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What Makes People Happy? Education Policymakers Must Prioritise Emotional Health

11/01/2017 16:12 | Updated 12 January 2017

What is it that makes you happy? For many people, life satisfaction will be influenced by many different factors, including their family and education. For those working in the education world, the aim of achieving happiness for pupils once they leave school and become adults may be a motivating factor, but rarely something they can focus on day-to-day. Do teachers, politicians and civil servants go about their work thinking, "how can I help the next generation to be happy?" Possibly not. However, if a population shows widespread life satisfaction and wellbeing, surely we are all doing our jobs well.

As highlighted by LSE researchers, UK education policymakers have focused much of their attention on improving academic achievement over the last half century, in the hope that this will result in higher levels of life satisfaction amongst the population. But with this focus on high academic achievement, have we lost sight of why we want our children to get good grades? The assumption may be that if you get good grades, you can leave school, get a good job and "be happy". However, data on children's emotional and mental health in the UK shows that this generation are amongst the least "happy" in the world, with British children ranking 14th out of 15 countries for wellbeing in relation to life satisfaction. While supporting students to achieve their academic potential at school is certainly important, it is not the "be all and end all" for helping children to become fulfilled adults.

With this in mind it is clear that the current focus of the education system must be broadened. By putting academic achievement above all other aims, we are missing an opportunity. Instead of purely focusing on improving test scores, schools in the UK could be taking steps to empower and equip young people with skills to develop their emotional wellbeing. These skills include things like self-awareness, empathy, communication and the ability to work through conflict. As new research shows, skills that promote emotional wellbeing are best indicators for whether a child will grow into a "happy" adult. All these abilities are things that can be taught in schools, and have a much greater bearing on our life satisfaction as adults than test scores do. This is not to say that academic achievement is not important, but it is to say that putting emphasis on emotional health is the best thing we can do to help ensure that the next generation can flourish.

As the CEO of an emotional health charity working with schools across the UK, I have seen this in evidence. A primary school we work with in a deprived area of Oxford is one of many that has embraced a "whole school approach" to teaching their students essential social and emotional skills over the past decade. This means that all their staff are trained to support their own and the children's emotional health, the school's policies align with principles of emotional health and wellbeing, the students receive a social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum to develop their skills, and parent groups are on offer too. All this adds up to relationships being at the core of the school's ethos, to create the best possible basis for learning.

We know that happiness, or life satisfaction, rests on many different factors, including family life, employment, income, physical and mental health, and others. But if a child has these vital social and emotional skills nurtured in them throughout their education, they will be in a much stronger position to lead a fulfilled life than if they had straight A grades but lacked these essential life skills. It is vital that policymakers take note of this, as the current emphasis on grades over emotional health is letting our young people down.

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