Nord Anglia Education
St Andrews Bangkok
05 January, 2024

INSIGHTS | In Pursuit of Happiness

INSIGHTS | In Pursuit of Happiness - In Pursuit of Happiness

What does it mean to be happy, exactly? It’s a question that has preoccupied the human mind for as long as thought has been recorded.  


Solving the happiness puzzle has been the work of philosophers for centuries. From Aristotle’s assertion it must come from a morally virtuous life to Nietzsche’s proposal that meaningful goals and struggle should be prioritised.  


Unsurprisingly, it is also a question keeping parents and teachers awake at night. What does it take to make a happy young person? UNICEF’s 2020 Worlds of Influence report compares the “health, skills and happiness” of children in the world’s 41 richest countries, with some thought-provoking findings. Strong links were found between happiness and spending time with family, for example, and playing outside was also found to have a positive relationship to happiness.  


INSIGHTS | In Pursuit of Happiness - In Pursuit of Happiness 

The report finds a hugely mixed picture across the globe, with 90 per cent of young people in the Netherlands ‘reasonably happy’ at 15 years old, closely followed by young people in Mexico (86 per cent) and Switzerland (82 per cent). In contrast, the figures were 71 per cent for 15-year-olds in the USA and 64 per cent for those in the UK. And it is sobering to think that the report uses pre-pandemic data, so the picture now is probably starker. 



INSIGHTS | In Pursuit of Happiness - In Pursuit of Happiness



The inner workings of the teenage brain 


“In 2019, we were very worried because mental health problems had already increased a lot in the previous 10 years in young people in the UK,” says Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.  


“Then, national surveys showed that one in nine 14-year-olds reported having mental health problems. It’s now one in six, because it's seriously increased since the pandemic, probably for a variety of reasons, including uncertainty, fear of Covid and the social isolation of lockdowns and school closures.”  


Blakemore specialises in the inner workings of the teenage brain - her 2012 TED Talk on the topic has been viewed more than four million times - and what makes for a healthy, happy adolescence, or otherwise. 


“Being female is also a risk factor,” she says. “We don't really know why. It might be something to do with the oestrogen increases during puberty or the social pressures for girls. The higher levels of reported symptoms of poor mental health could partly be because girls are better at expressing their emotions and it's less stigmatising to do so for girls than for boys.” 


Researchers have also found that academic pressure can play a significant negative role. Blakemore says, “If you ask young people what they find most stressful in their lives, they don't say social media, they say fear of failure and exam stress.” They also worry about peer problems, she continues, so good-quality peer relationships (as well as good relationships with family) are protective against mental health problems.”



INSIGHTS | In Pursuit of Happiness - In Pursuit of Happiness



The Origins of Happiness? "The data is astonishing."


According to Paul Litchfield - a physician, former chair of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing and adviser to several multinational companies on wellbeing - “Emotional health is the most important driver of how young people are going to turn out.” The academic side has a place and it is important, but longer term, actually, it's been shown that emotional health has a bigger influence on life outcomes. What happens within the family is the strongest influence on emotional health and wellbeing, but schools are up there. 


“That's partly the interaction with other children but it's also the interaction with teachers that can be enormously influential.” 


It is a point of view echoed by school leaders at Nord Anglia Education, the international education organisation. 


“For me, you can’t understand happiness unless you have strong relationships and we have a duty of care to find out what makes our students happy,” says Sarah Osborne-James, Executive Director of Hamelin-Laie International School in Barcelona, part of Nord Anglia. She adds, “I always look for teachers who are passionate enough to want to get to know their students on a personal level and have the drive to know what's going to make their students happy. 


We carry out student surveys to give feedback to teachers, and one of the questions is around how happy they are, along with questions around trust and being able to talk to their teacher. That sense of safety and happiness is so important for their wellbeing. Added to which, we also know that children learn best when they’re happy.”  


Paul Litchfield highlights the startling finding, in the book The Origins of Happiness, that the value added by the teacher a child had at age 8 and 11 was still influencing them at age 35 in terms of higher education entry and employment.  


Economist Professor Lord Richard Layard is one of the book’s authors - which looks at the various factors that matter most in happiness throughout life - and said that the link between early teaching and later life “hadn’t been expected to come through so strongly.”  


“It just jumped out, the data is astonishing,” he says, citing the finding that the effects of primary schools and even individual teachers have consistently been found to persist throughout the following five years and longer. The research is not clear on exactly which characteristics of these teachers and their classrooms fed into the long-lasting effects, but happiness seems to be a key factor.  


“Happiness matters, full stop,” Layard continues. “We showed that if you want to predict whether a person is going to have a happy adult life, whether they're happy as a child is a better predictor than how well they do in their exams."  


“Schools are meant to be preparing people for satisfying lives so if they can, they should be trying to influence the happiness of the children as well as their academic attainment. And then we have this extraordinary finding that they influence the happiness of children as much as they influence their attainment. So that suggests that this should become a much more explicit goal of schools.”



"Happiness means flourishing"


For Rosy Clark, Principal of Nord Anglia’s school in Jakarta, Professor Layard’s research rings true. 


“When we talk about happiness, I don't think that means contentment,” she says. “That's not good enough. Happiness means flourishing. We want all our students to genuinely flourish in school, and the relationship with the teacher is all-important in that. It’s got to be positive, respectful, caring.” 


Likewise, she says, recreating a true sense of community among the students themselves was a top priority after the extended lockdown in Indonesia, which saw some “barely leave the house” for over a year.


Clark and her Jakarta team have focused “a huge amount of time on social and personal development,” she explains. This included adding daily circle times to the schedule when students returned to school to “readjust to being in a community outside of the home and redevelop those personal social skills” by sharing feelings and listening to others.  


“We've since reduced the amount of time we spend on circles but we still keep them as a very valuable part of the daily structure,” she explains. And as well as providing the space to “ensure that relationships develop,” the circles are now used by teachers to explicitly introduce happiness-enhancing emotional skills.  


That sense of connectedness between students will become even more vital for wellbeing as they enter adolescence, explains Professor Blakemore.  


“We know that adolescents are hypersensitive to being excluded by their peer group,” she explains. “They suffer more than adults in terms of their mood and anxiety if they experience social exclusion.” Their drive to avoid social exclusion can result in a higher likelihood of risk-taking behaviour to fit in, she continues.  


“We all know that feeling of social exclusion – it's horrible. And it's particularly negative if you're an adolescent, so adolescents are motivated to avoid the lower mood and increased anxiety by being included in their social group.”

INSIGHTS | In Pursuit of Happiness - In Pursuit of Happiness

"Childhood memories shape how you see the world"


Adam Stevens, Principal of Nord Anglia’s British International School of Charlotte, explains that his team takes seriously the “duty not just to fill children's heads up with stuff,” but to offer a “space to explore how we feel about things together” and thereby equip their young people with skills for life.  


“We create a space to help them develop the skills that will allow them to manage life,” he says. “We’re not teaching them how to cook and iron; those are life skills, not skills for managing life. Skills for life are about how you cope with the world when moments are really difficult and challenging. If you have a way of seeing and understanding how those moments can be worked through, then you're more likely to find happiness and steer away from depression and anxiety, and in extreme cases more likely to not contemplate suicide.” 


These skills are modelled across the school, including in the way negative behaviours are managed, he continues. Rather than students simply being reprimanded with a time out, detention or exclusion as a punishment, the opportunities presented by mistakes are embraced.  


“It’s more like: ‘Here's an opportunity for you to process how that feels, how that might feel for someone else, how you can empathise with them, how you can begin to find ways to fix this, how you can say sorry with genuine meaningfulness, how you can work to repair something that has gone wrong.’ This is a skill for life that we all need.”  


He says childhood memories of school “shape how you see the world,” and so schools should acknowledge that they play a major part in “the formation of the core beliefs and dispositions” that young people take into the world with them. “It is about being able to live a happy, fulfilled and purpose-driven life,” he says. “And that comes from ways of thinking.” 


In The Origins of Happiness, Professor Layard and his co-authors come to a similar conclusion, with their research findings leading them to recommend the explicit teaching of values. “The central question in moral education is ‘What kind of a person do you want to be?’…this topic is surely worthy of at least an hour a week in the school curriculum,” the authors ponder.  


But above all, Professor Layard says, we should be encouraging young people to find their way towards the kinds of futures that will make them happy.  


“I don't think we want to encourage all the children to go into finance,” he says. “We want them to think about what difference they can make to the world, not just how they will earn an income in it. As soon as children begin to think about how they should be in the world, it should be about wanting to make a contribution.”