university,” Gilchrist says.
Modeling Well-Being on Campus and Beyond
“Our university president recently issued a strategic plan that includes the goal of becoming a model well-being university where students, faculty and staff are thriving together,” says Nance Lucas, the center’s executive director. This goal has many components, including sponsored research on assessing well-being, academic courses for students, noncredited certificate programs for nonstudents, and a series of well-being practices—including meditation and yoga.
Among the student offerings is a program through the athletic department that teaches yoga to the school’s basketball teams. “The program is intended to help players increase their well-being through talk and yoga, and it seems to really help—especially for male athletes, because they haven’t done anything like this before,” Gilchrist relates.
The center is leading George Mason’s Well-Being University Initiative, bringing together staff and faculty for open-ended discussions around creating a more inclusive, collaborative and engaging community. “There’s a feeling of being part of a team,” says Gilchrist. “We focus on creating programs that will help Mason thrive together and positively impact global change.”
Tools for Future Success
The center has funded research on diverse subjects ranging from community-based peace-building efforts in Africa and Southeast Asia to how chemotherapy neuropathy symptoms can be addressed with reiki and meditation.
But the real focus is on teaching well-being strategies, such as mindfulness, to students in ways that not only transform their personal and academic lives but lead to a deeper engagement with an understanding of the larger world. The center’s website provides students with a host of resources, including links to podcasts on mindfulness and meditation, and assessments such as the Strengthsfinder 2.0 test, which helps students identify and support their talents.
“Research findings indicate that students who practice mindfulness activities tend to be more focused and engaged, while having a greater capacity to manage stress,” Lucas reports. “They develop resilience. When they go out into the world after graduation, they have the tools to lead happy lives.”
With so many institutions focused narrowly on specific skills and future employment, it’s refreshing to see a university make a big investment in something as basic and powerful as teaching tools for living a purposeful and holistic life.
Find out more about the George Mason Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.