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Publications:Focus on: Can education make us happy?

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Focus on: Can education make us happy?

Date of publication: 30 April 2014


"Happiness" is a condition for successful education and the potential outcome of it.

'The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence. But we find that this education of sympathy is not only systematically ignored in schools, but it is severely repressed ' – Rabindranath Tagore on education

The recipe for a better life is made up of 11 key ingredients according to the OECD’s Better Life Index. Just as countries are ranked on their wealth and health, now we can complete the triangle and rank them on the quality of life of their populations. Countries like Australia, Canada, and Austria get top grades whereas apparently life in Estonia and the Slovak Republic could be better. It’s an ambitious and interesting project and worthwhile looking at – particularly as education is one of the main components. Eurostat’s quality of life indicators also consider education a “basic determinant of the quality of life of individuals.” But what, in fact, does "quality of life" really mean? For most people it is probably about being happy more often than not – even if "happiness" may be considered a fleeting concept. So can education make us happy?


According to the Better Life Index on education, the answer is a definite “yes”: “education may improve people’s lives in such areas as health, civic participation, political interest and happiness.” But what is really being measured here? A closer look reveals that 3 education indicators determine the better life factor: educational attainment or the highest level of education that an individual has completed; years in education, and performance in reading, maths and sciences. The medal winners on these education factors are Finland, Japan, and Sweden.


Eurydice findings can be used to support these outcomes. Key Data on Eucation in Europe 2012 clearly confirms, for example, that the higher the levels of educational attainment, the shorter the transition period from school or studies to landing a job – an important factor as jobs constitute another main ingredient of the Better Life Index recipe. Moreover, Key Data shows that the higher the attainment level, the more likely it is that these jobs are also permanent positions, thereby checking “job security” off the list as well.


Yet no matter whether or not the picture provided by these aggregated indicators appears to make sense, there is surely more to the fabric of our lives than these dry education indicators would allow. And of course they cannot be taken too literally: having high educational attainment is no guarantee that people will be immune to stress and depression, for example – an issue borne out by findings that professions such as dentists or physicians have rather high suicide rates.


So is the OECD index missing something? The view of what is important in education is clearly over-simplistic and reductive. If all that matters are the years spent in education or performance in core skills tests, where is the place for creativity and innovation, or for arts and culture? But perhaps we should understand duration in education as not relevant in itself, but rather as an interesting proxy or cover for something much more important that cannot be measured directly – motivation. In other words, those who stay in education longest haven’t been demotivated by the experience.


Eurydice’s study on science education in Europe backs up the importance of motivation, stating that students lose interest if they are presented with de-contextualised and value-free facts that are not connected to their own lives or experiences. Similarly, the maths study confirms that students’ motivation to learn is low when maths is perceived as a difficult subject involving abstract formulae that not only appear unconnected with each other but also irrelevant to students’ lives. In both these cases, a key concept emerges: connectedness. The more connected the subjects are to a student’s personal life and the real world, the more meaningful they are. Motivation increases, and learning becomes more pleasurable and effective.


Connectedness is indeed a concept that reappears throughout various student-centred pedagogical approaches and philosophies. Take the Freinet pedagogical approach, for example, which has become a respected teaching method practised in many countries worldwide. One of its key educational principles lies in “interaction with the environment”, encouraging children's interests and natural curiosity. Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Prize Winner, also stipulated that education should not only relate to nature and a student’s immediate surroundings, but also to culture and the wider world.

What should we conclude about the relationship between happiness and education? First of all, whatever the merits of a Better Life Index, unfortunately it can’t really give us a recipe for happiness. The “education” component, for example, is probably only valid because it acts as a proxy for conveying information on more important issues than those directly measured. What matters in education is that the learning process is motivating and stimulating, and ideally that children are happy (to put in the effort) to learn because they see the connection to the real world. Happiness, when seen in that light, is thus both a condition for successful education as well as the potential outcome of it. So coming back to our initial question, can education make us happy? Certainly, for moments in time. And for the rest of the time, it surely has the potential to contribute to a better life.

 

Authors: David Crosier and Andrea Puhl