Can Students Learn How to be Happy? Science Says Yes.

What if happiness isn’t an end? What if it isn’t something to aspire to and build up towards, but a vital component of learning – a starting point? What if, by assuming that success drives happiness and not the other way around, we are reducing our potential for both? There is increasing scientific consensus that cultivating a happy and positive mindset is key to unleashing the power of our brains. Furthermore, there is evidence to show that it can be learned by students like any other skill.

“Happiness depends upon ourselves” – Aristotle

Is it time for schools to put happiness first?

This paper will explore three questions:

(1) Are young people happy in 2016?

(2) Can happiness drive success?


(3) Can happiness be learned?

Then we will investigate ways that schools can put happiness first – looking at specific case studies.

I = Are young students happy?

“It is a painful fact that many children and young people in the UK today are still suffering hardship, and too often their problems are ignored.” The Childhood Report 2015

A number of reports published in the last year have painted a bleak picture of young people’s happiness in the UK. Headteachers are leading calls for improving mental health services available to their students. There is also a question about the pressures students face in school, such as exam stress. In particular, changes into how students are tested and schools are measured have sparked controversy. Body image and bullying are key concerns.

Growing up unequal

The World Health Organisation’s Growing Up Unequal report surveyed 220,000 young people from all across the globe. The findings suggest that young people in the UK are less happy than their peers in other countries.

In particular, school work, exams, obesity and body image are contributing to low levels of happiness among teenagers. For instance, 73% of 15-year-old girls and 52% of 15-year-old boys feel pressured by schoolwork, the fifth highest internationally. In 2015, ChildLine reported that the amount of calls they receive from students about exam stress have increased by 200% in a year. A sentiment matched by headteachers, who have also voiced their concerns about exam pressure.

The study also highlighted gender inequalities that, rather worryingly, are more prominent in the UK than in other countries. More girls reported mental health issues than boys. Although obesity is higher among boys, girls are more likely to worry about body-image and think they are overweight. 50% of girls reported concerns about their weight in England. This is significantly higher than the international average of 43%.

Good Childhood report 2015

Another study, the Good Childhood Report 2015, indicated that factors such as bullying and body-image are having a considerably negative effect on children in England. The annual report surveys 53,000 children (ages 10-12) from 15 countries around the world: England, Germany, Norway, South Korea, Poland, Estonia, Spain, Turkey, Romania, Algeria, South Africa, Israel, Ethiopia, Colombia and Nepal. Out of these 15 countries, England ranked fourteenth for “happiness with life on the whole”.

In response, the Children’s Society – the national charity that published the report – called for the Government to do more, asking it to make counselling mandatory in schools and to offer more financial backing to schools. They have serious concerns about the long-term repercussions.

The state of young people’s mental health in the UK

Both the Good Childhood Report and WHO’s Growing Up Unequal report paint a worrying picture of young people’s mental health in the UK. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) recently highlighted the issue as a key concern, echoing calls for the provision of more professional mental health services in school. The NHS has pledged to spend £1.4bn on children’s mental health in the near future.

  • 1 in 10 children (approx. 3 in every class) will encounter a mental health problem of some kind (Young Minds, 2013)
  • From the 1980s to the 2000s, the number of young people with depression nearly doubled (Young Mind, 2013)
  • 23% of under-18s who are referred to mental health services are turned away. (CentreForum, 2016)
  • Three quarters of children who encounter mental health problems go untreated (The Guardian, 2015)
  • Three quarters of head teachers say they lack the requisite resources to satisfactorily provide mental health care (NAHT, 2016).
  • 145 young people (aged between 10 and 19) committed suicide between January 2014 and April 2015. (University of Manchester, 2016)


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