Subjective well-being : its structure, prevalence, and association with distress, suicidality, and adverse childhood experiences in undergraduate and graduate students

Irvin, Stuart Alan
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

Previous psychological research on college student populations has largely focused on mental illness and ignored the experiences of graduate students. Using Corey Keyes’s operationalization of mental health as subjective well-being, this study utilized the Mental Health Continuum Short Form (MHC-SF) to investigate four research topics among a large sample of undergraduate and graduate students. First, the factor structure of the MHC-SF was explored through confirmatory factor analysis (CFA). Second, the prevalence of MHC-SF diagnoses was estimated among each student sample. Lastly, analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was used to explore the association between subjective well-being and 1) distress and suicidality and 2) adverse childhood experiences, while controlling for certain demographic variables. Exclusive to this study, the traditional MHC-SF diagnoses were expanded from three categories (e.g., languishing, flourishing, moderate) to five categories (e.g., languishing, flourishing, moderate plus, moderate: low hedonic, moderate: low eudaimonic) to explore additional variance within the traditional diagnosis of moderate mental health.

This study used data from a 2016 survey of 6,711 undergraduate students and 2,882 graduate students from 18 four-year colleges and universities across the nation. CFA results indicated that a four-factor model of subjective well-being fit the data best. Using the expanded MHC-SF diagnoses, the majority of undergraduate and graduate students met criteria for flourishing mental health, and nearly as many met criteria for moderate plus mental health. ANCOVA results revealed that distress and suicidality was highest among languishing undergraduate and graduate students and lowest among flourishing undergraduate and graduate students. Lastly, languishing students reported the greatest number of adverse childhood experiences while flourishing students reported the fewest number of adverse childhood experiences.

Findings from this study suggest mental health, or subjective well-being, is best conceptualized when the construct is broken down into four distinct, but correlated factors: emotional well-being, psychological well-being, social well-being (experiential), and social well-being (philosophical). Results suggest higher levels of subjective well-being (e.g., flourishing mental health, moderate plus mental health) are protective against distress and suicidality and lower levels of subjective well-being (e.g., languishing mental health, moderate: low hedonic, moderate: low eudaimonic) act as a risk factor for distress and suicidality. Findings also demonstrate that higher levels of subjective well-being are associated with fewer reported adverse childhood experiences and lower levels of subjective well-being are associated with more reported adverse childhood experiences. These results have several important implications for the development and provision of interventions designed to promote and protect the mental health of undergraduate and graduate students on college and university campuses.