As policymakers, administrators, and teachers, we want the children in our classrooms to be happy, of course. But how much does their happiness really matter when it comes to learning? According to a new study by HGSE lecturer Christina Hinton, Ed.D.’12, the answer is clear: It matters a lot.
Hinton examined the interplay of happiness, motivation, and success in a K–12 setting, and she also looked at the school factors that support student happiness.
Using both quantitative and qualitative measures, she found that from elementary school to high school, happiness is positively correlated with motivation and academic achievement. She also found that the culture of the school and the relationships that students form with their teachers and their peers play an influential role in their happiness.
In order to conduct the study, Hinton collaborated with the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School near Washington, D.C., which educates students in grades K–12. “We developed surveys to collect data on students’ happiness and motivation,” Hinton says. “We also collected qualitative data on happiness and motivation to dig more deeply into the construct. In addition, we collected data on students’ grade point averages. We then analyzed this data to explore the relationships among happiness, motivation, and academic achievement.”
Her analysis found several key associations that open the door to further research on how schools can optimize students’ learning experiences. Among them:
- Happiness is positively associated with intrinsic motivation (a personal drive to learn) for all students, and also with extrinsic motivation (outside sources like rewards, praise, or avoiding punishment) for students in grades K–3.
- Happiness is also positively associated with GPA for students in grades 4–12.
- Happiness and standardized test scores did not seem to be related, but further research is needed to confirm this.
- Happiness is predicted by students’ satisfaction with school culture and relationships with teachers and peers.
The finding that happiness is positively correlated with GPA is significant, Hinton notes, because GPA provides a broader picture of academic achievement than standardized test scores, encompassing multiple types of abilities and the influence of social dynamics.
The Connection to Happiness
Moving past quantitative scores, the study examined the relationship between happiness and achievement from the students' perspectives, as well as the source of the happiness that students report feeling in the classroom. “We asked the students what supports their learning, and then we coded the responses for themes,” says Hinton. “Students often reported that happiness, or positive feelings like enjoyment or fun, promotes learning.” They cited many reasons for their positive feelings, including feeling safe and comfortable at school and having secure relationships with their teachers and their peers.
These findings set the stage for important future research, Hinton says, as well as for exploring interventions that can successfully boost students’ overall happiness — and their performance in the classroom.
“In this study, we found that a network of supportive relationships is at the heart of happiness,” Hinton says. “If schools want to support student well being and achievement, they should take seriously nurturing positive relationships among teachers and students.”