If we want our students to become happy adults, research suggests that schools should focus more on students' well-being than academic success.
Student success today is defined by getting a job. The Common Core State Standards aim to make students career-ready—and the U.S. Department of Education’s mission is to prepare students for global competitiveness.
But does that brand of success lead to happiness? Several studies have found that childhood emotional health and kind, helpful behavior—two major factors that contribute to our happiness—are the greatest predictors of life satisfaction in adulthood. The least important predictor? Academic success.
For sure, getting a job is a huge and important part of adulthood. But anyone who’s ever been an adult knows that there’s more—so much more—to life than work. And scientists have determined that experiencing positive emotions and having a sense of meaning in both our work and our personal lives are critical to our well-being.
So rather than making it an either/or situation—either job skills or happiness and meaning—what if we taught students both? In other words, what if teaching them how to build happy and meaningful lives was integrated into the cultivation of their future employability?
Research on the importance of helping students develop skills that lead to happy and meaningful lives behooves educators (and policy-makers) to at least consider the possibility. Yet how exactly does learning to cultivate a happy and meaningful life fit into education? And even more importantly, how do we teach it?
Where happiness fits into education
According to leading happiness researcher Sonya Lyubomirsky, happiness is defined as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
In other words, happy lives are usually made up of a combination of positive emotions and meaningfulness—both of which contribute greatly to a child’s learning process and well-being.
Emotions play an integral role in education, affecting students’ motivation, attention, social functioning, and ethical decision-making. For example, enjoyment of learning motivates students to put forth greater effort, whereas boredom only decreases effort. Anxiety lessens students’ ability to problem-solve, but hope and pride can increase self-efficacy. Thus, creating safe and caring classrooms and designing engaging lessons, both of which promote positive emotions in students, should be high on a teacher’s agenda.
One caveat: Emotion researchers state that feeling positive emotions all the time should not be the goal, as this actually lessens our well-being and happiness. And in certain circumstances, negative emotions such as anxiety can actually motivate students to study harder.
Instead, educators should recognize and validate students’ emotional lives and help them work with all their emotions in a rich and balanced way. In this way, teachers are promoting students’ emotional health, which is foundational to happiness.
In addition to positive emotions, happiness also depends on a sense of meaning—that our lives and our experiences make sense and matter. Students often complain that what they’re learning in school is not relevant to their lives, which can lead to disengagement.
Yet researchers have found that students who see the connection between their school work and their future work goals find more meaning in what they’re learning—on one condition: their goals must benefit others in addition to themselves, and not be oriented towards making money. This is a finding that holds true across diverse socio-economic and racial lines. In other words, focusing too much on money and careers can actually contribute to a sense of meaninglessness.
Research also shows that students who hold this kind of prosocial orientation experience greater well-being, are more likely to persevere in tedious academic tasks, and stay on track for college. Moreover, teachers who encourage their students toward this kind of approach to life are, once again, laying the foundation for happy and meaningful lives.
But can you teach happiness?
For teachers who want to help students develop happy and meaningful lives, does this mean that you have to completely rethink your curriculum and how you teach?
Not at all. In fact, educators who include social-emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness in their classrooms are subversively cultivating their students’ happiness and sense of meaning by fostering their emotional health and prosocial skills.
But there are some subtle nuances to the teaching of these skills that can enhance students’ happiness and sense of meaning even more.
Make SEL and/or mindfulness a part of every lesson.
If you think about it, life does not parcel neatly into 50 minutes of academic content and then 20 minutes of happiness skills, such as SEL and mindfulness. Instead, life requires us to have the content knowledge and, at the same time, the know-how for getting along with others and, frankly, ourselves.
Teachers who integrate SEL directly into content areas help students develop socially and emotionally by making these skills relevant to their daily lives. Incorporating SEL and mindfulness into the day does not need to be complicated, nor does it need to take a lot of time. For example:
Before introducing a tough math concept, remind the students that if they start to feel frustrated, instead of quitting, they might do some belly breaths to help them stay calm and focused on the task at hand.
Carefully select books that allow students to consider how a character in the text might be feeling. Allow them to explore what choices the character made and try to understand and empathize with why the character made those decisions.
Start and end the day with two minutes of mindfulness practice, so that students learn the value of approaching life with a sense of calm and focus rather than distracted “busyness”.
Let students work things out.
Imagine how awesome it would be if we only worked with people we got along with… but that’s not life!
One of the greatest things teachers can do to help students cultivate skills for happiness and meaning is to give them opportunities to work with other students who challenge their social capacities. In this way, students learn the ins and outs of happiness-boosting qualities such as compassion, kindness, and forgiveness.Yet, standing back and observing when cooperative groups are struggling can be really hard for teachers. And sometimes, just to avoid the whole situation, teachers will “engineer” working groups so that they’re only made up of students who get along with each other—or they’ll just throw cooperative learning out the window.But rather than fearing the chaos that can ensue when students make behavior mistakes, educators might try embracing those golden moments because that’s when students can really learn. In order for them to develop the skills and strategies they need to build positive relationships, they need chances to learn from their mistakes. Many SEL programs teach conflict resolution skills and the regular practice of mindfulness can help students become aware of when their ire has been roused and make the choice to respond in a more kind and helpful way.In academic content areas we might start a lesson by saying, “I know some of our groups have struggled to work together. So what can we do today to make working together go more smoothly? What ground rules do we need to set? What tools do we have if things get tough?” And then after the lesson, reflect on what worked and what did not work. Make a list that you can refine and revisit each time students work together.
Build in time for reflection.
Reflection helps us build meaning in our lives. It allows us to bring our humanity into what we are doing by asking how something changed our thinking, our view of the world, our beliefs about others or ourselves.
Teachers who give students time to reflect on what they’re learning and experiencing—both internally and externally—help make the curriculum relevant to students’ lives. They see that not only are they learning content knowledge, they’re also learning to connect with each other, to be empathetic, to understand their own needs and the needs of others. In other words, they’re learning the foundation of what it means to live a happy and meaningful life.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves, “What exactly are we educating for?” As our society evolves and as we gain a deeper understanding of who we are as human beings, the answer to this question is changing. No longer is it enough to train for job skills—because how we live our lives really matters.