Written by : Adrian Bethune 

Can Schools Teach Happiness?

If you ask any parent what they most want for their children growing up, chances are they’ll answer something like, “I want them to be happy.” Which parent wouldn’t want that? So, if this is the aspiration that most parents want for their children, shouldn’t teaching children how to lead well-rounded and happy lives be a big focus for schools, too? I believe there are many reasons why the emotional well-being of our children should be central to a good education.

Curbing a Mental Health Crisis

The most recent evidence certainly points towards there being a mental health crisis amongst our young people. According to research shared by the mental health charity Young Minds:

  • 1 in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder.
  • Half of all mental ill health manifests by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 18.

These statistics don’t have to be the inevitable future of our young people. Schools can put programs in place and create cultures where the emotional well-being of students and staff is placed at the center of their communities. 

A Path to Future Happiness

A key reason why we should be investing more in our children’s wellbeing is because it is the strongest predictor of their future happiness. In his book, The Origins of Happiness, Professor Richard  Layard and his colleagues have drawn from an extensive range of longitudinal data from across the globe to establish the key factors that affect human wellbeing. Richard’s team wanted to be able to answer the question, ‘In childhood, what best predicts happiness in later life?’ They concluded that, ‘If we go back to childhood…the best predictor of an enjoyable adult life…is the child’s emotional health, which…is significantly more important than all the qualifications the person ever obtains.’ It appears that investing in our children’s well-being pays dividends for the future! 

Schools and Teachers Make a Difference

It may sound obvious that happy children grow up to be happy adults. What can anyone other than parents do about that? Well, it turns out quite a lot. In Richard’s book, his team dug down into the data and traced which schools and even which teachers some of the respondents had in childhood, along with their academic attainment. The book found that, ‘primary school teachers have more impact on the emotional health of the children than on the children’s performance in maths.’ The chapter on schooling ends with the encouraging conclusion, ‘Primary and secondary schools have major effects on the emotional well-being of their children.’ It shows that schools and teachers are crucial to developing and nurturing children’s well-being. We play a crucial role in raising healthy and happy children.

A Case of Teaching Happiness

Positive psychologist, Alejandro Adler, Ph.D., from the University of Pennsylvania, researched teaching a well-being curriculum to more than 700,000 students in Bhutan, Mexico and Peru. In all three studies, students in the intervention schools reported significantly higher well-being and they performed significantly better on standardized national exams at the end of a 15-month intervention. This suggests that schools can teach happiness and that, in doing so, students learn better. 

Schools must prioritize the happiness and well-being of their students and staff. This means having well-being on the curriculum, it means making positive relationships a key facet of children’s education, it means making physical exercise a core part of the daily routines, it means having structures and resources in place (like counseling services) for students that need extra support. Whether you believe the focus of schools should be teaching knowledge, or teaching happiness, when schools place well-being at the center of their curriculum, everyone wins.
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