The Importance of Life Satisfaction to Enhance Student Wellbeing.

Recent reports indicate that one in three students in high school has persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021), and meta-analytic results provide strong evidence of a recent increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety among adolescents (Madigan et al., 2023). Schools are a critical setting to support the mental health of students by decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety, while also bolstering psychological skills and assets. School-based assessments that include wellness and distress indicators are needed to understand how to best support students (Furlong et al., 2022). As part of Project Covitality, this paper examines the importance of including both wellness and distress indicators to understand student wellbeing. Each year, students in California are required to complete the California Healthy Kids Survey with well-established, robust survey procedures. During the 2021-2022 school year, California students in Grades 9 to 12 (N = 505,099) answered questions about their life satisfaction (Brief Multidimensional Life Satisfaction Scale; Seligson et al., 2003) and social emotional distress (Social Emotional Distress Survey-Brief; Dowdy et al., 2023). Items assessing suicidal ideation, chronic sadness, school belonging, and levels of optimism were also administered. Using a dual-factor approach, student responses were categorized according to their levels of distress (low, middle, and high) and life satisfaction (low, middle, and high). The majority of students (39%) were categorized as having high levels of life satisfaction along with low levels of distress; optimal mental health. Students with low levels of life satisfaction and high levels of distress (7%) were categorized as having suboptimal mental health. Students with optimal mental health reported lower levels of suicidal ideation and chronic sadness, and higher levels of school belonging and optimism. Results highlight the importance of considering both life satisfaction and emotional distress to better understand student mental health.


University of California, Santa Barbara. United States

Erin Dowdy, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara. She is a licensed psychologist and a nationally certified school psychologist. Her research career and scholarly publications have focused on universal assessment for social and emotional health and risk in schools. She is focused on equitable screening practices and strength-based approaches. Dr. Dowdy has a record of past success at disseminating research in peer- reviewed journals and at professional conferences, and her research and collaborative work with schools, state, and community agencies has been funded by various agencies. She is currently working on several large training grants focused on training the next generation of scholars and practitioners in school based mental health.