The Engaged Life: Six Ways to Get the Most Out of College

the engaged life six ways to get the most out of college

This guest post was written by Daniel Lerner.  He is co-author of the upcoming book U-Thrive, a faculty member at the NYU Langone Medical Center, and member of the instructional staff at UPenn’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program. Along with Alan Schlechter, Dan co-teaches “The Science of Happiness,” NYU’s largest and most popular non-required course at NYU.

John was no stranger to success. Exuberant, intense, and bright, he had captained his high school baseball team to the regional championship, had been admitted to a number of top-tier schools, and was electrified by all that college had to offer. But by the time he arrived for his sophomore year at NYU, he found himself, for the first time in his life, directionless. John had stepped away from playing baseball; he realized that days at school that were once so engaging had become a grind; and it seemed that the harder he tried to seek out fulfilling activities, the more they eluded him.

“I thought college would be the answer to everything I’d been through to get here, but I frequently checked out of classes. Plus the pressure to choose a major, pressure about a career path (basically pressure to succeed), was deflating,” he explained. “Without a sense of meaning in it, the day-to-day didn’t carry much significance. I felt smaller. I struggled hard.”

Two years later, John is killing it. He has created his own major, is a head RA, and is having a blast coaching baseball for city kids. What turned the tide? John realized that he had been relying on “outward definitions of success” rather than looking inside to engage his personal strengths. Once he stopped “going through the motions” and adhering to some invisible set of one-size-fits-all guidelines, the narrow door of success he had been trying to squeeze through was flung wide open. College is no longer about “what major” or “what job” he should be chasing. Instead, he uses this question to guide his decisions:

“What pursuits do I find most engaging?”

Once he had his picture of success in a frame that fit, the next steps became more tangible. Not only is success easier and more natural to achieve for John now, it’s more gratifying as well.


As parents, there may be nothing more important to us than seeing our kids succeed. Not just “succeed” in the traditional financial security sense, or even succeed at being happy, but succeed in finding activities that they adore—activities in which they become deeply engaged, enthralled (and possibly even point the way to a wonderful career). And when it comes to this brand of success, nothing -- and I do mean nothing -- will get them there more directly than employing their strengths of character. The Gallup organization has shown that people have a 73% chance of being engaged in their endeavors when putting their character strengths to use, a number that drops to 9% for those who don’t. Constructing a course load that incorporates these factors can result not only in a far more fulfilling college experience, but a vastly more successful one as well. Studies show that college students who leverage their strengths enjoy deeper levels of concentration, greater levels of personal initiative, greater motivation to learn, higher levels of performance, AND live happier lives. In fact when we were writing our book U Thrive: How to succeed in college and life, we reached out to the more than four thousand students who have graced our classroom over the past five years, asking them what topic in our course had the most positive impact on their college experience. The results weren’t even close. Engagement and character strengths topped the list.

So moms and dads – what are strengths anyway, and how can you help your kiddos make the most of theirs?

Identifying Strengths

Marlowe, who took our course in the fall of her junior year, had always had a creeping suspicion that she was living with undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “I was intensely interested in the music business,” she said, yet “I found myself registering for courses in art history, but all the while was totally immersed in the study of French language, and was constantly thinking about how to make travel a part of my life.” Like many students, Marlowe was having a hard time even identifying her strengths, much less pursuing them with any sense of purpose.

To resolve this conundrum, Dr. Ryan Niemiec, education director at the VIA Institute on Character, recommends a three-step process: awareness, exploration, and application. So, first thing’s first: Do not pass go, do not collect $200…dare we say, don’t even keep reading until you become aware of your strengths and familiarize yourself with how they suit you. Head over to www.uthrive.info and take the free VIA Strengths Survey (did we mention free?  Because it is.). It should take ten to fifteen minutes, but the benefits will begin the moment you get your results.

When Marlowe took the survey, she found that her top strength was “love of learning.” Then it hit her: “I didn’t have a disorder and I wasn’t lost—I was simply at my best when I was learning new things. Just being able to name it gave me real freedom to be comfortable in my own process, and school has been SO much more satisfying ever since.”

Signature Strengths: Which Strengths Help You the Most?

Those strengths that will help your kids be at their best (and you be at yours) —those that were most helpful in the studies and student stories alike—are called signature strengths. Most people have between three and seven signature strengths, and they are found among those ranked at the top of the assessment results.

If you have any doubt about which are yours, walk through your top strengths with these questions in mind for each:

  • Do you feel particularly excited when putting it to use?
  • When you use this strength, do you feel like “the real me”?
  • Do you have a strong desire to use it frequently?
  • Does your energy get renewed when you use it?
  • Do you feel particularly happy, enthusiastic, or even ecstatic when this strength is part of your process?

It’s not just how these strengths make you feel when you use them. In a study by Alex Linley, people who talked about their signature strengths spoke more clearly and their tone of voice became more focused, their responses were more immediate, and they used phrases like “I love” and “it just fits.” When describing lesser strengths, however, they struggled to express themselves and were critical and impatient with themselves and their situations.

From Exploration to Engagement

Getting a handle on strengths is step one, but the real adventure begins when people begin to explore them in greater depth. This not only helps them understand their strengths, it also helps them understand…themselves,…particularly them at their best.

When Damon, a student in our class, received his VIA results, he couldn’t see how any of them applied to him at all. In fact, he told the class that he thought them so ridiculous, he’d showed them to his girlfriend to get a good laugh. She’d taken one look at the results, pronounced them dead-on, and proceeded to tick off a list of examples demonstrating each one of Damon’s top five strengths. As he saw them through someone else’s eyes, he said “I realized that I had just taken my best moments for granted – these really were the characteristics that I displayed when I was in the zone with friends, on the field, and in my classes.”

Families – Stronger Together

Whitney convinced her parents to take the assessment, too. “The conversation about how we have seen our strengths play out was one of the best that we had in years,” she reported. “My dad reminded me that since I was little, I wanted to take care of everyone around me. I figured that was just what people did, but his insights showed me how I always thrived when using my love and kindness. Since then, I’ve been volunteering at shelters more often and have made a point to send a note to someone that I love each morning. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Strong, Healthy Relationships

Sarah, an army veteran who took our course one summer , expressed her number one strength (“love”) by designing a “strengths date” for her artist boyfriend. Having taken the VIA assessment, they discovered that his number one strength was “appreciation of beauty  and excellence,” so Sarah took him to breakfast at a particularly lovely restaurant before surprising him with a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art followed a walk in neighboring Central Park. They finished their day by watching the sunset from the highest building at NYU. Sarah’s report: “Best. Date. Ever.” They can use your signature strengths to make the most of their relationships, be their best in the classroom, or enhance their life in every other way. At the end of the day, your strengths can lead to both happiness and engagement—literally: we had a student who credited his bravery for asking his girlfriend to marry him!

College Application (the fun kind!)

Not using your strengths is like carrying a tube of sunblock with you but never putting it on. Having first assessed each participant for their strengths, Alex Linley and his colleagues asked 240 second-year college students to write down their “top three goals” for the semester. Primed with examples such as “Attend most of my lectures,” “Have fun and enjoy myself,” and “Stop drinking alcohol during the week,” participants were clearly instructed that the goals must be personally meaningful. It turned out that signature strengths accounted for more than 50 percent of the reason that they reached their goals.

Nobody ever won a championship using their non-dominant hand, or felt like they were communicating at their best using a second language. If you want to help your kiddos be their very best – both in and out of the classroom – help them understand, explore, and apply their strengths of character. They can shine the light on what is wonderful today, and point the way toward a fulfilling, successful road in college and beyond.


“U-Thrive” is available online and at booksellers. As a speaker, teacher, and strengths-based performance coach, Daniel Lerner is an expert in positive and performance psychologies. His key theme is that developing a healthy psychological state has a profound impact on the pursuit of excellence—a message that he brings to students, high-potential performing artists and athletes, and executives at Fortune 500 companies and startups worldwide. Following a decade representing and developing young performing artists with ICM artists and 21C Media (which he co-founded), Lerner studied closely with renowned sports psychologist Dr. Nathaniel Zinsser, focusing on coaching and performance enhancement techniques employed by professional and Olympic athletes, before earning a graduate degree in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Lerner is a faculty member at NYU Langone Medical Center and is on the instructional staff in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program his alma mater. “The Science of Happiness”, co-taught with Alan Schlechter, is currently the largest and most popular non-required course at New York University. In the classroom and in his talks, Lerner integrates storytelling, humor, and science, helping students and professionals apply his teachings into their lives with immediate benefit.