U Thrive

How to Succeed in College (and Life)


By Alan Schlechter

By Dan Lerner

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From the professors who teach NYU’s most popular elective class, “Science of Happiness,” a fun, comprehensive guide to surviving and thriving in college and beyond.

Every year, almost 4,000,000 students begin their freshman year at colleges and universities nationwide. Most of them will sleep less and stress out a whole lot more. By the end of the year, 30% of those freshmen will have dropped out. For many, the unforeseen demands of college life are so overwhelming that “the best four years of your life” can start to feel like the worst.

Enter Daniel Lerner and Dr. Alan Schlechter, ready to teach students how to not only survive college, but flourish in it. Filled with fascinating science, real-life stories, and tips for building positive lifelong habits, U Thrive addresses the opportunities and challenges every undergrad will face — from finding a passion to dealing with nightmarish roommates and surviving finals week. Engaging and hilarious, U Thrive will help students grow into the happy, successful alums they all deserve to be.


Authors' Note

The information cited in this book is based on more than 350 sources that the authors believe to be reliable. We invite you to visit www.uthrive.info for all references and a full bibliography.


My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

—Maya Angelou

At its very best, college offers us the opportunity to turn dreams into realities.

College is about possibility. The moment you set foot on campus, you will be in the middle of one of life's greatest turning points, taking your first real shot at being an adult. No matter what your roots, cultural background, or financial status may be, college holds the promise of rich experiences, lifelong friendships, and an amazing chance to pursue your passions. This is where you can find your voice, determine your path, and begin to unlock your true potential. In short: college is a game-changer.

Yet for many, college is more about surviving than thriving. It can be a slog through stress and anxiety. It can be four years spent worrying that you might not be up to snuff, make the grade, or reach the bar set by your parents, your peers, or yourself. For a growing number of today's students, college can be discouraging rather than inspiring, making them feel like they aren't in line for a fulfilling future, causing their dreams to slowly evaporate until poof… they seem completely unattainable.

Every year, more than 4.6 million students begin their freshman year at colleges and universities nationwide, spilling onto campuses with high hopes, overstuffed duffel bags, and a unique mash-up of bravado and bewilderment. As mental health experts and instructors of the largest elective class at New York University, we know that look well. We see it on pretty much all 450 faces in our lecture hall on the first day of school, and we feel you. After all, you just spent the past twelve years busting your humps for this, constantly reminded along the way what a great accomplishment this would be, what a major milestone it is, how leaving home is this magical rite of passage. All of which is true. But you are also leaving behind a lifelong support network of families, friends, and communities for the unknown, which makes this step in your life as scary as it is exhilarating—an emotional bungee jump into the Grand Canyon.

We are going to show you how to minimize the fear and maximize the thrill.

The guiding principle of U Thrive is simple: with proper preparation, you can thrive in college. Period.

Based on our course The Science of Happiness, you might consider this the ultimate study guide. A cheat sheet for the most wonderful, complicated, fascinating, and maddening subject you've ever encountered. The crash course in the one subject you need to master to squeeze the very best out of the years to come.

That subject? You.

We could drop charts right here showing that optimistic freshmen tend to have substantially higher GPAs and better social experiences, graphs indicating that hope results in greater academic and athletic success, and diagrams revealing that positive emotion predicts greater accuracy and speed in the face of stressful situations. We'll get to all that, but first, let's just quote a few of our several thousand students who have been generous enough to give us a 99 percent approval rating:

"I so wish I had taken this class when I was a freshman!"

"I never thought that I would be able to truly pursue my passions. Thank you for showing me that it is possible."

"This class has changed how I experience college. Now I love it even more and I am doing better in my classes than ever!"

"Every time that I have this class, I know that the rest of my day is going to be that much more awesome."

"The Science of Happiness saved my life."

And a common one…

"You guys have GOT to write a book."

So we have. And here it is.

U Thrive is meant to be a reference book, a workbook, and even a journal of sorts. Just like in our class, we want you to be informed, entertained, and engaged. The exercises we provide will help you with challenges and make the most of the opportunities ahead.

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, Alan has spent more than a decade helping young adults deal with their challenges, while Dan's expertise in positive psychology and strengths-based performance coaching has focused on helping people realize excellence and reach their unique potential. It is with these complementary skills that we strive to address both the tough times and the incredible opportunities that abound in college, sharing the theory, science, and application of thriving. Weaving research into story and practical application, our style and our focus on experiential learning seek to both inform and transform, turning fear into excitement and anxiety into possibility.

The education system spent the past twelve years preparing you to get into college, but what about actually being there? Even the most mundane things about school will be radically different: Raising your hand to ask a question in a lecture hall full of two hundred strangers is a far cry from being in a high school English class with a bunch of kids you've known for years. How you are perceived, not to mention how you perceive yourself, can also shift when you enter a more competitive academic arena and possibly slip from the ranks of well above average to just average or even well below average for the first time in your life. Moreover, the toll college takes on your body is as taxing as the one on your brain: most of you will sleep less, eat more poorly, and exercise less often. Oh, and if you don't, people (including yourselves) will think you're slacking.

In high school, you worked incredibly hard to achieve this goal. You built a solid foundation for studying, critical thinking, and test-taking, developing the habits that secured you a coveted spot at a great school. That's something to be proud of, but unfortunately, that awesome tool set isn't enough to guarantee that you'll thrive in college once you've unpacked your bags. College presents a wealth of new stressors—academic and social expectations, a seemingly endless parade of important choices, and the newfound power of autonomy, to name a few. Suddenly, no one will be around to make you go to class. Or to bed, or to dinner. The ability to regulate your sleep and eating habits will be put to the test. Innocuous decisions—Spanish or Russian? Sorority rush or student government?—take on new (and sometimes crushing) weight. The statistics show that the vast majority of students (at least 83.7 percent of you) will feel overwhelmed.

That's the least of it: A study of 16,760 college students in the United States found that in the past twelve months, 79.1 percent had been "exhausted (not from physical activity)," 59.6 percent felt "very sad," 45 percent found that "things were hopeless," and 31.3 percent had been "so depressed that it was difficult to function." Issues ranged from academics (44.7 percent) to intimate relationships (30.9 percent) to personal finances (34.8 percent). One study of over 16,000 students found that psychological well-being tends to be at its lowest point right about (wait for it… wait for it) now—or at least the moment you enter college. While anxiety peaks during the first semester of each year (Whoa! New dorms, classes, professors… again!), the most challenging time of all is your first year, from prepping and packing for campus through the end of your freshman-hood.

These numbers can seem daunting, but they do have a bright side: they show that you are not alone.

During the first class of each semester, we ask our students who, during their time in college, has felt stressed out, or overwhelmed, or has experienced anxiety. As one arm becomes two, two doubles to four, and four becomes a vast majority, the result is not embarrassment for any one student but relief for the group, as head turns, eyes scan, and the truth that they aren't alone becomes easy to visualize. It is a part of the reason that we include polls such as those cited above as reading assignments (and why they are laced throughout this book). Through the good and the bad, you are not alone, and knowing that there are others—many others—who share your experience is the most powerful force we know to help you thrive in college.

We want you to understand how to develop mindsets of growth, success, and resilience so you can nurture inspiration instead of fear. We know you will have a better chance to make the most of these four years if you understand what willpower really is, how it works, how you can strengthen it, and when it is most likely to be tested (dating, eating, drinking, studying, procrastinating, and oh yeah, wasting time on the Internet, just to name a few). We will teach you why choice is difficult, how too much of it can be detrimental, and how you can set yourselves up to make good decisions even when the stakes are high. We want you to be able to recognize bad stress and good stress, and learn how to set a routine that encourages more of the latter and less of the former. Have you ever been "in the zone"? In "flow"? There's a science behind that, and practices that can get you there more often. We want to help you identify anxiety and depression (in yourselves or others), and will offer scientifically grounded ways to reduce the risk of their becoming serious.

We will cover how positive emotions help you be more creative and feel more relaxed, and allow you to perform better under pressure, be it onstage, in class, on the field, or on a date. Why do college students who are optimists tend to get better grades, have a more satisfying social life, and succeed at a higher level in almost all pursuits (and have a higher average salary seventeen years later)? The answers lie straight ahead—including how to muster optimism when things get tough (and yes, we'll talk about why a touch of pessimism can be helpful as well).

Rough roommates? It's in here (Chapter 2). Find out how to cultivate healthy and awesome relationships. Here. Are you dating, or trying to psychoanalyze a Person of Interest? Why is he so quiet, why doesn't she ever stop talking? Why hasn't she texted me back? Does he like me, or was he just being polite? We'll teach you how to handle those kinds of thinking traps here.

Is the Freshman Fifteen real, and does it apply to more than what happens when you eat waffles and bacon every morning for an entire semester? What happens when you take a fifteen-minute nap while studying? Or a fifteen-minute walk? What can fifteen minutes of breathing practice a day do for your grades, your mood, your relationship, and/or your focus (none of these answers are here, but they are here, here, here, and here)? What are the seven things you can do to help you get a good night's sleep, and why does that matter anyway? Here.

We'll walk you through the specific steps to lay the groundwork and develop the mindset for becoming an expert in your chosen field while you're pursuing your degree. How do you find a mentor? Give and receive the right kind of feedback? What kind of passion leads to success in both life and school, rather than burnout and depression?

But enough with the questions, already! Let's get these answers rolling.



Life is traveling to the edge of knowledge, then a leap taken.

—D. H. Lawrence

Picture the moment you were accepted to college. What is the image that stands out? A fat envelope bearing the return address and embossed logo of your dream university, waiting for you on the dining room table? How did you feel? What was the very first thing you did? When we ask our students that question during the first class of the semester, some of them tell us they jumped up and down with excitement, others say they sat down and cried. Like all of them, you probably remember feeling somewhere between thankful and relieved.

That "Whew, I did it" relief no doubt turned to anticipation over the summer, whether you spent those few months working to make some extra cash, enjoying a family vacation, or hitting the road with friends to catch your favorite bands on tour. You shopped for clothes and dorm gear. You pored over course descriptions, plotted out your fall schedule, and daydreamed about who you might become, given this big chance to reinvent yourself.

But at some point, it had to hit you. That slightest kernel of anxiety, that briefest flash of doubt: "Do I really have what it takes to thrive in a whole new world?"


Everything seems to have changed: your surroundings are different (where are the skyscrapers/cows/beach/sun/snow?), your community is different, and so is your crew. But the elements you need to be at your best haven't changed: from the technical skills and habits you forged in high school, to positive emotions, healthy relationships, engagement, meaning, achievement, and physical vitality, everything you need is at your fingertips.

At some point during your childhood, someone asked what you wanted to be when you grew up. Whether you answered ballerina, doctor, astronaut, firefighter, president, wizard, or rhinoceros, think about what factors led you to your decision.

It's tempting to say something easy, like you were picturing a job that would make you happy. But while happiness is certainly a piece of the puzzle, it's not enough to explain why we want the things we want. The ambitions you had as a child—or at any age—are far richer and more complex than a simple smile on your rosy little mug. Your dreams of being a ballerina were not just about pirouetting across a stage, but also about wearing beautiful costumes and sharing it all with an audience. Childhood fantasies of fighting fires revolved around being a hero sounding the siren on your big red truck, but you also saw yourself as brave (and had a cool Dalmatian as your sidekick). And before civics class so rudely introduced the concept of democracy, your childhood self likely envisioned the joy of free amusement parks and drinking fountains filled with lemonade when you got elected president—but also a sense of accomplishment, and people to share it all with.

No matter what you chose, what you were imagining was far more complicated than just "happiness." Yes, today you picture plenty of positive emotions, and you may see yourself being super-engaged, both in your classes and in your relationships with other people. As you immerse yourself in the subjects and activities you adore, pursuing your goals carries more meaning, and you relish a sense of achievement on the field, in the lab, or in the classroom.

We didn't just pull these elements out of the blue. This combination of the conditions that promote thriving was developed by Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor who is known as the father of positive psychology (and whom you will get to know quite well in the chapters ahead). Seligman has assembled them into the acronym PERMA, which stands for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement (some suggest that "sex" should be a part of this matrix, but that would make it SPERMA… and that would be awkward).

When you think about it, very few of our ideal visions of "happiness" are all about the smile. No matter what you are doing or how you refer to it—crushing it, killing it, owning it—you are at your best when you are enjoying all of the elements above. And when that happens, you've transcended happiness. You are thriving.

We tell our students to go through their college careers thinking of each part of PERMA as a single bucket, and that they should remain vigilant that none of the buckets ever go dry. Being the unique little snowflakes that you are (yeah, yeah, we know, our students groan, too), each one of you will need to fill them to different levels in order to thrive. When things are tough, it's time to check your buckets to see if any are empty: maybe your workload has you neglecting your relationships, your work is super-meaningful but recently you haven't found yourself laughing very often, or—one that comes up a lot in class—your need for accomplishment has been so dominant that there is not another drop in any of your other containers.

Happiness, friendship, and doing something you love: three of the simplest things that have been essential to helping you thrive since the day you were born. That won't change in college or beyond, but while it's simple to identify those three goals as important to your well-being, they're not always easy to achieve. That is why in this first section of U Thrive we are going to begin by learning how you can make the most of your positive emotions, have fulfilling relationships, and tap into the flow of doing what you love.

Buckle up. It's time to thrive.


Positive Emotions: The Science of Happiness

All men seek happiness. This is without exception.

—Blaise Pascal

We do a lot of things for happiness, but what does happiness do for us?

There is a reason we hurl marshmallows at all 450 of our students before the class on positive emotions, and why last year we prepped everyone for the final exam by turning the volume all the way up on some hip-hop and surprising them with a whipping, Nae-Nae-ing, jerking, twerking, Harlem Shaking, popping, locking, and dropping performance by an NYU dance major who goes by the name of ZebraKid, who finished with a sick backflip that sent everyone into a frenzy of cheers. It's the same reason that you should think about how you're going to raise your mood before every opportunity and challenge that your campus is sure to offer. And it is for this exact reason that we are going to ask you right now to walk through the exercise below:

For the next thirty seconds, please think of the happiest memory you can.

Seriously—as soon as you finish reading this paragraph, set your timer, close your eyes, and think about a moment or an experience that brought you real joy, laughter or elation, or a deep sense of serenity. Put yourself back into that experience. Try to recapture the sounds and smells, picture whom you were with and how you expressed your feelings. Did you fist-pump? Grab your bestie for a bear hug? Laugh so hard you snorted? Perhaps you just sat down to take it all in, closed your eyes, or even cried.

Take your time. Thirty seconds. We won't even write anything on the rest of this page.

(We'll wait. It's worth it. You'll see.)

In so much of our culture, we have been led to believe that success (both in and out of the classroom) comes before happiness: "When I ace my midterm, I will be happy," "When I make the team/band, I will be happy," "When I get that guy/girl, I will be happy." But the whole premise behind this logic is seriously flawed. Reaching our goals does not automatically flip on some circuit breaker labeled HAPPY LIFE. Getting accepted to college is considered one of life's great achievements, right? Yet unhappiness (and even depression) for you and your peers is at an all-time high: in 2014, college freshmen in America self-rated their emotional health at just 50.7 percent, a 2.3 percent drop from the same group just one year earlier.

If you are deferring happiness until after you hit your career goals, consider the findings of Lawrence S. Krieger, a professor at Florida State University, whose research on students and professionals alike exposes issues that arise with the mindset of "success first / happiness later." "Law students are famous for busting their buns to make high grades… thinking, 'Later I'll be happy, because the American dream will be mine,'" writes Krieger. "Nice, except it doesn't work." A study of more than eight hundred white-collar professionals shows that lawyers—among the highest paid of all professionals—have the lowest well-being, not to mention the highest rates of alcohol and nicotine abuse.

Still stuck on the idea of playing the long game for the big bucks? CNN Money recently published an article about unhappy millionaires, concluding that "the pressure that comes with success can be a driving factor in depression." When the objective is to thrive, however, happiness comes along for the ride, calls shotgun, and relegates pressure to the backseat. British business tycoon Richard Branson underscored the power of putting self before success when he told a reporter: "I know I'm fortunate to live an extraordinary life and that most people would assume my business success, and the wealth that comes with it, have brought me happiness. But they haven't—in fact it's the reverse. I am successful, wealthy, and connected because I am happy."

Science is not only debunking the myth that greater success leads to greater happiness, it is flipping that long-held formula right on its head.

You… The Younger Years

Four-year-olds are awesome research subjects for a number of reasons: they never show up hungover to a study (at least not in our experience), they have no idea that one-way mirrors exist, and they share a multitude of similarities with one another, making them—minus the occasional tantrum—a marvelously uncomplicated sample group. Proof: Every four-year-old in the world loves marshmallows and cupcakes. Every. Single. One. Thus it was with exactly this group of thumb-suckers that in 1979, John C. Masters, R. Christopher Barden, and Martin E. Ford studied how positive emotions affect our ability to function.

All of the kiddos in this study were given a set of blocks and a series of puzzles that challenged their building and spatial skills. We're not talking about reconstructing the Eiffel Tower to scale here: just straightforward "see picture, build picture," and other standard day-in-the-life-of-a-preschooler activities. Some of the tykes were allowed to simply begin the exercise, while others first had to spend thirty seconds thinking of something that made them sad. A third group was given the same blocks and the same instructions as the rest, with one seemingly minor additional task: before they were allowed to begin building the structure, they were prompted to think of their happiest memory for thirty seconds (ring a bell?). Now, these were four-year-olds, so what could their "happiest memory" possibly have been? Playing kickball at recess? Pudding for lunch that day? Watching Frozen in full princess costume for the forty-seventh time the night before?

Whatever their positive memories were, the impact was astounding: the preschoolers primed with happy memories were 50 percent faster and more accurate in their solutions than their negatively primed peers, and over 30 percent better than the children who tackled the task without any prompts. Let's say that again: simply being primed with positive emotion dramatically improved these children's performances.

Of course, none of you reading this are four years old (if you are, you are way ahead of the curve), so we don't blame you for wondering how this could possibly apply to a mature, intelligent college student who would much rather dance around an eighty-foot wooden man in the Nevada desert than eat pudding. This very well may have been along the lines of what researchers at Cornell University were wondering, too, when in 1997 they decided to replicate the study, swapping out the juice-box crew for doctors. Three groups of internists were given a case to diagnose. The first group was simply instructed to commence, while a second group was asked to think about humanism in medicine before beginning the task at hand. The last group was given a bag of candy. Why? Simple—to raise their spirits before they went off to make their diagnoses. (They had to hold off actually eating their treats until later, lest the sugar compromise the study.) It turns out that regardless of whether you're in the playroom or the emergency room (or, as you will soon find, the classroom), a little positive priming has significant implications: those physicians who were primed with positive emotion correctly diagnosed the symptoms almost 20 percent faster and more accurately than their nonprimed peers. Would you prefer a doctor who is more accurate and gets to the bottom of things more quickly? Bring a bag of candy.

The Positive Advantage

Positive emotions prime you to perform at your best. Whether you're howling with laughter or just chilling, positive emotions make you better at almost everything you do. Good feelings are a fantastic learning aid: they help you retain more information and stay on the ball in group discussions; they improve your test scores and your grades; they boost resilience and help you deal with stress more effectively.

The two studies we've already discussed aren't the only ones to back these findings up. In another study, students asked to think of their happiest memories for forty-five seconds retained more words while learning a foreign language, while a group of high school juniors and seniors primed in exactly the same way not only answered more questions on a standardized math test but got a higher percentage of them correct.

More focused on creativity than calculus? Four studies of more than two hundred undergrads at the University of Maryland found that students who were positively primed (i.e., with gifts of candy or a few minutes watching comedy bloopers) tested better at creative problem solving and word games.

Of course, opportunities in college extend far beyond the classroom, and the benefits of positive emotions come right along with them. It might be a no-brainer to suggest that happier people enjoy more new friendships, but it turns out that happier people spend more time socializing, enjoy their time more with acquaintances and best friends alike, and are perceived as more appealing and inviting. Even the rocky patches can be navigated more smoothly, as happier people are more likely to talk their issues out, while their more negative classmates tend to duck and hide, a reaction that rarely has a happy ending.

Positive emotions can even give you a competitive edge. Sports Illustrated recently explored the trend toward more positively oriented NCAA coaching styles and found that one of the reasons that the longstanding tradition of abusive leadership seems to be coming to an end is that many players perform better when engaged in a manner that encourages positive emotions (not to mention suffering fewer injuries).


  • "U Thrive is full of the insights and practical tips I wish I'd had as an undergraduate. It's a user's guide to the mind and body, written for young adults on the cusp of mastering both!"—Angela Duckworth, author of Grit
  • "This book is full of information that college students need -- not just for achieving excellence, but also for reducing stress, gaining happiness, and finding meaning."—Adam Grant, author of Originals and Give and Take

On Sale
Apr 18, 2017
Hachette Audio

Alan Schlechter

About the Author

Daniel Lerner, MAPP, is a clinical instructor at NYU, and he serves on the instructional staff at the University of Pennsylvania. As a performance coach he works with established and high-potential musicians, athletes, and executives to leverage the advantages that a healthy psychological state can bring to their performance at both work and home.

Alan Schlechter, MD, is a Clinical Assistant Professor at NYU Langone Medical Center and the Director of the Outpatient Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services at Bellevue Hospital. In this role, he seeks to provide mental health care to New York’s most vulnerable children and families.

Learn more about this author

Dan Lerner

About the Author

Daniel Lerner, MAPP, is a clinical instructor at NYU, and he serves on the instructional staff at the University of Pennsylvania. As a performance coach he works with established and high-potential musicians, athletes, and executives to leverage the advantages that a healthy psychological state can bring to their performance at both work and home.

Alan Schlechter, MD, is a Clinical Assistant Professor at NYU Langone Medical Center and the Director of the Outpatient Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services at Bellevue Hospital. In this role, he seeks to provide mental health care to New York’s most vulnerable children and families.

Learn more about this author