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The science of happiness: 8 strategies for student well-being

6 min read
  • Stress management & well-being

Success, wealth and intelligence are all attributes that many desire, but for the majority, the one that tops all of these is happiness. However, whilst in the pursuit of happiness or increased life satisfaction, it appears that many students don’t know how to go about achieving this. They don’t know which strategies are considered to be the most effective, and sometimes don’t even know such strategies exist. So, what is the key to happiness? Read on to learn more about:

  • What the research says about happiness
  • Whether money can buy happiness
  • Strategies to improve student well-being

What does the research say?

In one particular study, over 1000 participants described the type of strategies they were going to use over the coming months to boost their happiness. These were divided into two categories: ones that were ‘socially engaged’ (i.e. spending more time with friends and family, joining a non-profit organisation…) and ones that weren’t (i.e. stay healthy, find a better job…).

One year later, the researchers interviewed all the participants. They found that those who described socially engaged strategies were significantly happier than those who didn’t. These enhanced happiness levels were partially attributed to these people spending more time socialising with friends and family.

These types of strategies are more within one’s control, compared to achieving a promotion or staying healthy. Even if people did achieve the goal of getting a better job, this still came with some adverse side effects, such as having less time to spend with family and friends. Similarly, individualistic achievements may be less rewarding than those which occur in a team, as there is no one to share the success with.

Does money buy happiness?

We all know the phrase ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ – and, as it turns out, this is actually true. Further research has demonstrated the value of social relationships over more materialistic items. In one particular study, researchers sought to compare the happiness of lottery winners with those who hadn’t won the lottery but lived in the vicinity.

The researchers looked to measure participants’ general happiness by asking them to rate how happy they are now, how happy they were before winning and how happy they expected to be in the next couple of years. A measure of everyday pleasure was also taken, where participants were asked to rate how pleasant they found seven activities or events, for example buying new clothes, watching television etc.

The researchers found that having a large sum of money at their disposal did not make the lottery winners any happier than before, and that having access to better products meant that everyday activities were seen as significantly less pleasurable than before. This was attributed to the idea that everyone has a baseline level of happiness – and whilst initially having more money makes people happier, the impact this has on their mood soon wears off. Novel pleasures afforded by new wealth become ‘normal’ and are no longer exciting, such that the individual’s baseline level of happiness changes to allow for their increased wealth.

We will teach your students to thrive under pressure with key stress management skills. Ideal in the lead up to exams.

8 strategies for student well-being

Here, we explore practical ways school staff can foster an environment conducive to the mental, emotional and physical well-being of students. Try encouraging your students to:

1. Not make being happy their goal

An interesting study recently found that the more people strived to be happy, the less happy they were. This is because instead of enjoying whatever it is they are doing, they are worrying about if they could be happier whilst doing it (and feeling disappointed when they don’t reach this mythical and unobtainable happiness level). Being happy appears to be linked therefore to embracing the present and not obsessing about the future.

2. Connect with other people

Spending time with other people and forming meaningful relationships makes people happier. This seems to be especially true for students, who in a study reported feeling at their happiest when they were interacting with their friends (whilst being isolated corresponded to feeling at their saddest).  Research shows that the teenage brain is more sensitive to social rejection than compared to adult brain. Be sure to nurture relationships and connect with the people around you and encourage those that you work with to do the same. 

3. Prioritise time over money

Evidence suggests that people who prioritise time over money report being happier. That is not to say that money makes no impact. A famous study by Princeton University found that once people are paid $75,000 a year (about £60,000), they don’t report any increases in happiness.

However, the amount you need to earn to feel happy is probably not as clear cut as that study suggests. Derren Brown, in his recent book, “Happy” states “that magic number seems to vary greatly according to what study you read and depends on the cost of living wherever the study was carried out…while it remains clear that having less then you need is a source of unhappiness, having more than you need does not make you happier“. This is because that often an increase in pay comes with an increase in working hours, which can leave people unhappier than before their promotion.        

4. Do something kind for someone else

A fascinating study took a novel approach at making people happier. Instead of focusing on doing things that they thought would make them happier, participants were instructed to perform five kind acts per week for six weeks. This act of doing something kind for someone else increases happiness by: a) providing some novelty; b) reminding people that they were an good influence on the world; c) eliciting positive feedback (i.e. gratefulness and appreciation); and d) promoting positive relationships (see point 2 above).     

5. Prioritise experiences over material things

The problem with prioritising material things is that things change quickly. Yesterday’s desirable becomes today’s essential which in turn becomes tomorrow’s relic. What was once seen as a bonus can quickly morph into a necessity. By prioritising experiences, your students create lifelong memories and develop more as a person. This is a fascinating area of research, and we could never do it justice in one short article. To read more about why experiences trump material things, you can read some great research on experiential purchases, the hidden cost of value-seeking and Differential Story Utility.  

6. Exercise a little bit

This is one of the most consistent findings in research on wellbeing. Those who exercise regularly report being more satisfied with their life and are happier. One possible reason is that exercise provides both physical and psychological benefits, therefore protecting your students against disease, illness, stress and isolation, which overall, increases their mental health.    

7. Embrace bad moods

Encouraging your students to embrace their bad moods may help minimise the impact they have on them. A recent article on the British Psychological Study website reported on a study that found that negative feelings can be used in a positive way, “for example, recognising that anger can sometimes be empowering and that sadness can be poignant and can bring us closer to one another”.

More research is needed on this, and the research certainly isn’t indicating that we want to encourage people to be in a bad mood, just that we shouldn’t expect to be happy all the time and learn from these feelings where possible.               

8. Spend some time outside

A recent report found that children spend less time outside each day than prisoners. The value of nature can’t be underestimated. Those who spend more time outside and feel more connected to nature report experiencing more positive moods (such as joy, interest and alertness) and life satisfaction. In the winter months, it is easy to stay inside all day, so encourage your students to try and make a conscious effort to steal some time outside where possible. They will feel better for it.

Final thoughts

The last few years has seen a big growth in our knowledge of what makes people feel happier. These include not chasing happiness, spending time with people we love, exercising and prioritising experiences and time over material possessions.

These findings are particularly relevant to student well-being. Students, often caught up in the pursuit of academic success, can benefit from not obsessively chasing happiness but instead engaging in activities that provide intrinsic satisfaction. Prioritising time with friends and family can offer emotional support, while regular exercise is a proven stress-reliever. Lastly, valuing experiences like learning and personal growth over material achievements can lead to a more fulfilling and less stress. Therefore, this growing body of research on happiness can guide us in helping students be truly happy.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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