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Students and Their Schooling: Does Happiness Matter?

By Scott Huebner

With the increased emphasis on measuring school success primarily through academic outcomes, some might argue that school professionals cannot afford to pay much attention to students’ well-being, especially to such a frivolous component as happiness. Indeed, even some positive psychologists who encourage greater attention to research and promotion of “optimal functioning” in adults and children are careful to discourage psychologists and other professionals from equating positive psychology with “happyiology” as though the promotion of happiness is less important than the promotion of other positive psychology constructs (e.g., meaning in life, virtuous behavior, etc.). Although this author agrees with the notion that the promotion of happiness is a limited goal and does not represent the full array of indicators needed to reflect optimal well-being, he also believes that convincing evidence has been uncovered during the past several decades that demonstrates the importance of students’ happiness to their success in school and other important arenas in life. Actually, I believe that students’ current happiness levels are important in their own right. Nevertheless, it is recognized that school professionals may demand a stronger rationale to devote attention to such matters, given the mandated central importance of academic outcomes. Thus, this article will be devoted to reviewing the literature on the importance and promotion of the happiness of children and adolescents.

First, happiness must be defined. Although numerous definitions have been proposed, most definitions include a relatively enduring cognitive component (i.e., global life satisfaction) and a relatively enduring emotional component (i.e., positive affect). Global life satisfaction refers to a person’s evaluation of the quality of her life as a whole while positive affect refers to the occurrence of frequent positive emotions over time, such as joy, interest, and enthusiasm. Thus, a happy student is not one who is necessarily giddy with joy every moment of every day, but one who experiences frequent positive emotions (more than negative emotions) and reports a relatively enduring sense of well-being with regard to her overall life.

The importance of happiness is apparent in numerous life domains. In a meta-analysis of the literature with adults, Lyubormirsky, King, and Diener (2005) found that happier individuals lived longer, earned more money and were more productive at work, and reported more satisfying interpersonal relationships. Research with adolescents has revealed the importance of happiness in school as well as in the home and community (Huebner, Gilman, & Suldo, 2006). For example, students reporting greater happiness show more appropriate classroom behavior, higher school grades, better peer and teacher relationships, better physical health, and greater participation in classroom and extracurricular activities. Students who report low levels of happiness are more likely to report mental health problems, peer victimization, poor relationships with parents and teachers, and a variety of risk behaviors (e.g., alcohol and drug use, risky sex behavior, violence-related behavior, eating problems, suicide ideation). Longitudinal studies indicate that unhappiness is an important risk factor for depression and loss of social support from peers and parents as well as disengagement from school. In the face of stressful life events, unhappy students are more likely to develop future behavior problems. Such outcomes are all related to school success underscoring the importance of the happiness of students in school. Noddings (2003) summarizes poignantly that “happy students learn better than unhappy students…. and happy people are rarely mean, violent, or cruel” (p. 2). Noddings goes on to suggest that student happiness should be a major aim of education. Again, she is not suggesting that students must be happy all the time, but rather that they should develop an overall enduring sense that life is ok, despite the setbacks and challenges of everyday life.

What are the origins of individual differences in students’ levels of happiness? Research has suggested that the causes of happiness are multivariate. Diener and Biswas- Diener (2008) use the analogy of a recipe for understanding how individuals differ in their levels of happiness. The recipe includes genetic and neuropsychological, personality, cognitive–motivational, major environment, and daily activity ingredients. Surprisingly, demographic variables, such as age, ethnicity, and gender play only small roles among persons within nations. For example, socioeconomic status plays only a minor role in happiness reports, except under extreme conditions, such as poverty. Even biological and environmental variables play modest to moderate roles in happiness, again with the exception of extreme conditions (e.g., chronic family conflict). Cognitive–motivational factors, such as self-esteem (in U.S. students), internal locus of control, optimistic attributional style, and grateful and hopeful thinking appear to be stronger determinants of student happiness. The most powerful ingredients appear to be interpersonal in nature, with high quality family, peer, and teacher relationships as essential ingredients in the recipe for optimal happiness.

If there is agreement with Noddings that promoting student happiness should be a goal of schooling, how can and should school professionals go about doing this? First, Huebner and colleagues (2006) have suggested that school professionals should monitor students’ happiness in schools (i.e., quality of school life). Schools provide many “interventions,” including educational (e.g., individualized educational programs and accommodations), social–emotional (e.g., behavioral intervention plans), and medical (e.g., medication for ADHD), but rarely monitor the effects of the intervention on their students’ happiness or perceived quality of life. It is possible that some interventions differentially impact student “symptoms” (e.g., ADHD symptoms, academic grades) and happiness levels. Several simple, but psychometrically sound measures of student happiness are available in the public domain (see Huebner et al., 2006).

Second, efforts should be undertaken to promote student happiness in schools. Again, how should professionals think about this? At the systems level, Noddings (2003) provides useful suggestions that have empirical support. To quote Noddings,

The best schools should resemble the best homes…. The best homes provide continuity of caring relations, attend to and continuously evaluate both inferred and expressed needs, protect from harm without deliberately inflicting pain, communicate so as to develop common and individual interests, work together cooperatively, promote joy in genuine learning, guide moral and spiritual development…. and educate for both self-understanding and group understanding (p. 260).

Again, efforts to operationalize such a school climate should be monitored for the impact on the happiness of all students.

Although interpersonal and cognitive–motivational factors are malleable, perhaps daily, instrumental activities are the most malleable and susceptible to change by others and students themselves. Although most, but not all of the research has been done with college students and older adults, Lyubormirsky (2007) has summarized a variety of intentional, daily-activity-level interventions that might be useful in the school setting. Such techniques relate to the promotion of buffering strengths such as gratitude, optimism, prosocial behavior positive goal-setting, problem-focused coping, flow, and physical well-being. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe these activities in detail, but suffice it to say they are surprisingly simple, but powerful techniques that likely could be adapted for use with groups of students or individuals. Some of these strategies have been highlighted in previous issues of Communiqué (e.g., see Molony, 2010). Schools that promote the development of student strengths as well as the remediation of student “problems” are likely to develop new and creative approaches to the education of the whole child.

Regardless of the specific intervention strategies employed, the purpose of this article was to sensitize the reader to the importance of children’s happiness in schools. It is important to note that the author is not suggesting that attention to a students’ happiness should supplant or override attention to her or his academic learning. Rather, it is this author’s hope that educators will work with academic learning and happiness together to optimize their students’ current quality of life in school as well as to promote future vocational and life success. Surely, “the good life” for students includes both. In short, happiness matters in school. Given their training, school psychologists are well positioned to help foster optimal happiness in all students.

References

Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. New York: Blackwell.

Huebner, E. S., Gilman, R., & Suldo, S. M. (2006). Life satisfaction. In G. Bear & K. Minke (Eds.), Children’s needs III (pp. 357–368). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Lyubormirsky, S. J. (2007). The how of happiness. New York: Penguin Press.

Lyubormirsky, S. J., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803–855.

Molony, T. (2010). Capitol Hill recognizes National School Psychology Week and the work of school psychologists: Remarks by Terry Molony. Communiqué, 38(5), 10, 13–14.

Noddings, N. (2003). Happiness and education. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Scott Huebner, PhD, NCSP, is a professor and director of the school psychology program at the University of South Carolina as well as a contributing editor for Communiqué.