Learning your way to happiness

Does being educated make you happier? The short answer: It depends, but probably a little.

Being educated certainly leads to happiness when it stabilizes and improves your economic situation. For example, one study found that secondary school graduates tend to be happier than non-graduates, and studies among both Swedish and American populations have shown that people with a college degree tend to be happier than those without a high school degree.

In fact, the likelihood of American college graduates reporting that they are “very happy” has stayed the same since 1972, whereas non-graduates were less likely to be “very happy” in 2012 than when polled in 1972. This has created a gap in happiness, based on whether or not a person graduated college.

Further evidence that economic security is a relevant educational outcome comes from a study that suggests that the relationship between education and happiness depends in part on the wealth of your home country. In other words, if you live in a poor country, education is closely tied to happiness, but if you live in a rich country, education has only a weak effect on happiness. This weak effect is likely in the neighborhood of 1-3 percent, according to another study.

But does the quality of education, rather than the consequences of it, affect happiness? This is harder to answer. If “quality” is synonymous with “selectivity,” the answer appears to be no: the most selective colleges do not produce the happiest adults. Instead, it seems that forging relationships with professors and developing long-term projects — i.e., the depth of student engagement in their education — is more closely tied to future happiness. So, if quality is defined based on engagement or personal investment in your education, the answer may well be yes, a higher quality education does make you happier.

Before you run wild with the idea that graduating from college — much less from one that inspires and engages you — is a golden ticket to happiness, it is important to understand how hard it is to measure the effect of education on happiness. Happiness alone is hard to measure: is it short-term or long-term happiness, and how do you define it?

Then, there is the difficulty of measuring whether that happiness relates to the ability to read Shakespeare or understand the laws of physics. We may feel that someone who can appreciate the many layers of humor in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has some edge on the potential for happiness over someone who can’t, or that someone who understands the principles at work regarding how planes fly and ships float might feel more at ease in the world than someone who is baffled. But these are intangibles that are out of the grasp of social scientists.

It seems clear that, if you’re looking to be happier, getting at least a high school diploma is an important step, based on its economic benefit. But if the focus is exclusively on improving education for the sake of economic security, there is a real risk of limiting what education should and can be, because so much of the fundamental good of education can’t be measured by reading and math scores. Improving academic achievement and expanding the range of educational options can give students a chance to grow in ways that can’t be measured.