Should Happiness be the Aim of Education?

Special Focus : Lifelong Learning for Active Citizenship
Access and Inclusion October 28, 2018

If you ask education experts what the purpose of education is, three main goals tend to stand out: 1) to prepare individuals to be active citizens in their communities and foster social cohesion; 2) to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and skills necessary for the economy and, ultimately, to a society’s development; 3) to build an individual’s identity and autonomy and enable them to exercise their freedom.

None of these answers, however, explicitly mention happiness as an underlying reason to pursue an education. I myself used to be a bit skeptical about how much an education could, in practice, influence one’s state of mind. We often meet talented people who had access to many educational opportunities, but who do not consider themselves happy.

My personal intuition was that, once basic human needs are met, the level of satisfaction with our lives depended mostly on our personality. Some people, in my view, were lucky to have a more positive approach to life – and schools could not do much beyond fostering an environment of respect among their students. But what if we could learn how to be a happier person?

Open to challenging my personal assumptions, a few weeks ago I enrolled in the course “The Science of Happiness” by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California. Even if I did not improve my levels of happiness, I would at least learn more about the science around what affects our wellbeing.

What is happiness?

Philosophers in different periods of history have tried to define happiness: Is it the balance between how much pleasure and pain we experience? Is it overall satisfaction with our daily routines? Is it how much we fulfill big lifetime goals? All these answers are valid. For measuring purposes, the most common approach in science is to ask people to self-report how satisfied they are with their lives. This might not capture all nuances in the definition of happiness, but it is a consistent way of benchmarking it. Even if you cannot articulate your own definition of happiness, you can learn through scientific research what affects other people’s perception of happiness – and this can help to shape your own perception.
A major challenge in this learning process is to try to identify the origins of your perception of happiness. Contradicting my own assumptions, research shows that happiness is not only about personality. According to the GGSC, on average science shows that around 50% of happiness is influenced by genes, 10% by life circumstances, and 40% on intentional activity. So while it is true that we might be genetically less or more inclined to view life in a positive way, a significant contribution to our well being depends on effort. That is a very positive and powerful message: there are things we actively change in our lives to make us feel better.

Putting happiness into practice

One simple strategy suggested by GGSC was the “3 good things” exercise. Created by a group of scholars from the United States1, it consists of allocating 10 minutes every day to list 3 good things that happened in your day and explain why. Beyond revisiting our positive memories (which is already a good thing), the goal is also to try to express what triggers those feelings and understand whether they contribute to a long-lasting sensation of well being.

Since I’ve started paying more attention to what type of things I found rewarding, I’ve realized that I can now consciously prioritize them and turn them into a habit where possible. This type of awareness can help you not only with small adjustments in routine, such as spending time with your loved ones, but also to plan for greater decisions in life, such as factoring daily activities you would usually give up for work and commuting time.

Even though we face them constantly, both small and big life considerations are challenging, and we rarely practice how to tackle them during our education. That doesn’t necessarily mean that schools should have courses on the science of happiness. However, it would be good if educators were to consider that perspective whenever discussing with students how to manage their time, interact with family and friends, and plan for their futures. Ultimately, in the words of philosopher Nel Noddings: “happiness should be an aim of education, and a good education should contribute significantly to personal and collective happiness.”2

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.

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