In response to the growing prevalence of mental health difficulties amongst university students, an online Self-Assessment and self-Management tool (SAM) is being developed by the University of Melbourne to help students prioritise and self-manage their wellbeing goals. The present study aims to contribute to the broader SAM project by exploring how holistic thinking (a broad view of wellbeing) as compared to atomistic thinking (a narrow view of wellbeing), may impact how students engage with and respond to the SAM tool. Drawing upon research in information categorisation and compartmentalisation, it was theorised that thinking type (holistic vs atomistic thinking) would in part control the accessibility of wellbeing-related information about the self, hence impacting an individual's ability to comprehensively evaluate and improve their wellbeing.
Research Questions / Hypotheses
It was expected that holistic thinking, as compared to atomistic thinking, would be predictive of higher wellbeing scores on SAM across four key domains (mental, physical, social, and overall wellbeing); greater interest in health-related wellbeing goals; and greater willingness to use a SAM-like tool in the future.
This research involved both a short qualitative interview study and a larger quantitative study. The aim of the qualitative research was threefold, firstly to gather feedback from students regarding the comprehensiveness draft SAM survey, secondly to gain a sense as to how holistic and atomistic thinking might be expressed by students when talking about their wellbeing, and finally to use these insights to develop a survey item to measure holistic thinking. The quantitative data collection utilised the revised SAM survey and holistic thinking measure to investigate the research questions proposed above. The WHO-5 was used as a measure of mental wellbeing, a single quality of life item used to get a general sense of participants' overall wellbeing, physical wellbeing was measured using a number of items that were combined into a composite measure that indicated the extent to which participants were engaging in protective physical health behaviours (e.g., avoiding drug use, engaging in exercise, and having a healthy diet), and social wellbeing was measured using two items that assessed the strength of their social support network. Holistic thinking was measured using a novel scale, goal interest a 17-item measure, and interest in using SAM again a single item. These measures were included in the revised SAM survey, which was advertised on the REP website, university noticeboards, and via word of mouth.
Hierarchical regression analyses were used to assess whether the main effect of holistic thinking would persist after accounting for age and student status (international vs domestic students). The main effect of holistic thinking (that greater holistic thinking is associated with greater social support and a greater number of protective physical health behaviours) did not remain after accounting for age and student status. The main effect did however remain in relation to goal interest. Participants who thought holistically about their wellbeing indicated significantly greater interest in pursuing goals across all three domains (academic and physical and mental health goals) than their atomistic counterparts after accounting for age and student status. The same is true in relation to interest in using the SAM tool again.
A possible explanation as to why there was no significant relationship between holistic thinking and the four wellbeing measures is that holistic thinking (as measured by the novel scale) may be predictive of intentions to enhance wellbeing rather than wellbeing itself. The holistic thinking scale that was created is likely to have picked up participants that have a decent factual knowledge about wellbeing. However, research has suggested that knowing a number of facts about something does not necessarily translate into adequate practical understanding and action. Furthermore, individuals who think holistically about their wellbeing may suffer from choice paralysis, as they see many things as important to their wellbeing but might have difficulty deciding which to act upon. Whilst much of this is speculative, the SAM tool may have great potential to help holistic thinkers translate their factual knowledge into practical knowledge (as SAM will provide resources to achieve wellbeing goals) and help with choice paralysis (using its prioritisation component). Another explanation of the findings is that the measures that were used to assess wellbeing were not comprehensive enough. In relation to atomistic thinking, the results are less clear as the holistic thinking scale did not adequately capture the lower end of the holistic thinking continuum (atomistic thinking). Furthermore, further research should be conducted to investigate whether atomistic thinking may only impact wellbeing in certain contexts (e.g., only impact disadvantaged students rather than students with high quality of life and material comfort). To conclude, further research is needed to confirm these findings as no such research has previously been conducted. However, it has outlined a number of exciting avenues for future research. This work was conducted as part of an Honours degree in psychology