As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. Yet for many, education is the key to a successful and happy life. So which is true?
Depending on where you live and what your values are, either or both can be true. The relationship between education and happiness is multifaceted and complex: education can have both a direct effect on overall happiness, and an indirect one through the social and financial benefits it affords. The effect can also be both positive and negative, or dependent on your age and position in life.
In this article, I’ll take both a personal and scientific look at the links between education and happiness.
Education and happiness: the personal perspective
As a kid, I enjoyed school and learning. I would come home on September 1st with a new set of textbooks for the school year and immediately start flicking through them. I didn’t always enjoy homework, but I can count the times I missed an assignment on one hand.
In short, I was a little nerd who took great pride in academic accomplishments and found happiness in learning. I always knew I would go to university, the question was what would I study. Even now, with two degrees in my pocket and a job in my field, I’m eyeing Ph.D. positions, because more education = more happiness, right?
Not necessarily. When I asked my young relatives - aged 12 and 11 - if the school made them happy, they looked at me like I was insane. Instead of school and learning, they think that true happiness is found in chicken nuggets.
I share an education level with most of my friends, and not all of them find happiness in education in the same way I do. For some, it’s their children and families that bring happiness. For others, it’s all about the volunteer work they do, and less about their education and career.
My friends and loved ones without university degrees do not seem to be any less happy than their educated counterparts, and similarly, my friends with PhDs aren’t necessarily the happiest.
From this very informal and anecdotal review, I can conclude that on some level, it does come down to personal values. If you value education and academic achievement, it’s more likely to make you happy. However, if you don't care for formal education, it probably won’t make you happy.
Luckily, it’s a well-researched topic and we don’t need to rely on my own personal anecdotes. Let’s take a look at what science says about the links between education and happiness.
Studies on the connection between education and happiness
There are numerous studies showing that education isn’t directly related to happiness. Rather, education has an effect on income, career, and other sociological factors, which in turn, affects happiness.
Is happiness an indirect result of education?
For example, a 2018 study from Italy reports that education seems to affect happiness through income: the higher the education level, the higher the income. However, higher education can bring higher expectations for income and when these expectations aren’t met, happiness is diminished. Having higher aspirations, which is another effect of higher education, than the job market can meet, can also lead to diminished happiness.
A 2012 study conducted in Spain shows similar findings: “people with a higher education level have higher income levels and a higher probability of being employed, and thus, report higher levels of happiness.”
In the East Asian countries of Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea (cultures which tend to value academic success highly), the effect that education has on happiness can be explained through both monetary and non-monetary mediating factors like interpersonal network and degree of cosmopolitanism, according to another 2012 article.
Interestingly, while the non-monetary factors seem to be more important in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, personal income has a stronger effect on happiness in China. Generally, the links between happiness and factors like extensive social networks and involvement with the wider world - which can also be achieved through money - are well established.
Direct link between happiness and education
For almost every study that shows the indirect effect education has on happiness levels, there’s one showing a direct one.
For example, the Spanish study linked above showed that while the link between education and happiness can be partly explained by the mediating effects of income and labor status, there also seems to be a direct link between the two. The authors explain this positive and direct correlation with a certain level of self-confidence and self-estimation that comes from acquiring knowledge.
A 2015 study using data from the European and World Values Surveys, which encompass data from 85 countries, showed that the relationship between education and happiness is distinct from the relationship between income and happiness. Furthermore, while the positive link between income and happiness tends to disappear after a certain point (infinite money won’t make you infinitely happier), higher education and happiness seem to always go hand in hand.
Interestingly, education can have a direct effect on happiness, but only if you’re the right age. A 2015 study found that while pursuing higher education can diminish happiness temporarily - obtaining a degree isn’t a walk in the park - more educated people are happier than their less-educated counterparts starting in their early to mid-30s.
Does education make you happier at all?
All of the aforementioned studies generally show education to have a positive effect on happiness. However, that’s not always the case.
For example, the Italian study showed that higher education levels can also diminish happiness in some conditions.
Furthermore, a cross-country study from 2018 showed that education level is negatively correlated with happiness, meaning that higher education does not necessarily mean higher happiness.
However, studies showing a negative correlation are few and far in between, and while there are studies showing insignificant correlations between happiness and education levels, there are many more showing significant positive links.
Yet, it’s clear that while higher education levels can provide a higher-paying job and more social security, not everyone will thrive in academic environments. For every nerd like me, there’s someone else who thrives on the football pitch, the construction site or at home. And even I can’t say that I was at my happiest while preparing for my bachelor’s exam or writing my master’s thesis.
As I said before, on a certain level, it will always come down to your own personal and societal values. But reaping the socio-economic benefits of education rarely seems to hurt anyone.
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The links between education and happiness are complex and multifaceted. Depending on your age, income level, and job status, education can have both a negative and positive effect on your happiness. There are certain patterns to this, but your own values play an important role: the more you value education, the bigger effect it will have on your happiness.
What do you think? Do you agree with the studies that associate higher education with happiness? I'd love to hear about your opinion in the comments below!