Is happiness vital to learning?

It’s time to include happiness in the school timetable, say Stephen Scoffham and Jonathan Barnes of Canterbury Christ Church University

Smiling school boysHappiness matters. People do not generally seek misery, and most of us place personal and family happiness high on our priorities. Parents, regardless of culture and class, want their children to be happy at school and often rate this above all other considerations. So why does happiness not feature more prominently in educational policy, training and practice?

Reports from the World Health Organization over the past few decades have alerted governments to worrying levels of stress and anxiety amongst school children. Moreover, according to UNICEF, the well-being of young people in the UK compares unfavourably with many other European countries. Almost a third of eleven year olds in England, for example, say they feel ‘pressured by school work’ compared with just five per cent in the Netherlands. The widening gap between rich and poor, excessive individualism, unrealistic expectations and identity problems are all possible causes.

National surveys use GCSE grades as indicators of children's well-being

Happiness is difficult to capture or quantify. Most reports on childhood well-being are limited to experiences that can be measured. For example, the international comparisons made by UNICEF use narrowly-drawn questions, whilst in the UK, GCSE grades are included in national indicators. Quantitative data certainly has a place in building an understanding of social and educational trends. But much of what is most important in life resists easy measurement. Valid comparisons need to respect the complexity of lived experience.

Emotional intelligence

Well-being involves feelings of health, security, confidence and inner peace. It has a particular resonance in educational contexts, since many teachers recognise that pupils’ active engagement is central to learning. Whilst constructive challenges rightly involve a degree of pressure, prolonged periods of negative emotion can have damaging physiological and cognitive impacts (Goswami, 2004). Sadness, stress or insecurity in young people typically show themselves in low achievement but are also related to health complaints such as stomach pains and headaches. A relentless focus on targets and outcomes may raise some standards in reading and mathematics but it also risks sapping children’s enthusiasm for learning. Schools cannot easily change the culture or society in which they operate, but recent research may help teachers understand the importance of bringing more joy and affirmation into the classroom.

The ‘broaden and build’ theory of positive emotions developed by Barbara Fredrickson is particularly relevant here (Fredrickson, 2004). Drawing on empirical evidence assembled over several decades, Fredrickson documents how positive states can lead to more expansive patterns of thought, an increased preference for variety, greater ease in forming relationships, and increased willingness to accept difference. She also contends that positive emotions, though transient, enable us to build enduring personal resources which contribute to our future resilience. Furthermore, a positive outlook appears to elicit a positive response in others. This helps to generate mechanisms of mutual support and initiate an upward spiral of well-being.

Another positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1997) also associates personal growth with periods of happiness. Csikszentmihalyi links happiness with the deep personal engagement or the sense of ‘flow’ that most commonly occurs in physical or creative activities. At such times, we become so engrossed in an activity that we lose track of time, our worries fade away and we feel able to face challenges with confidence. Activities which involve authentic challenge, self-expression, inter-personal relationships, problem-solving or competitive sport appear to be particularly effective in promoting flow experiences.  

Brain science

Links between happiness and learning are also a focus of neuroscience research. Antonio Damasio (2010) argues that feelings of well-being occur when our body and mind are working at their optimum level. Fascination, discovery, invention or creation, typically generate neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is associated with positive feelings like happiness, satisfaction and joy. Indeed, emotional engagement of any kind appears to be the neurological pre-requisite of learning. Long-established claims that learning involves social, multi-sensory and experiential dimension are now being verified empirically.

Evidence from psychology and neuroscience must be used with care in educational settings. Few scientists have everyday contact with classes of children, year after year; neither are they charged with constructing the optimum environments for their learning. Only teachers have this responsibility. The challenge for schools is to take relevant insights from psychology and neuroscience research and judiciously apply them to their daily experience of ordinary children. Our own research and accumulated knowledge of children’s learning confirms that teachers should pay much greater attention to the emotional states of students. We have argued elsewhere that playfulness, imagination, experiment and speculation all derive their strength from emotional impulses and that the affective dimension drives involvement.

We believe that the happiness of both teachers and pupils is fundamental to successful learning and should be treated more seriously. Why on earth have we allowed education to become so fixed upon the measurable that we lose sight of the quality of individual children’s lived experience? If we really want to raise standards, we need to think more about the emotional foundations of learning. An education that motivates and engages all children depends upon teachers who really understand the unmeasurable.

Stephen Scoffham and Jonathan Barnes, Faculty of Education, Canterbury Christ Church University, UK


  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention, New York: HarperCollins
  2. Damasio, A. (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the conscious Brain, London: Vantage
  3. Goswami, U. (2004). Neuroscience and education [PDF]. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 74, 1–14.

Share this page