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New research from Harvard University suggests that students' happiness is correlated to their grade point averages (GPAs), but — interestingly — not to standardized testing.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

And when deprived of his happiness, his grades are liable to suffer, according to new research from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

In the soon-to-be-published study, Christina Hinton, an adjunct lecturer at the school, found correlations between students’ happiness and their motivation and achievement. The research conducted at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland, during the 2013-14 academic year — when 94 percent of fourth- to 12th-graders, or about 450 students, responded to questionnaires — also suggests that student happiness depends upon the relationships they form with teachers and classmates.

The finding that happy students tend to be high-achieving students presents a counter-narrative to the view of school as a necessary pill to suffer. “It’s often seen as you have to sacrifice happiness in order to do well,” Hinton says. “In fact, if you support students’ happiness, they’re more likely to do well.”

Defining happiness

As one might expect, the field of education needs to play some catch-up with the field of psychology in defining happiness, says Hinton, who relied on Harvard colleague Daniel Gilbert’s identification of happiness “as frequent positive feelings accompanied by an overall sense that one’s life has meaning.” Gilbert, she says, has also found close connections between happiness and workplace success.

In her study, Hinton used a two-pronged approach to happiness involving both deep satisfaction and positive feelings. “We are thinking of it as a skill that can be built over time rather than a stable personality trait,” she says.

Hinton stressed that her research thus far doesn’t demonstrate that being happy causes students to earn higher grades. “Some students could be unhappy and still do well,” she says. “It’s an average effect that if you’re happy you’re more likely to do well.”

Ellen Condict, who teaches high school at the Michigan-based Hillsdale Academy, says happiness is perhaps even more elusive than other abstractions. “It is imprecise and even a bit absurd to attempt to dissect ‘happiness,’ ” she says. “Too many factors are involved in human existence.”

A definition, she says, should include “having intrinsic desires and motivations that drive us to achieve. … Wanting something worthy and then working to achieve it. Those desires make us actively participate in life.” The unhappiest students at Condict’s school also display low motivation, which leads to lower grades — even when the students may be very bright, so the study findings don’t surprise her.

Takeaways for parents

Condict’s advice for parents based on the study is to put children in situations where they are being taught important information by teachers with high expectations. “Give them external motivations and expectations to live up to, and encourage and reinforce in them the desire to work hard,” she says. “None of those things are actually easy. But we’re happier when we're working towards them.”

Jonathan Dalton, a Rockville, Maryland-based psychologist and director of the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change, recommends that parents emphasize their children’s efforts rather than the outcomes, which they can’t control.

“Parents should cultivate and cradle their child’s curiosity and creativity. There are no columns for these on a report card, but they are the cornerstones of a love of learning,” he says. “If a child truly loves the process of learning, they will value their work and it will be reflected in their performance.”

Most children, according to Dalton, derive their self-esteem from their academic performance and social standing. As such, students who succeed academically — partly indicated by grade point average — will tend to be happier. That, in turn, leads them in an “upward spiral” to continue to do better academically and to be happier.

William Sharp, a psychoanalyst and instructor at Wheelock College in Boston, says parents should note the study’s findings that social and emotional learning matter, and that intrinsic motivation can lead to happiness. “They should check that their child’s school allows for social skills development and free time for interactions,” he says.

Some limitations

Although experts weren’t surprised by the study’s findings, several cautioned — as study author Hinton herself did — against overstating the initial study’s findings.

“It seems like a very small study with a very specific set of kids from an elite private school in the D.C. area, where parents are very invested — emotionally and financially — in their child’s education,” Dalton says. “I’m sure that most kids (there) have parents with at least a college degree, if not doctorates. This means that it is impossible to generalize the results to different populations, such as most American children.”

The study also didn’t have an experimental control, which means that it is as likely that higher GPAs result in happier kids as is the reverse, according to Dalton.

“Basically, what the study is saying is that for the kids at St. Andrew’s, there is a positive correlation between GPA and self-reported happiness,” he says. But despite its limitations, the study's findings — that love of learning and performance are connected — rings true to him. If a child feels valued and appreciated and enjoys learning, it would surprise Dalton if that student didn't perform well.

Hinton, the study author, says she wanted to test her hypotheses in a real school setting, rather than in a laboratory, and she selected St. Andrew’s for its Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. In the future, she hopes to work with other schools both nationally and internationally. “As far as I know, it’s the first one of its kind in education,” she says of the study.

William Sharp, a psychoanalyst and instructor at Wheelock College in Boston, is encouraged by the study’s use of qualitative and quantitative data. He also notes the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

“Infants and toddlers love learning and do it naturally, that is, intrinsically. Grades often kill that intrinsic motivation. Just ask the average middle schools ‘What did you learn in school today?’ and you are likely to get in return ‘Nothing,’ ” he says. “They have lost the thrill that so many have on the first day of kindergarten.”

The study’s finding that happiness is correlated with GPA, rather than standardized testing, may be due to its emphasis on one particular standardized test with students at one particular school, says Hinton, who hopes to follow up with more research on the matter. “It’s an open question,” she said.

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But the question isn’t as open to Sharp and Condict. “Standardized tests don’t seem to be the end-all-be-all, yet more classroom time is spent prepping for those state issued benchmarks,” says Sharp, whose fellows training at Boston public schools tell him that they can only meet with students three times between April and June due to state testing.

Condict says that standardized tests have little connection with happiness. “It’s hard to connect standardized testing with either love or respect,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean obsessing over grades is any better. “There are plenty of students and parents with an unhealthy obsession with GPA,” she says.

Menachem Wecker is an art critic and religion and education reporter in Washington, D.C. His book, "Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education," was recently published by Cascade Books.