Are happy students successful students?

I am sure we have all been there! You have a rubbish day so you have no motivation to work and mope around the house in your pyjamas watching endless episodes of Jeremy Kyle to remind yourself that life is not that bad. Another day the sun will be shining, you have an interesting lecture, and get a great assignment grade so skip down to the library and write an incredible piece of work that you would have never done otherwise. This raises the question of whether happiness increases motivation to learn and, therefore, academic achievement?

Research in this area is vast and has been a prevalent over a significant number of years. Greene and Noice (1988) induced a positive mood in participants through the presentation of gifts and compliments, in comparison to a neutral group, who were not presented with gifts and compliments. The participants then carried out Duncker’s (1945) candle task to assess creative thinking and problem solving. They found that participants in the positive mood condition were better at solving the candle problem than those in the neutral condition, and concluded that positive affect facilitates problem solving and enhances creativity.

Additionally, Fredrickson and Banigan (2005) investigated that broaden-and-build theory (Fredrickson, 2004) hypothesis that positive emotion increases the attention given to a task and thoughts and actions. Participants viewed a film that either provoked amusement, contentment, neutrality, anger, or anxiety. Attention was measured using a visual processing task, and thought and action were measured using a Twenty Statements Test. They found that negative emotions reduced thought-action repertoires and that positive emotions increased attention.

These previous findings demonstrate the importance of positive mood in creativity, problem solving, attention, and thoughts and actions, which can all be applicable to learning in schools and higher education. However, one of the most compelling reports comes from looking at emotions directly in education. Pekrun, Goetz, Wolfram, and Perry (2002) found that emotions significantly influence students learning strategies, cognitive resources, self-regulation, motivation, and academic achievement.

These findings seem to suggest that happiness can influence academic success, yet the current education system does not excite students and does not promote happiness. Selligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, and Linkins (2009) recognised this problem and sought to teach skills that would increase positive emotion, resilience, and engagement. After spending 15 years of investigating effective ways of increasing wellbeing in students, they found positive emotion enhances classroom learning and can be taught in schools.

However, it is important to note that the resources required for this would be extensive and teachers would need to be trained in delivering the skills to students to encourage positive attitudes in the classrooms. Additionally, with the current emphasis on following a strict curriculum with limited timescales, it may prove to be difficult to implement when teachers are already under pressure to achieve results.

In spite of the few drawbacks noted, I feel that we need to implement these methods in both schools and higher education to increase the wellbeing of students. A potential idea could be weekly classes in teaching students skills to increase their happiness and wellbeing. I was surprised that this could be taught, but the research suggests that we can, and we should therefore embrace this new method of helping students achieve the motivation, engagement, and happiness for the promotion of future success.


Duncker, K. (1945). On problem solving. Psychological Monographs, 58, 5 (Whole No. 270)

Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367-1377. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2004.1512

Fredrickson, B. L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19(3), 313-332. doi:10.1080/02699930441000238

Greene, T. R., & Noice, H. (1988). Influence of positive affect upon creative thinking and problem solving in children. Psychological Reports, 63, 895-898. doi: 10.2466/pr0.1988.63.3.895

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Wolfram, T., & Perry, R. P. (2002). Academic emotions in students’ self-regulated learning and achievement: A program of qualitative and quantitative research. Educational Psychologist, 37(2), 91-105. doi:10.1207/S15326985EP3702_4

Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Well-being in schools. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293-311. doi:10.1080/03054980902934563

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13 Responses to Are happy students successful students?

  1. beniceorleave91 says:

    Hi 🙂
    I really enjoyed reading your blog and I thought that topic was very interesting.

    Pekrun, Elliot, & Maier (2009) proposed that there was a link between achievement goals, achievement emotions and academic performance. in the study they used goals and emotions as predictors of exam performance and their results were consistent with their hypothesis. in their study, achievement goals were shown to predict some achievement emotions (enjoyment, boredom, anger) and achievement emotions were shown to predict performance attainment.
    This research seems to be supporting your blog in terms of emotions affecting the academic performance of students

  2. niamh92 says:

    There’s been a lot of use of Sniders Myths and Misconceptions of Learning, referencing her as saying there is no need for learning to be fun. However, what she actually says is that learning does not NEED to be fun, but it is a benefit. She’s not saying boring lessons will always yield just as good results. There are issues that she recognises when fun is involved, these being the children becoming confused as to the point of the lesson when there are activities going on, but this is something that can be remedied. Can you imagine if we had spent our whole education sat in boring lessons? It wouldn’t be effective. Lessons should be made fun and enjoyable when they can, but as has been shown, if there are times when this isn’t possible, then it should be no great hindrance on learning. After all, if everything we learn is fun, then we’d have a great shock when we went out into the real world and our bosses didn’t give us fun games to play during work! Your points perfectly illustrate the vast importance of happiness and its benefit, both academically and mentally.

  3. psu210 says:

    In my week`s blog I write about motivation, and motivation strongly intertwines with happiness. A program called Learning through the Arts (LTTA) implemented in various elementary schools in Canada that focused on arts in schools to enhance achievement resulted in the children being more engaged in their studies and happier to go to school, by combining school with positive feelings (Upitis & Smithrin, 2005). But the positive affect led only to better test scores in computation and estimation compared to regular school and schools with a different program focus. There were no differences in learning concerning math and language tests. However, this is still a success because although the focus was more on the arts there wasn´t less achievement in these main subjects. Furthermore the results are from a three year intervention. An even longer, gradual exposure with the arts really could increase performance in those classes. I therefore think that it is possible to enhance achievement by positive affect as you have stated. This study also provides evidence that it is possible to implement a different method by focussing on arts to encourage learning. In this program teacher collaborate with professional artists teaching the children, thereby not putting the teachers under more pressure but rather pursuing a multi-professional approach. Of course, other methods might be more useful in higher education. I opine that just teaching skills do not really enhance creativity and positive emotions, but that arts and interactive methods that define the whole teaching process only lead to a difference.
    Upitis, R., & Smithrim, K. (2003a). Learning through the Arts ‘M: National Assessment
    FinalReport. Toronto: The Royal Conservatory of Music.

    Upitis, R., & Smithrim, K. (2003b). Learning Through the Arts “M: Assessment Tools.
    Toronto: The Royal Conservatory of Music.

    Upitis, R., & Smithrim, K. (2005). Learning through the Arts: Lessons of Engagement.
    Canadian Journal of Education, 28, 109-127.

  4. psuce says:

    Hi your blog is an interesting read and I really enjoyed the topic. In your blog you have included research by Fredrickson (2004) that positive emotions increases the attention given to a task, thoughts and actions. I agree with his findings as I believe when positive I myself work much better. Lyubomirsky, King & Diener (2005) research result revealed that happiness is associated with and precedes numerous successful outcomes. This would suggest that happiness can enhance performance in education as well as other aspects of life which you could benefit from in the long term. Darnell Cole (2009) A school of education professor also argues that positivity helps students performances negative feedback on assignment appeared to have detrimental effects while positive criticism students maintained their grades with many even improving.

    Darnell Cole (2009)!/article/29703/The-Benefits-of-Constructive-Criticism

    Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success?. Psychological bulletin, 131(6), 803.

  5. Jack says:

    I have been moaning about the lack of fun in education and advocating a change in lessons so children can enjoy their education. Schnall, Jaswal and Rowe (2008) found that happiness encourages top-down processing, an ineffective strategy for studying fine details. Their experiment consisted of two age groups; 10-11 year olds and 6-7 year olds, inducing happiness decreased performance in the task for both age groups. This suggests that aiming for happy classrooms may not be as beneficial as first thought

    Schnall, Jaswal and Rowe (2008) A hidden cost of happiness in children

  6. I found this really interesting, so I had a look for more research about how a positive attitude might be able to have an effect on memory, and I came across a piece of research which involved 3 groups of participants; the first group was made to feel positive, the second made to feel negative and the third wasn’t altered at all. The results showed that the group with the negative mood were actually less susceptible to the false memory effect than those in the positive (or unaltered) mood group (Storbeck & Clore, 2005)! So, although there is a lot of research into the benefits of a positive attitude, I thought it was really interesting to see it from another perspective which actually suggests that a negative mood isn’t always bad. Having said that, this is just in relation to one aspect (false memories), and there is a lot of research (like you mentioned) which demonstrates the benefits of a positive attitude in various aspects, so I’m not in any way implying that all students should be made to feel sad all the time so they’re less likely to form false memories!

  7. rowlatt says:

    I think that the best way to be happy inside an educational setting is to be social (by educational setting I mean assignments and lectures). There is so much research out there that states that social experiences in a classroom provide better education and better recall for the students inside that class (castronova, 2001). Basically moving away from passive learning to active learning.

    A good example of this is discovery learning, which basically is what I stated before (students getting together and finding answers to a problem). Discovery learning places an emphasis an instructional models and strategies that focus on active, hands-on learning opportunities for children and students (Piaget, 1973). Individual Student learning is increased, deepened, and considered permanent by discussions of the topic with other students (Schank & Cleary, 1994).

    Studies have seen up to an 80% increase in recall scores in some topics of education due to the social aspects, and the fun centred around learning (Mabie, Baker, 1996). Snider says that fun isn’t necessary (and I think it was mentioned in a comment) but I have to disagree, certain topics for a person will be boring and if it’s made fun somehow then learning just will be more efficient.

    So discovery learning good :), Snider wrong in some aspects

  8. psuaa6 says:

    In your blog you state that positive emotions increase learning, and academic achievement, this is supported by Pekrun (2008), he found that positive emotions in most cases are suggestive in the increase of academic achievement, but he also found that negative emotions are ambivalent with whether or not they have an effect on learning and achievement. It’s questionable as to whether or not neutral emotions are the best emotions for higher achievement, when you have a negative emotion you may be less likely to motivate yourself in order to complete your work, but the same goes for positive emotions, if you are happy you may not want to waste your happiness on academic work, you may just want to go out and do something active. Neutral may be the perfect emotion for achievement.

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