It’s a question that has stumped many parents and teachers alike.
Oftentimes, our answers revolve around giving kids things that they want, like the latest electronic gadgets or the funding and freedom for adventures with their friends. We imagine that they will be happy later on in life as long as they have steady jobs, stable families and nice homes with at least two cars each. We pack them off to school and agonize over grades in the hopes that our efforts will one day pay off in the form of jobs, responsibility and social standing.
The image of the happy American adult is so ubiquitous that it can be a shock to discover that, statistically speaking, typical markers of success such as marriage, homes and jobs don’t have a very big influence on people’s reports of their satisfaction with life. It’s true, and researchers at the London School of Economics have added another study’s worth of data to back it up. They studied life satisfaction ratings from over 8,000 Australians who reported their levels of happiness twice, once at the beginning of the study and again four years later. Researchers wanted to correlate positive changes in life satisfaction with changes in other life factors to discover what makes people happy.
The results pointed to one primary life factor: personality. People whose personalities changed over the span of four years gained a lot more in happiness than their peers who merely changed jobs, got married, and bought houses. Specifically, participants had to gain positive personality traits, such as becoming more agreeable, more conscientious, and more open to new experiences. Equally important were reductions in neuroticism—a personality trait describing how strongly participants respond to life events with negative emotions.
Such personality changes strongly predicted gains in happiness.
It’s a finding that surprises many and prompts a reconsideration of the role of school in the life of young people.
There’s no doubt that education is essential for financial stability later on in life, but what if schools could contribute even more to students’ wellbeing? According to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, school years are seminal to the development of personality and personal identity, particularly the years when most students are in junior high and high school. Because they contain students who are already primed for personality formation and ready-made social groups ideally suited for personality practice, schools powerfully influence how students develop.
And if school experiences are already formative for students, they may as well be constructive.
We need to reconsider how our schools affect the development of our students’ personality traits, and how we can create opportunities to foster positive growth. Are teachers modeling positive traits like warmth, respect, and willingness for social participation? Do students who struggle with anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions have sufficient access to counseling services and other venues for help? Are our students taught about the importance of character and how it can influence happiness? We can maximize the benefits of school when we keep in mind that happiness is not about what our students have, but who they are.