Authors: Laura M. Morris1, Danny Twilley2, Cara L. Sidman3, Hannah Adamczyk1, Zoe Gasell1, and Karly Plemmons1

1School of Health & Applied Human Sciences, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, NC, USA
2Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV, USA
3College of Health Solutions, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, USA

Corresponding Author:
Laura M. Morris, EdD
601 S. College Road
Wilmington, NC 28403

Laura M. Morris, EdD is an Assistant Professor of Recreation, Sport Leadership & Tourism Management at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her research interests include leisure behavior, recreation/leisure in relation to lifelong health and wellbeing, happiness/positive psychology, and recreational sport and college student development.

Danny Twilley, PhD is the Assistant Dean of Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at West Virginia University. Research interests include outdoor recreation’s role in community development, leisure as a catalyst for change, and subjective wellbeing. 

Cara L. Sidman, PhD is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Population Health in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. Her research interests focus on wellbeing, online teaching, and college students.

Hannah Adamczyk is a recent graduate of the Recreation, Sport Leadership & Tourism Management program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Zoe Gasell is a recent graduate of the Recreation, Sport Leadership & Tourism Management program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Karly Plemmons is an undergraduate student in Recreation, Sport Leadership & Tourism Management at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Student-athletes: An exploration of subjective wellbeing


This research examined the subjective wellbeing scores of student-athletes at a mid-sized National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Southeastern university. Understanding student-athlete mental health is a growing concern among the NCAA and intercollegiate athletics programs. Much of the literature examines the issue from a clinical perspective related to depression. Purpose: The purpose of this study was to explore the subjective wellbeing of student-athletes at a NCAA Division I university by examining gender, in-season v. out-of-season, and team sport v. individual sports. Methods: A survey methodology was adopted to measure participant (N=109) perceptions of subjective wellbeing utilizing a valid subjective happiness scale. Results: Overall, participants indicated high levels of perceived happiness. In-season athletes, men, and team sport athletes scored highest. Conclusions: Research on student-athlete mental health has been inconsistent. Findings from this study were encouraging as student-athletes reported a high level of reported happiness. Application in Sports: This study provides insight into student-athletes’ wellbeing and mental health. Findings suggest additional programs and services focused on out-of-season student-athletes, women, and those in individual sports be considered.

Key Words: NCAA, Division I, happiness, mental health


Recently, there has been an enhanced focus on student-athlete mental health (4). A 2015 NCAA report found that suicide was the fourth leading cause of death among college athletes (16), while 6.3% of student-athletes met the criteria for clinically significant depression and 24% had low moods considered “clinically relevant” (24). These factors have prompted states like New Mexico to introduce legislation aimed at providing additional monetary support for student-athlete mental health initiatives (19). Consequently, understanding student-athlete mental health and wellbeing is an important topic for universities, athletic administrators, and other stakeholders.

While non-student-athletes suffer from anxiety and depression, student-athletes are not immune to the problem. Student-athletes are a unique sub-group within the campus community with access to significant support systems, academic assistance centers, healthy food, and meet weekly guidelines for physical activity. Yet, student-athletes may be more vulnerable to mental health problems than originally thought. Suicide was found to be the fourth leading cause of death for student-athletes (16). Depression and anxiety rates may be influenced by lack of sleep, stress from academics, sport injuries, pressure to perform, and overtraining (4, 23). Studies on student-athlete mental health have generated mixed results-some findings indicate athletes are less likely to be depressed (2), while others show these students are not insulated from depression (25). Originally, it was believed depression did not impact the student-athlete population. It was assumed since athletes got more exercise and identify with a specific group, they were less likely clinically depressed. However, recent studies have shown otherwise-athletics is not a buffer against depression. Data showed 23.7% of athletes displayed mild symptoms of depression, while 6.3% had severe symptoms of depression (25). Even without a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder, student-athletes may have impaired overall wellbeing such as anxiety, insomnia, or substance misuse (14). A study of current and former student-athletes from nine different universities showed current college athletes were twice as likely to be depressed as former athletes, with females having a much higher rate of depression than males (23). Student-athletes are not immune to depression and may have some factors that are unique to the population-injury, performance expectations, career termination, and overtraining (14, 23, 24).

Unfortunately, student-athletes are often reluctant to seek professional help (16). The culture of athletics is to be “mentally tough”, therefore, athletes do not want to show weakness by expressing signs of depression (17, 24). Stigma was the largest barrier to seeking help for student-athletes, although perceptions of mental health assistance may be changing with the population (3, 10, 22). Lack of mental health literacy was also a barrier (8). The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has recognized the need for taking proactive steps in managing mental health for student-athletes, as well as informing athletes of what mental health issues are, and how they can seek help (14). As key stakeholders, coaches need to be trained to recognize mental health symptoms. They play an essential role in identifying student-athletes who may benefit from mental health resources, have the ability to foster a health-promoting environment supportive of wellbeing, and can normalize and support care seeking (14). To address these issues, intercollegiate athletics is interested in providing support systems, interventions, and programs to help student-athletes. The findings on student-athlete depression have been mixed and inconsistent, indicating a need to study mental health from a variety of lenses (24). The aim of this study was to examine the subjective wellbeing of student-athletes at a NCAA Division I university.

One way of examining the mental health of athletes is to assess their levels of subjective wellbeing. Subjective wellbeing (SWB) is the scientific term for happiness and life satisfaction. It is how individuals evaluate their own lives, where people identify positive feelings and believe their life is going well (6). Wolanin, Gross, and Hong (24) call for further inquiry into the topic of athletes’ mental health, thus subjective wellbeing provides another perspective from which to view the issue.

This study analyzed scores on a subjective happiness scale by gender, in-season v. out-of-season, and team v. individual sport. Based on previous research related to mental health and athletes, the authors predicted men would score higher than females, in-season athletes lower than out-of-season, and individual sports lower than team sports.



The study sample was comprised of student-athletes (n = 109) from a medium-sized (17,500), NCAA Division I, Southeastern university without a football program.


This study aimed to enhance understanding of subjective happiness scores of NCAA Division I student-athletes. Subjective happiness levels among student-athletes were measured using a valid subjective happiness scale (SHS) (12). The instrument has been used in numerous other studies on happiness and wellbeing, (7, 11), including college populations (13). Student-athletes self-evaluated their subjective wellbeing while completing the instrument.

After receiving permission from the Institutional Review Board and The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, surveys were emailed to all 332 registered student-athletes for the spring 2019 semester. One-hundred nine student-athletes completed the subjective happiness scale (SHS) and demographic questions via online survey.


The SHS is a four-item instrument that uses a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (a great deal). One of the items uses reverse scoring. Sample items include: “Some people are generally very happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything. To what extent does this characterization describe you?”

Test re-test reliability ranged from 0.55 to 0.90 (M = .72), while convergent validity had correlations of 0.52 to 0.72 (M = 0.62) and discriminant validity tests found all but one variable failed to reach statistical significance (12). Demographic questions related to gender, year in school, and sport were also asked.

Data Analyses

Data analysis was completed using Jeffreys’s Amazing Statistics Program (JASP). Table 1 provides descriptive statistics for all variables in the study. For categorical variables, frequencies (number and percentage) are reported, while the means, standard deviations, and ranges are reported for the SHS. The amount and percentage of missing data is also reported for all study variables.


The sample was fairly evenly distributed across all four undergraduate class standings, with 28.44% identifying as a sophomore, 26.61% identifying as a senior, 22.94% identifying as a freshman, and the remaining 22.02% identifying as a junior. The majority of the sample (61.11%) identified as female; no respondents identified as transgender. Nearly 60% of the sample were involved in an in-season sport at the time of data collection. Specific sports were classified as either a team or an individual sport; 63.89% of the sample played a team sport (baseball, basketball, beach volleyball, soccer, softball, volleyball), while the remaining 36.11% engaged in an individual sport (golf, swimming & diving, tennis, track & field). The number and percentage of respondents engaging in each sport is also provided in Table 1. Lastly, respondents reported a generally high level of subjective happiness, with an average score of 5.19, and scores ranging from 2.5 to 7.0.

TABLE 1: Descriptive statistics (n = 109).

Variable n % M SD Range Missing n (%)
Year in School 109         0 (0)
     Freshman 25 22.94        
     Sophomore 31 28.44        
     Junior 24 22.02        
     Senior 29 26.61        
Gender 108         1 (0.92)
     Male 42 38.89        
     Female 66 61.11        
In-Season Sport 108         1 (0.92)
     No 44 40.74        
     Yes 64 59.26        
Team vs. Individual Sport 108         1 (0.92)
     Individual Sport 39 36.11        
     Team Sport 69 63.89        
Type of Sport 108         1 (0.92)
     Baseball 17 15.74        
     Basketball 3 2.78        
     Beach Volleyball 7 6.48        
     Golf 4 3.70        
     Soccer 21 19.44        
     Softball 16 14.82        
     Swimming & Diving 19 17.59        
     Tennis 5 4.63        
     Track & Field 11 10.19        
     Volleyball 5 4.63        
Subjective Happiness Scale 109   5.19 1.06 2.5-7.0 0 (0)

T-tests were used to examine differences in perceived subjective happiness by gender, in- or out-of-season sport, and individual or team sport. While no significant differences were found in subjective happiness between males and females and between individual- or team-based sports, there were statistically significant differences in the subjective happiness of participants engaged in out-of-season versus in-season sports. In-season sports participants reported a higher level of subjective happiness than those engaged in out-of-season sports at the time of data collection (M = 5.37 vs. M = 4.96, respectively). Table 2 presents the results of these t-tests.

While males reported a slightly higher level of subjective happiness than females (M = 5.37 vs. M  = 5.10, respectively), and participants of team sports reported a higher level of subjective happiness than those participating in individual sports (M = 5.25 vs. M  = 5.11, respectively), these differences were not statistically significant.

TABLE 2: Differences in subjective happiness among student athletes by gender, in-or-out-of-season sport, and team-or-individual sport (n = 108).

  Subjective Happiness
Variable M SD t
Gender     1.32
      Male 5.37 1.06  
      Female 5.10 1.03  
In-Season Sport     -2.03*
     No 4.96 1.09  
     Yes 5.37 0.99  
Team vs. Individual Sport     -0.67
     Individual 5.11 1.00  
     Team 5.25 1.07  

†p < .1.  *p < .05.  **p < .01.  ***p < .001.

Additionally, an ANOVA was used to examine differences in subjective happiness by class standing. No statistically significant differences were found. Results of this analysis are presented in Table 3.

TABLE 3: Subjective happiness scores, by class standing (n = 109).

Year     0.36
     Freshman 5.25 1.01  
     Sophomore 5.02 1.14  
     Junior 5.24 1.06  
     Senior 5.27 1.04  

†p < .1.  *p < .05.  **p < .01.  ***p < .001.

Finally, while no statistical comparisons were made due to the small number of respondents in each sport, mean subjective happiness scores are presented by specific type of sport in Table 4.

TABLE 4: Subjective happiness scores, by sport (n = 108).

Type of Sport M SD
     Baseball 5.42 1.03
     Basketball 4.92 0.63
     Beach Volleyball 5.43 1.09
     Golf 5.00 0.94
     Soccer 4.87 1.25
     Softball 5.42 0.95
     Swimming & Diving 4.82 1.03
     Tennis 5.37 1.14
     Track & Field 5.55 0.85
     Volleyball 5.73 0.88

Participants reported a generally high level of subjective happiness, with an average score of 5.19, and scores ranging from 2.5 to 7.0. Other research using the SHS (12) revealed an average college student score of approximately 4.88 (moderate to high happiness).


The goal of this study was to explore subjective happiness levels of student-athletes at a mid-sized Southeastern university in an effort to build upon knowledge relevant to mental health and wellbeing of this population.

Gender and Happiness

The majority of the literature (18, 20, 21, 25, 26), indicates that female athletes are more likely to be depressed. Our findings support existing literature, with males reporting a slightly higher level of subjective happiness than females. Gender seems to play some role in subjective happiness and mental health. Wolanin et al. (24) found female athletes had significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms than male athletes, especially when their sport of choice was track and field. Schaal et al. (18) also found that elite female athletes were more likely to be diagnosed with a psychological problem than male athletes.

In-Season vs. Out-of-Season

Participants of in-season sports reported a higher level of subjective happiness than participants of out-of-season sports at the time of data collection. The literature is very limited regarding in-season versus out-of-season experience and their impact on mental health. Results from this study are somewhat surprising and need further inquiry. It was hypothesized that in-season student-athletes would score lower than out-of-season because of the additional stress of the season, time constraints, travel schedules, and playing status. The results contradicted existing literature and failed to reject the null hypothesis.

Team vs. Individual Sport

Participants of team sports reported a higher level of subjective happiness than those of individual sports. This finding supported the existing literature. Previous research has shown that athletes competing in individual sports were more prone to depressive symptoms than athletes competing in team sports (15, 21). Nixdorf et al. (15) found the internalization of success and failure related to individual sport athletes may play a role in depressive symptoms. In addition, research has shown that having a social network and team support are two factors that protect college athletes from developing depression (2).


There are limitations related to this study. This is a relatively small sample at one NCAA Division I university. The study relies on self-evaluation and self-reported data, thus reporting bias could affect responses. Moreover, this data was a snapshot from one moment in time, while happiness is fluid and can change based on circumstances. Finally, the institution studied does not play football and is not in a Power 5 conference. Football has the highest suicide rate in college athletics (5). These factors could impact findings at other institutions.


There has been a renewed focus on athlete-mental health at the NCAA and higher education institutions across the country. Many once thought student-athletes may be insulated from mental health problems, but recent studies have shown otherwise.

Overall, results from this study are encouraging. Student-athletes at this institution self-rated their happiness as high. Additional research with a larger sample at a Division I, Power 5 institution with football is warranted. A longitudinal study related to happiness and student-athletes may also be advantageous. At the same time, the present results add to the body of knowledge related to the wellbeing of student-athletes. In light of these findings, stakeholders may want to focus additional resources and programming on those in groups identified as potentially having higher risk factors for depression. Ideally, institutions can focus on programming that maximizes support for student-athlete wellness. This can take many forms, and may include establishing an interdisciplinary team to support student-athlete mental health, and promote self-care, personal health, personal growth, and stress management techniques (14).


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