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  • The Development of Psychological Well-Being Among First-Year College Students
  • Nicholas A. Bowman (bio)

The first year of college constitutes a time of substantial transition for incoming students. For many traditional-age students, adjusting to college can include tasks that are as mundane as doing one's own laundry for the first time, or as complex as finding meaning in one's life and deciding on a future career. Clearly, students vary greatly in their ability to cope with and adjust to these new challenges, and some students face far more challenges than others. Those who adapt effectively to their new social and academic environment are much more likely to persist in college and ultimately earn a degree (Tinto, 1993). As a result, a great deal of attention has been paid to improving college students' first-year experience (for an extensive review, see Upcraft, Gardner, & Barefoot, 2004).

A potentially important resource for successfully accomplishing this life transition is positive psychological functioning, otherwise known as psychological well-being (PWB). As Ryff (1989) has demonstrated, the skills and perceptions that comprise PWB are crucial for successfully engaging in meaningful relationships, navigating one's environment, and realizing one's fullest potential throughout the lifespan. In other words, PWB is important not only for students making the transition to college, but also for individuals at any age. This study explores the factors associated with PWB among incoming college students and the experiences that contribute to changes in PWB during the first year.

Conceptual Framework

The concept of PWB (Ryff, 1989) is based on the premise that "being well" encompasses a range of characteristics and perceptions; that is, positive functioning constitutes much more than one's current level of happiness. The theoretical origins of PWB are grounded in Maslow's (1968) concept of self-actualization, Erikson's (1959) psychosocial stage model, and Jung's (1933) formulation of individuation, among others. Incorporating these perspectives, Ryff (1989) developed a model of PWB that encompasses six dimensions: autonomous functioning and decision making, mastery of one's environment, seeking opportunities for personal growth, maintaining positive relations with others, having a sense of purpose in life, and accepting and thinking positively about oneself. Although it is correlated with other constructs, PWB is theoretically and empirically distinct from life satisfaction, happiness, self-esteem, and locus of control (Ryff, 1989; Ryff & Keyes, 1995). Importantly, PWB contributes to a range of critical outcomes in adult life, including increased social support, greater life satisfaction, and improved physical health (Bowman & Kitayama, 2009; Ryff, 2008).

Ryff 's model of PWB captures a broad array of conceptions of self. In fact, several of the dimensions associated with PWB closely align with established developmental outcomes in higher education. For instance, Kegan's [End Page 180] (1994) concept of self-authorship (see also Baxter Magolda [2001]) includes cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal components. Specifically, students who are self-authored tend to think independently, know themselves, have healthy personal relationships in which others' opinions are valued (but not relied upon exclusively), and have internally formed goals. These perceptions and behaviors overlap substantially with the PWB dimensions of autonomy, self-acceptance, purpose in life, and positive relations with others. Like self-authorship, PWB encompasses the use of certain skills and perspectives that are useful for overcoming challenges and effectively navigating one's life (Ryff, Keyes, & Hughes, 2003; Smider, Essex, & Ryff, 1996).

Literature Review

Very little research has examined PWB among college students and how certain experiences may affect PWB. Instead, most studies of PWB have focused on adults and examined demographic and health factors that correlate with PWB. For example, PWB is positively and consistently associated with measures of physical health, whereas other forms of well-being have weak relationships with health (Ryff et al., 2006; Ryff, Singer, & Love, 2004). Moreover, levels of PWB tend to change over the life span. Autonomy and environmental mastery tend to increase with older age, whereas purpose in life and personal growth tend to be lower among older adults (Ryff, 1989, 1991; Ryff & Keyes, 1995; Ryff & Singer, 1998).

Some longitudinal evidence shows that PWB changes in response to life transitions. Over a 5-year period, Marks and Lambert (1998) find that people who get married...


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pp. 180-200
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