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Well-being within our grasp

Duke’s public sphere is often preoccupied with a search for new solutions, new programs and new committees to solve our problems. But sometimes it is just as fruitful to look around and realize that the resources around us are just what we need to live better.

Looking around is what the Duke Social Relationships Project, released last week by Steven Asher, professor of psychology and neuroscience, and his team, encourages us to do. The report injects an optimistic perspective into the campus culture debate, and reminds us that well-being is within our grasp.

The punchline of the DSRP is that students’ sense of belongingness correlates strongly with academic engagement and well-being, although academic engagement is hardly the only route to happiness. Recognizing that academic engagement, along with other sources of well-being, has the power to validate us is part of allowing that power to work.

The report on romantic relationships highlights a well-known dissonance between students’ perception of social life and the reality on the ground. More than a third of respondents had been in committed relationships, which lasted around 15.3 months on average. Surprisingly, a full 44.5 percent of women and 46.6 percent of men who were single had not participated in hook-ups in the six months prior to the survey. Moreover, 51.1 percent of women and 44.8 percent of men described themselves as non-users or light users of alcohol. As Asher has stated, the quantification of these social behaviors proves that there are several cultures at Duke, and it allows students to see that there are others who identify with them and have had similar experiences.

But the DSRP’s most novel findings turn on an exploration of the feelings of loneliness and belongingness. The report stated that out of all the predictors of high levels of belongingness—like friendships or being a supporter of Duke athletics—academic engagement is among the strongest indicators of students’ well-being. Students who felt passion for their academic work reported less social anxiety and greater self-esteem, all while having the same number of friends and the same kind of dating experiences as other students.

We would offer one amendment to this idea: Academic engagement is fulfilling when it is not divorced from social experience. It is easy to become estranged from academic life at Duke—large, competitive classes with harsh curves and little student-to-student interaction do little to validate us as people. Academic engagement is fundamentally a social venture, and, as the study suggests, well-being may depend balancing the social and intellectual sources of validation in our lives.

The DSRP report is comforting. The scaffolding for students’ well-being at Duke already exists. There are several avenues through which students might attain genuine academic fulfillment: programs like Focus and the Chautauqua Lecture Series blend academic and social experiences. More unique forms of academic engagement or programs that combine extracurricular activity with intellectual pursuit can only add to this mix and would clearly be an asset to our social culture.

The Duke Social Relationships Project report provides a distinct observation about Duke and gives cause for optimism by encouraging us to understand the role that our academic achievements have played in our sense of self.

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