Arguing the case for a happiness approach

Written by: Andy Cope | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Happiness is the one thing you need to turbo-charge your pupils and your school, according to Andy Cope. He argues for ‘positive education’ and says that if we get happiness right, results will follow

Truth time: If I asked parents to name the one thing they wanted for their children, their unequivocal answer would be: “Happiness.” Indeed, that is the number one response from parents across the world.

If I asked them the follow-up question “what do schools teach?” – they would mull it over before answering “maths”, “English”, “subjects” or maybe “exams”. Happiness wouldn’t be in their top 50 responses.

In the same way that Bono announces that Sunday Bloody Sunday is not a rebel song, this is not an anti-schools or anti-testing article. But I do want to stimulate some big thoughts.

There is no doubt that testing and exam grades are crucial pillars of the education system. But there’s also no doubt that exam results are not the only measure of success.

The school system needs to be producing awesome young people who shine with enthusiasm, confidence, zest, humility, courage, gratitude, happiness, resilience, respect and who are able to lead flourishing lives. In short, we need amazing citizens.

While most schools talk a good talk (if you interviewed the staff they would probably tell you that they believe in the “whole child”), the reality is that the children are subjected to an exam factory system that often acts as an impediment to the qualities above.

Truth time: For too many teenagers, learning has become a chore. Rising rates of burn-out among young people (and teachers) suggest that the current system needs a rethink. The stats are alarming. An international survey earlier this year put English children 14th out of 15 countries in terms of happiness (our children are rating less happy than those in Ethiopia and Algeria) and rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.

The government, in an effort to be seen to be doing something, recently announced more funding – around £1.4 billion – to provide counselling and therapy for young people. Surely the ultimate sticking plaster for the most gaping of wounds. The solution is not to put children right after the system has almost killed them – it is to change the system.

But change it to what?

Schools are judged on results, right? League tables have upped the ante to the point where SATs and/or GCSEs are so important that teachers are whipping extra effort out of each child in the quest to attain their maximum grade. Because when we crawl (exhaustedly) over August’s finishing line, the child will be able to wave that piece of paper in their hand.

What if there was a better way? Here’s your one thing – the simple insight that “happiness” is the key to everything. Positive psychology teaches us that happiness is the starting point rather than the ending point.

So, for example, what if being happy after you achieved the A* was the wrong way around – and being happy every day in school was the crucial bit. Indeed, what if it’s the happiest kids who perform best at school? Get young people inspired to be their best selves, and amazing results will follow.

Algebra or altruism?

Step forward “positive education”. Derived from the science of positive psychology (the study of what’s right with people), positive education is not a radical solution that requires a complete rethink. It is a tweaking of the system and a rearranging of our priorities so the education system can give its “customers” exactly what they want – happy, bright children with a love of learning and who play an active part in flourishing communities.

Virtues that make up great character can be learned and taught, as can intentional strategies that help children flourish in what is a crazy world. Positive education is about building virtues and positive characteristics into the school culture. Indeed, at its purest level, it’s about putting happiness, confidence, wellbeing, gratitude and strengths on par with traditional subjects.

Imagine a timetable where double happiness was given equal status as double maths? Or, indeed, a curriculum that taught quadratic equations alongside lessons fostering resilience and grit. Because which is going to be of most use to your child in life?

Panicking about panic attacks

So, please suspend judgement and imagine:

  • An education system that puts positive education centrally, with the curriculum built around it.
  • A change of focus away from “get great grades and then you’ll be happy” to “be happy now, because it’s the key to great grades”.
  • An education system in which teenagers are empowered to take charge of their own wellbeing...
  • ... and then challenged further to raise the aspirations, motivation, happiness and mental wellbeing of their family and wider community.
  • A curriculum that turned often wishy-washy PSHE into a rock-solid GCSE in wellbeing.
  • A school where the staff really get it and who have bought into the benefits of putting happiness first.
  • A system that quits trying to fix teenagers who are having panic attacks and, instead, equips them with strategies so they don’t experience panic attacks.
  • A school system in which children design and deliver their own wellbeing curriculum, and where these student-led lessons ripple across your school and wider community.

The revolution has already started. A few brave schools have already taken the leap of faith that I am confident will turn into a full-blown wellbeing revolution.

The inside-out revolution

Everyone’s aware of the one in four mental ill-health stat. But did you know that after the First World War the ratio was one in 1,000, and after the Second World War it was one in 100? And in the 1970s it was one in 100, and now it’s one in four? That’s one heck of an acceleration of mental ill-health. I’ve done some calculations that suggest that by 2025 it will be abnormal to be normal. Children will be labelled as “special” for not having a mental health issue.

I can’t think of anyone who has changed the world by fitting in. So, in a delicious twist of educational logic, why not have a conversation about how we (or someone who understands it as well as we do) can deliver the science of positive psychology to your students and they then design and deliver their own happiness curriculum across your school and community.

Then, in a double twist of irony, we re-visit the school six months later and conduct a wellbeing inspection (almost exactly the opposite of Ofsted) where the children present what they’ve achieved. What have they done to improve their own learning and behaviour? How have they influenced the school? What have they done to positively impact on their community? We even do them a happiness Ofsted-style report and give them a banner to drape over their school gate proclaiming: “We are a happy school. And that’s official!”

Young people are put in charge of their own wellbeing and then tasked with teaching the world to be positive. A proper counter-intuitive solution that changes the culture of the school from inside-out.

No sticking plasters required.

  • Andy Cope describes himself as a teacher, author, happiness researcher and learning junkie. He has spent the last 12 years researching the science of happiness and flourishing at Loughborough university. Andy is a best-selling author including the children’s Spy Dog series and the Art of Being Brilliant series which includes The Art of Being a Brilliant Teacher. For more information on his work, visit


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