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What if School Was Designed to Make Students Happy?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

By Erin Millar, journalist and author

Image © Vancouver Film School

Earlier this year, I found myself at the Vancouver book launch for Happy City written by journalist and urban experimentalist Charles Montgomery. His message is compellingly simple: if our primary goal when designing our cities was to make residents happy, we would be happier people, of course, but we’d also live in more environmentally sustainable and economically vibrant cities.

During the event, I bumped into one of the people who inspired Charles to write Happy City, John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia who coauthored the UN’s Happiness Report. “What’s the point of school?” he asked me, once our meandering conversation turned to education. I stumbled somewhat, mentioning the impact of education on an individual’s income and the benefits to a nation of an educated populace, before he cut me off with a mischievous smile. “What if the main goal of education was to make students happy?” he asked.


Months later, I’m still pondering his question. What is the primary objective of education, and how would education change if we focused on student happiness? What would a school that was designed to make students happy be like? How would it impact students?

On May 6, 2014 Gallup and Purdue University released a survey of 30,000 graduates that offers some insight. Gallup designed the survey (the largest of its kind) to better understand the “well-being” of college and university graduates. The results give quantitative ammunition to those who argue that education is about something more fundamental than employability and income, and offer concrete strategies to educators who want to make their schools happier places.

We usually judge the value of an education on outcomes that are easy to measure such as employment rates and incomes, said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, when I spoke to him about the survey. The problem with these indicators, he argued, is that they don’t paint a complete picture about how education impacts a student’s whole life. This survey comes as Gallup is looking to work with individual colleges and universities on studying their alumni, a key source of contributions.


Before we get to how education can make people happier, let’s start at the beginning. Gallup began studying well-being after research indicated that employee and workgroup performance were closely linked with employee engagement. As it turns out, employees who are enthusiastic about their jobs are also better at them. As employee engagement increases, so does productivity and profitability while indicators like absenteeism, product quality and shrinkage decrease.

The deeper Gallup dug into these questions (they’ve been following this line of inquiry for three decades now), the clearer the message became: when employees have great lives, they make great employees. For instance, the more an employee reports thriving in life, the less they cost their employer in health-related expenses.

After years of research with Healthways, Gallup narrowed down on five elements they believed were essential to a great life:

            1. Purpose: Liking what you do each day and being motivated

            2. Social: Having strong supportive relationships and love in your life

            3. Financial: Managing economics to minimize stress and increase security

            4. Community: Feeling safe, liking and being engaged in where you live

            5.  Physical: Having good health and energy

So what does this have to do with education? There seems to be consensus that having a strong education system is key to being an economically healthy nation. We ask our schools and universities to equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to fill job vacancies, start new companies and invent new technologies. But what if preparing them to lead fulfilling lives is as important to our economic health as their ability in math and science?


Gallup and Purdue set out to figure out whether college and university graduates were thriving in the 5 elements of a great life. The national survey of 30 000 university graduates in the United States found that only 11 per cent were thriving in all five areas of well-being, and more than one in six were not thriving in any.

Next, they looked into what sort of education made a graduate more likely to thrive or be engaged in their job. The most interesting result, in my opinion, was something that didn’t have an impact: the prestige of their school. Highly selective schools performed the same as accessible ones. Whether the university appeared on the top 100 list published by the US News & World Report had no effect. There was no significant difference between graduates of public or private colleges.


What made a big difference was the sort of education a graduate received. The most important indicator? Whether a student was “emotionally supported,” in the survey’s words. Graduates who reported that they had at least one professor who made them excited about learning, cared about them and provided mentorship as they pursued their goals, their chances of thriving in their well-being and being engaged in their work more than doubled.

Another key finding was that graduates who reported having “experiential or deep learning” were more likely to be thriving and twice as likely to be engaged in work. The survey defined this sort of learning as doing a long-term project that took a semester or more to complete, experiencing an internship and being extremely involved in extra curricular activities.

Although the survey focused on higher education, there are lessons to be drawn that apply to any level of education. Schools that support their students and give them opportunities for deep learning are more likely to help their graduates pursue fulfilling lives or, in other words, be happy.

And there’s a lot of work to be done. The number of graduates surveyed who reported that they both were emotionally supported and experienced deep learning was a lousy 3 per cent. “It’s inspiring to see that there is such a profound impact,” Busteed said at the end of our conversation. “But it’s depressing to see that it happens to so few students.”

Erin Millar is a journalist and author with a lifelong interest in education, innovation and creativity. For nearly a decade she has written for leading Canadian and international publications including Reader’s Digest InternationalMaclean’s, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, The Times of London and others. Her work has been translated into 20 languages and published in 34 countries.