The Happiest Place on Earth
In 2006, Adrian G. White of Leicester University (UK), ranked Denmark top of his 'Satisfaction with Life Index' with a score of 273.4. Burundi came last, scraping a mere 100. White combined features of happiness into an innovative human measure and discovered that health, wealth and access to education most affected the final number. In the same year Finland topped the PISA charts: an international comparison of achievement in Reading, Mathematics and Science. In the same subjects Denmark came 16th, 12th and 18th. But Fins are deemed only the 6th happiest people on the planet. So what, if any, are the connections between happiness and learning, and where does the UK rank on both?
Well-being, Satisfaction and Happiness
White's Satisfaction Index and associated map illuminates 'subjective well-being' i.e.: how happy people think they are. In a more extensive assessment The New Economics Foundation combines life expectancy, ecological footprint and life satisfaction to give us the Happy Planet Index (HPI). HPI challenges us to think globally and to consider how the pursuit of our own happiness might diminish that of others. In a third measure (HDI - The Human Development Index) life expectancy, access to knowledge and standard of living define a country's well-being. HDI data goes back to 1990 and since then only four countries have ever ranked No.1: Iceland, Norway, Canada and Japan. Whichever type of measure we use - global rankings or subjective experience - happiness and well-being are clearly a combination of significant factors and not simply the results of a pay rise and couple of pints (welcome though they both may be).
What is Happiness?
Is happiness a 'state of internal pleasure' or a set of beliefs, actions and aspirations? Or both? Can we make ourselves happy? Should we? and if so how do we do it? Philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and economists try to answer these questions while politicians and marketing managers eagerly apply the answers. As educators need to examine the nature of happiness and consider the connections between positive emotions and effective learning.
Emotions and Happiness
The amygdalae are two almond-shaped areas set deep within the human brain. Placed symmetrically either side of the center they play a fundamental role in emotion and memory. They provide a shortcut to action in response to threats and danger by side-stepping rational thought (the cortex). They also help form and store memories in response to both positive and negative stimuli. In 2003 neuroscientist Anthony Damasio discovered that some emotions improve recall whilst others suppress it. And way back in 1981 psychologist Gordon Bower found that when we are in a happy mood we recall pleasant events more easily. There is clearly a connection between learning and emotion, but does emotion improve learning?
Fear for Learning
In 1995 I learned sail with the Navy: small boats; Portsmouth dockyard. It was an uncomfortable experience because the instructors taught through fear. A few months after the course finished I took a boat out on Lake Windermere in conditions beyond my experience. I was frightened and at one point the boat started to flip. Automatically and ;unconsciously something happened. My hands moved, my body shifted and the boat stayed afloat. In the pub later I reflected that maybe my fear had triggered the learning: the context and the emotion of 'the classroom' had activated my response on the water.
Events that are emotionally charged get our attention and lay themselves down in memory. Maybe a certain amount of fear or stress is good: it wakes us up and engages our minds. But prolonged stress at school will not help learning. If a child is always on the look out for threat and danger his amygdalae are unlikely to be paying too much attention to the subtle emotions evoked by adjectives in a Literacy lesson.
Well-being & Politics
In UNICEF's 2007 report, 'An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries', the UK ranked 21st out of 25 European states. It claimed that 44% of UK pupils had been in a fight in the preceding 12 months (7th highest) and that only 43% of under-18s found their peers kind and helpful. The Daily Mail announced the 'Betrayal of a Generation' and the then Labour government launched The Children's Plan. Education secretary Ed Balls said at the time that he wanted to make the UK, "The best place in the world to grow up".
Well-being prevails on educational and political battlegrounds. UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently instructed the Office of National Statistics to develop 'measures of progress' for quality of life. A worthy act but one whose timing has been questioned: would he have done the same in a more stable economic environment? And traditionally dour union leaders dismissed his proposal as woolly and ironic, coming from a government about to make deep financial cuts into areas strongly linked with well-being.
The Happy Classroom
Happiness, well-being and learning are obviously linked in some way. Should we smile at our classes while we deliver the weekly spelling test? Will a 5-minute standup routine before GCSE Philosophy and Ethics raise exam scores? And what if schools were ranked like countries for happiness - on the HSI - Happy School Index?
Research and day-to-day experience lead us to several conclusions which can guide our professional decisions:
- Learning is more memorable when it has emotional significance
- Well-being is a natural human aspiration - we automatically want to make things better for ourselves
- Happiness means different things to different people
- Happiness, well-being and learning should be discussed by all educators
And finally, the UK
HDI (2010), 26th; Satisfaction with Life (2006), 41st; HPI (2009) 74th, PISA (2009) 25th. Go figure.