“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
As a child and young adult, I hated the drudgery of school. I don’t remember ever looking forward to a day of class, from kindergarten until I dropped out of college after my first year. Leaving felt like a pardon from the governor.
Of course, I’m not so special; plenty of kids are unhappy at school. School is undoubtedly good for most kids, but unless your child is weirdly into social science, there’s no use telling her that “education stimulates subjective well-being outcomes in the long run.” What ruins the experience for so many—as it did for me—is that, right now, school is lonely and boring.
A tour through the research on learning and happiness reveals that kids’ feelings about school have less to do with age, race, or socioeconomic background than two basic factors: friendship and interest. Fortunately, with a little knowledge about both, we can make life better for all the students out there who have just gloomily returned to school or are dreading the prospect in the coming days.
When it comes to long-term well-being, few interventions raise happiness as much as education. In 2015, using data from adult populations across 85 countries, the Austrian researcher Erich Striessnig found that people who had completed secondary education were 10 percent more likely to say they were happy than those who hadn’t finished high school, after controlling for income differences. Meanwhile, a completed college education raised happiness by 30 percent.
One possible explanation for these findings is that learning stimulates a powerful basic positive emotion: interest. Carroll Izard, an emotion researcher, defines interest as “the central motivation for engagement in creative and constructive endeavors and for the sense of well-being.” Simply put, exposing people to ideas and the means to acquire knowledge gives them the tools to produce ongoing happiness throughout their life. It’s no surprise, then, that reading—which adults try to cultivate a love of in children—has been found to increase life satisfaction.
Yet children’s attitudes while they’re in school don’t reflect education’s enormous happiness benefits later in life. In a 2020 survey of more than 21,000 American high schoolers, the top two feelings students said they experienced at school were “stressed” (79.8 percent) and “bored” (69.5 percent). Some of them expressed positive emotions such as pride and cheerfulness, but overall, nearly 75 percent of their self-reported feelings related to school were negative.
You could easily dismiss this mismatch as something of a grasshopper-and-ant problem, in which effort that’s a drag in the moment leads to great outcomes later on. But I think there’s more to it than that. For many children, school is not just hard work, but also intensely isolating. Research shows that 80 percent of children face loneliness at times in school; that emotion is linked to boredom, inactivity, a tendency to withdraw into fantasy, and a passive attitude toward social interactions. To say that loneliness can kill interest in school is not an exaggeration.
Conversely, friendship at school is by far the biggest predictor of enjoyment and positive behaviors. Gallup has found that having a best friend at school is the best predictor of student engagement in both fifth grade and 11th. Similarly, a study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Warwick, and the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that students with “reciprocal friendships” (wherein both sides see the relationship the same way) are more likely to enjoy school and are more successful in the classroom.
One common force that foments loneliness in school has been around forever. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20.2 percent of American students ages 12 to 18 report being bullied at school. Many studies have clearly linked both traditional bullying and cyberbullying to social anxiety and depression. Bullying may also lead to problems with academic achievement, kids’ desire to do well in class, and absenteeism.
In recent months, students have had to contend with another driver of isolation: pandemic-related stoppages of in-person schooling, which have been catastrophic for students’ loneliness. A 2020 survey conducted on behalf of Common Sense Media found that 42 percent of teenagers felt “more lonely than usual.” The same survey found that “almost one in four teens (24%) say they’re connecting with their teachers less than once a week.” Like so many parents, I’ve seen this firsthand. My daughter spent her last year and a half of high school bored and “lonely as a cloud,” to borrow from Wordsworth, and she didn’t even have the heart to attend her graduation.
If we are to help kids gain happiness from their education in the short and long term, we need to bring to bear more resources to facilitate friendship, which tends to solve both the loneliness and boredom problems. There is a great deal of research on this subject, and practical resources for making friendship easier for all students to achieve.
Adults who want school to be a happier place can work meaningfully against cliques and bullying, which destroy children’s morale. Studies show that programs that work to prevent bullying in school can cut the problem by about 20 percent. Adults should not be passive, hoping that the problem will take care of itself. The effective interventions all involve acknowledging that there is a problem and dealing with it directly.
Meanwhile, students need more opportunities to make in-person friends. Research shows that remote social interactions are a woefully inadequate substitute for in-person ones when it comes to loneliness and well-being; if adults don’t find ways to keep schools open as we continue to struggle with the pandemic, children’s suffering will be compounded. (As my colleague Joshua D. Coval shows in his research, in many cases political motivations—not health concerns—are what get in the way of reopening schools.) Even before the pandemic, however, students’ screens and smartphones—the use of which is negatively associated with an ability to make friends—were crowding out in-person interactions.
Making friends can be a challenge at any age. For kids (or adults) who crave concrete guidelines, some recent research using novel artificial-intelligence methods offers useful advice. The data indicate that social praise (noticing and remarking on what people do well) and mimicry (for example, laughing with others) are great ways to start making connections. But we hardly need computers to tell us this—you can find the same lesson repeated thousands of ways, in every culture. And plenty of resources put it into a handy form, including religious scriptures and practices as well as Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which teaches 37 commonsense lessons for treating other people with dignity, respect, and even love. Teaching these character lessons in school might help kids enjoy it more too.
I’m not going to claim that I have unilaterally cracked the problem of kids grumbling about school here. As long as they (or you, if you are a student) have to get up early, sit still for hours at a time, and do homework, school is not going to be all strawberries and cream. Even those who love to learn will find things they dislike.
But these are small problems compared with what truly strips the delight out of school. With more friendship, students will find greater joy and interest, which can turn misery into minor annoyance. And that sets everyone up for education’s long-run happiness benefits.