These happiness studies make me so miserable

25th April 2008 at 01:00
What makes us happy? While most studies agree it's not money that makes the difference - at least not once you get above a fairly low level of sufficiency - could it be that education is the real provider of contentment?

What makes us happy? While most studies agree it's not money that makes the difference - at least not once you get above a fairly low level of sufficiency - could it be that education is the real provider of contentment?

Studies abound on the subject of happiness. One conducted last year for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set out to survey the sense of wellbeing in Britain. They found that those they classified as professional people were most satisfied with their lives, scoring 7.6 out of 10.

As professionals are generally well-off, this might seem to contradict the point above about money. But the study included not only doctors and lawyers in that category, but the much more moderately remunerated teachers and nurses. While I agree that by the standards of most people in the world I am fabulously rich, by the standards of the fabulously rich, I am a miserable pauper. Except that at 7.6 out of 10 I am far from miserable, if you see what I mean.

The conclusion was that a skilled and satisfying job, combined with financial security and good health - also enjoyed disproportionately by professionals - was the key to happiness.

More recently, a new survey on the topic came up with a different angle. One of the study's originators, Dr Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia in Canada, said: "We wanted to test our theory that how people spend their money is at least as important as how much money they earn." What their results, published in the US journal Science, indicated, was that those who gave money away were happier than those who spent it on themselves. Charitable giving, rather than selfish consumption, was what brought that elusive glow of contentment.

But what of education in all this? Those of us whose lives and careers are dedicated to it would naturally like to think it was a key contributor to people's levels of happiness. Don't we see it in the smiling faces of our students when they succeed? And if we had to choose for ourselves between qualifications or money, wouldn't it be the latter rather than the former we would ditch first?

Money comes and goes in life; the effects of education persist. In another recent study - this time by the Learning and Skills Council - men said that passing an exam gave a greater boost to their confidence than being on the receiving end of a sexual advance.

It seems, though, that systematically measuring the contribution that education makes to happiness is more problematic than that of wealth. Somehow it always gets entwined with other variables, such as social class, occupation and status. Interestingly, people in poor countries say strongly that education does make them happy. But in the developed world the evidence is less conclusive.

After much rummaging, I did manage to find one study that set out specifically to test for the contribution of education. It was put together by two academics from the University of Amsterdam, and went by the intriguing title of "Health, Wealth and Happiness: Why Pursue a Higher Education?"

Why indeed. The happiest group in their sample of nearly two thousand fiftysomethings were those who had been educated only as far as "intermediate" level, which in English terms translates roughly to GCSE at grades A-C.

Against expectation, this group also scored highest in health and wealth. Having a higher IQ didn't produce happiness either. "The highest level of education neither produces the highest wealth, nor the highest health, nor the highest happiness," the authors conclude.

As educators, this isn't exactly what we want to read. Maybe we can content ourselves that it is, after all, just one study among many.

Or perhaps we'd all better sign up for a year or two of voluntary work in sub-Saharan Africa. At least we know we'd be appreciated there.

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