It's so simple it seems like it's something not worth talking about. Surely it doesn't really matter, just as long as they are learning, right? I came across a news article in the BBC which mentioned that students were reported to be happier with the feedback they had received from their lecturers. 'Happier', how did they measure that I thought to myself. I became interested in this and started to research it more and found some interesting articles and research papers on emotions and how student satisfaction questionnaires are now including questions on well-being.
For many years psychology has focused on what could be called the more negative aspects of the psyche: stress, depression, anger for example. Positive psychology, then, seeks to investigate positive attributes such as strength and virtue. Research in this field is currently limited and is often rejected by many as self-help nonsense. However, the aim of counseling is to get people to a place of peace and happiness, so why not start with that? The arguments flow to and fro each arguing that their side is correct. I'm not an expert in the field and the readings I have done is comparably limited, but I can see a need for both. If you were to read a book on psychology, for example, you would only find a small section on love, joy and happiness. But aren't these the virtues that we all strive for? The discussion on the validity of positive psychology will undoubtably continue, which isn't necessarily a bad thing if it helps to continue more research. For more reading look for Seligman, who is one of the top researchers in the field.
One construct of well-being is happiness. I chose this one as I thought it would be interesting to find out more about. I've looked into anxiety among students and motivation, so happiness seemed like an interesting next step. Deciding on a definition of anything is always a precarious task, especially when it comes to something like happiness. Nevertheless, some researchers have attempted to define happiness: check out the examples below, do you agree with any of them?
Scoffham and Barnes say that it is: “… a state of flourishing that involves a sense of personal fulfilment within a shared moral framework” (2011, p.537)
O'Brian suggests that "happiness contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment or future generations." (2005)
Both definitions are interesting and offer a different take on happiness. Although I think that many of us have our own interpretation as to what constitutes happiness. And that, I suspect, is the challenge of happiness, as agreeing on an exact definition is always going to be met with disagreement.
“It’s a paradox; the wealthier we get the more depressed young people get” (2006, p6 Positive Psychology summit)
The quote above focuses on why an understanding of well-being and happiness is important. In a national survey of student satisfaction it was noted that student well-being in the U.K. was less that the national average. Meaning that the general population were happier that students. This finding, for me, was huge as I always expected students to be happier than the general population. As soon as I read this, I needed to know more. In another study of 13,500 students in the U.K. it was found that 45% of them reported depression. Moreover in a questionnaire that runs along side the PISA test, it was found that although South Korean, Singaporean and Hong Kong students perform better academically, they report some of the lowest well-being scores.
Research is at present limited and there is no conclusive evidence to support a finding that un-happy students perform significantly better than happy students. However, research is emerging that is showing some correlations. Neuroscience is revealing a lot about how people learn and the research concerning it is surprisingly limited. However, a study by Goswami (2004) suggested that stress can impair learning in terms of reasoning, problem solving and social judgements. So, could increased well-being subsequently improve that? Moreover a study by Andrews and Chong (2011) concluded that increased stress levels could have detrimental effects on academic achievement. Though they study stress as a main point, there is the notion that if the students were happier, the stress would be lessened possibly. So, we end up in a conundrum of reduce stress to increase happiness, or increase happiness to reduce stress. Either way, Morrison-Gutman and Vorhaus (2012) found that students with higher levels of well-being are more engaged and have higher levels of academic achievement.
As mentioned earlier, the research on well-being is limited, though many governments around the word are not starting to measure gross national happiness - just like in Bhutan which some found to be very strange at the time. In researching this
for a conference I thought the information would prove useful to others in considering the well-being of their students.
You may be wondering how happiness can be measured. I mean, it's not like a test with a simple score at the end of it which illustrates what information is known. There are, though, many questionnaires that you can use. I used the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire developed by Hill and Argyle in 2002. Though not without its critics, it is a good place to get started. Simply print out the questionnaire and pass it out to the students. There is an accompanying website or an online version of the test. I turned it into a class activity where we talked about happiness and discussed the results and what it means after the students had figure out the test.
What makes your students happy?
I hope this post has given you a little insight into well-being. I only scratched the surface, so I hope you can look into it further. I'd also love to hear from other teachers who have used similar questionnaires, or comments on what makes your students happy.
For an introduction to positive psychology check out 'An introduction to positive psychology' by Seligman, 2000. It's a nice read and it will give you a good grounding for the subject.
Andrews, A., & Chong, J. L. Y. (2011). Exploring the wellbeing of students studying at an Australian university University of New South Wales. Journal of the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association, 37, 9–38.
Goswami, U. (2004). Annual review Neuroscience and education, 1–14.
Hills, P., & Argyle, M. (2002). The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire: a compact scale for the measurement of psychological well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 33, 1073–1082.
Kadison, R. (2005). Getting an edge--use of stimulants and antidepressants in college. The New England Journal of Medicine, 353(11), 1089–91. doi:10.1056/NEJMp058047
O’Brian, C. (2005). Planning for sustainable happiness: Harmonizing our internal and external landscapes. In 2nd International Conference on Gross National Happiness. Nova Scotia, Canada.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. a, Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. The American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–21. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410
Scoffham, S., & Barnes, J. (2011). Happiness matters : towards a pedagogy of happiness and well-being. The Curriculum Journal, 22(4), 535–548.